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To the NFL, tonight's Hall of Fame Game

By Tom WithersAssociated Press Published: August 9, 1999 12:00 AM

To the NFL, tonight's Hall of Fame Game is the fulfillment of a promise kept.

To Cleveland, it's the return of pro football and a way of life.

And to Browns fans, it's a chance to bark, scream and cheer their beloved team again.

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After a three-year absence, the Cleveland Browns are being reborn, in of all places, football's birthplace.

Following pregame ceremonies that will include Cleveland greats of yesteryear, and with a national TV audience looking on, the new Browns will take the field in their familiar orange helmets to play the Dallas Cowboys.

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When the moment arrives, Fawcett Stadium, packed to the gills with Browns fans and complete with its own Dawg Pound, will erupt.

Cleveland's roar may be heard across Lake Erie.

The Browns will be back, and for many it will seem like a dream come true.

"Somebody is going to have to pinch me," said team president Carmen Policy. "And then I'm going to have to pinch them."

Cleveland's fans haven't seen their team play since December 1995, and this year's Hall of Fame Game was moved from its traditional Saturday slot to Monday in prime time by the league to showcase the Browns' return as the first expansion team in history with a history.

The game will cap an unforgettable football weekend in northeast Ohio. Saturday, former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

"For us to go down there and be able to play as a local team in that whole setting, coming back new ...," said Browns coach Chris Palmer, who will be making his debut as an NFL head coach. "I won't be the only one with butterflies."

When the Browns were awarded a new franchise after former owner Art Modell took his team to Baltimore in 1996, the NFL agreed Cleveland could keep its nickname, colors, uniforms and statistics.

It also allowed Browns to keep alive their memories of one of the most storied franchises in American sports.

Even America's team is caught up in the excitement.

"I have a hard time thinking the Cleveland Browns are new," said Cowboys coach Chan Gailey, who became familiar with the Browns and their tradition while an assistant coach in Pittsburgh. "That doesn't sound right. It seems like there ought to be some special name or exotic name for an expansion team. I'm struggling with them being a new team. They've got the same fans, I know that."

Cleveland's new football era will begin the Tim Couch Era with the Browns.

The rookie quarterback, taken No. 1 overall by the Browns in April's NFL Draft, will make his pro debut midway through the first quarter. He'll replace Ty Detmer, who will run the Browns this season until Palmer and his staff think Couch is ready.

Couch has been pointing to this game his entire life, and outwardly he doesn't appear to be nervous.

"I played in the SEC and we played in the big game week in and week out," he said. "I'll probably forget its on TV once we get out there and start playing football again."

Palmer, who has been tinkering with Couch's mechanics since training camp opened, has been impressed with his young QB's progress. He has seen the gap between his starter and backup tighten.

"Ty Detmer is ahead of Tim, but Tim has a better grasp of what's going on now and what defenses are doing to him," Palmer said. "Tim is getting to the point where he can compete on the same plane, and then it will come down to performance."

Palmer has had just seven months to put together a staff, assemble a team and have it ready by Monday. It's too early to worry about final scores yet, he said.

"Winning takes care of itself," he said. "All I'm looking for is improvement with my players, that we're getting better from week to week."

Tonight's game will be a homecoming for Cleveland linebacker Chris Spielman, who in a way seemed destined to play for the Browns.

Born in Canton, Spielman grew up within walking distance of the Hall and said he visited the museum 15 times a year. He missed the past two seasons, 1997 with a neck injury and last year to be with his wife, Stephanie, as she recovered from breast cancer surgery.

"It's humbling," he said of restarting his career in his hometown. "But I'm just one guy. It's nice, but it's not about me."

Tonight, it's all about the Browns.

Notes: X-rays on cornerback Antonio Langham's right knee were negative and Palmer said a decision will be made at game time as to whether Langham will play. Langham had his knee buckle during a drill late in Saturday's practice. ... 15,000 fans turned out for Sunday's walk-through practices by the Browns and Cowboys. ... Palmer named Spielman, Detmer, offensive tackle Lomas Brown and cornerback Corey Fuller captains for the game. ... Tight end Irv Smith said he would wear No. 8 instead of No. 82 for the game in deference to Newsome, who wore No. 82 during his career.

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