Book Review: “Paul Brown’s Ghost” by Jonathan Knight

Look, I know this book is about American football, and I know most of my readers couldn’t care less about American football. But hear me out, okay? Because this post isn’t really about football. I mean, there will be references to some football-related matters, but you can skim past those if you want. No, this post is actually about something deeper, more essential… this post is about aesthetics.

What do I mean by that? Time will tell. For now, let me begin by summarizing: Paul Brown was the coach of the Cleveland Browns, who dominated the sport during the 1950s. Brown’s teams racked up records and championships during the first few decades of their existence. Until a new team owner, Art Modell, took over and fired Brown after a few bad years.

Like Coriolanus, Brown decided to raise a team of his own in the south, and take his revenge. And thus the Cincinnati Bengals were born in 1968, and instantly became a major rival of the Browns. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Bengals and Browns met twice a year, usually with one team having something to play for and the other merely playing out the string on a lost season. Oddly, surprisingly often, the team with nothing to play for would win.

The ’80s were peak years for the rivalry, with both teams enjoying considerable success during the decade, although neither ever managed to win the Super Bowl. Twice, the Bengals fell short to San Francisco 49er teams coached by a former assistant coach of theirs, Bill Walsh.

And then, in 1991, Paul Brown died, and the two teams collapsed. The Bengals became a perennial joke throughout the ’90s and the Browns–well, remember that Modell fellow from before? He packed up and moved the team to Baltimore, rebranding as the Ravens. Not until 1999 would Cleveland be granted a new team, with the colors and records of the old Browns, but most certainly not the tradition of winning.

And this is Knight’s thesis: the Bengals and Browns are haunted by the man who essentially created them both. Somewhere out there in the ether, the ghost of Paul Brown hovers over them, looking down with grim disapproval at his once-proud teams. Neither can succeed until this angry spirit is appeased.

Of course, this is all a manner of speaking, in the grand tradition of sports curses. There are plenty of obvious materialistic explanations for the Bengals’ and Browns’ many failures. Although, there are some things that do strain probability…

This book was published in 2018, and since then both teams have enjoyed some success. The Browns finally broke their playoff-less streak in 2020, and the Bengals actually made it to the Super Bowl in 2021. (Losing, it must be noted, in very much the same way they did to the 49ers in 1988.) So perhaps the curse is lifting. But can it really be said to be ended until at least one of these teams holds aloft the Vince Lombardi trophy?

Knight’s prose is light and enjoyable, and he has a knack for clever phrasing and for highlighting amusing instances of ironic misfortune in the histories of both clubs, of which there are many. I’m pretty well-versed in football trivia, but I still learned a few new factoids.

All well and good, you say; but why am I dedicating one of my October blog posts, normally reserved for reviewing Halloween-related stories, to this book?

Watch this clip of the Browns/Bengals game from Halloween of last year. You don’t need to know a thing about football. All you need to know is that it’s Halloween night, and two teams whose colors are orange and brown and orange and black, are battling it out under the lights, amid a sea of roaring fans, many of whom are rigged out in costumes befitting All Hallows’ Eve.

The whole spectacle is weird and eerie, and, I’d argue, perfect for Halloween. The NFL should make it a tradition: every year, on the Thursday, Sunday, or Monday night closest to October 31st, the Bengals play the Browns. It’s really the perfect uniform combination for the occasion.

Now, it’s true that other teams, including the Broncos, Bears, and Dolphins have orange in their uniforms. (And indeed, the Bengals played a memorably weird game against the Dolphins on Halloween a decade ago.)  But only the Bengals and Browns have that added (pumpkin?) spice of being arch-rivals. The memories of past triumphs and defeats echoing in every hit; the vaguely Biblical theme of two feuding brothers, and the added passion of the costumed fans, all combine to make a potent brew for epic gridiron madness.

And, in my opinion, football is as much a part of the Halloween season as jack-o’-lanterns and candy. Granted, I live smack dab in the middle of the state where the sport was effectively invented, but it is impossible to imagine midwestern Autumn without the thwack of offensive and defensive lines smashing together, seeing replica jerseys everywhere, team banners and pennants flying amid the Halloween decorations, and hearing the Monday morning radio shows buzzing about how the season is going. There’s a reason why, when I wrote a short story as a love-letter to the Halloween season, I had to include a scene at a football game.

And, as some of you may know, I am not even primarily a fan of either of these teams. (Though I will always have some fondness for the Bengals.) My team plays further north, and is more associated with the “something of winter in their faces” that  John Facenda once spoke of, than with the warm orange-and-brown hues of Autumn. Yet, my judgment remains the same: the Bengals and Browns are the perfect Halloween teams.


  1. Yeah, that clip has a Halloween-y feel for sure.

    If you haven’t seen Ted Lasso yet, you might really like it. Just like this book, it’s about so much more than sports.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?