By BARRY GOODRICH
When the Cleveland Browns made their return to the city in 1999, Debra Darnall became caught up in the euphoria of the moment.
An artist by trade, Darnall was inspired to paint her Volvo station wagon like a Browns’ helmet and placed an eight-foot high illuminated dog bone on the car’s roof. She then decorated the entire car in Browns’ memorabilia. The Bone Mobile would soon become a symbol of the fan mania surrounding the new team.
Darnall then created her own persona as The Bone Lady, a bee-hived super fan with a unique sense of style. Little did she know how popular her alter ego would become.
Growing up in Richfield and Bath, Darnall watched the Browns’ games with her family during the Kardiac Kids era and into the late 1980s when Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar-led teams contended for the Super Bowl. “Being a Browns fan is in my blood,” she said. “In the days when the city was known as the Mistake on the Lake, the Browns gave us a sense of pride.”
Unfortunately, the new Browns struggled to win. “We were so excited to get the team back,” said Darnall. “We didn’t know it would be an expansion team.”
Through all the losing seasons, The Bone Lady provided a much-needed break from the drudgery of defeat. “I didn’t plan on doing any of this,” said Darnall, whose Bone Lady celebrates her 20th season this year. “I told my girlfriends a long time ago that if I ever became that pathetic old woman in a beehive that they would have to do an intervention,” she laughed.
The Bone Lady became a fixture on television shows and game day appearances at area bars. In 2001, Darnall was honored by the Visa Hall of Fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the Browns’ Fan of the Year. She also did a McDonalds commercial with Big Dawg and players Charlie Frye and Braylon Edwards. In 2015, she authored a book, “The Bone Lady: Life Lessons Learned as One of Football’s Ultimate Fans.”
What had started out as a fun idea became the equivalent of a job. “There’s not an ultimate fan handbook,” said Darnall. “I put all my energy into being The Bone Lady and it was a great ride, but it got to where it wasn’t a priority. My art career suffered.”
Darnall, who used to make the commute from Columbus to Cleveland but now lives in Lakewood, has become more selective in which events she will attend as The Bone Lady. “If it feels right in my heart, I’ll do it,” she said. “I don’t usually go to games, but I will be going to the Thursday Night game against Pittsburgh.”
The same passion that fueled her creation has been rekindled with the talented Browns team that enters the 2019 season. “I loved the Cavs winning a championship, but we really are a football town,” she said. “There’s a younger energy around this team and a whole new group of younger fans. That negative attitude is gone.”
And while The Bone Lady is no longer as visible as she once was, her true spirit remains.
“My motto has always been be who you are. Don’t be afraid to let the real you out. I still believe that, I’m just doing it in a different way. Now I can just be Debra.”