We laughed at him, poked fun at him, maybe whispered behind his back about those silly ties and those corny cheers he led. But deep down, we all felt we should have been a little more like him — this strange, thin man with the thick glasses who wandered through the aisles of our lives, yelling happily at the top of his lungs.
The Brow is gone. And the stadium just got very quiet.
There goes the Last Pure Sports Fan, Joe Diroff — a.k.a. the Brow, a nickname he earned for the bushy hair that grew like wild hedges over his eyes. He was 74 when he died of a stroke Thursday, a night when no local pro teams were in action. That makes sense. Joe hated to miss a game.
You knew the Brow, didn’t you? He wore hats. He wore ties — more than one at a time, with different team colors. He shook signs, he waved banners, he carried props like plastic hot dogs. He danced this silly, high-kicking dance. And he cheered. Lord, how he cheered! Until his voice was as scratchy as chalk dust, until he sounded like a wounded buffalo:
Can we do it, are we tough?
We’re the Lions, RED HOT STUFF!
In 15 years, I have never written a column about a fan. But then, the Brow was the only fan I knew who came merely to root, who made no demands on players, harbored no grudges, and would never dream of calling a sports radio station and demanding a coach be fired.
It occurs to me, as I think of him now, that I never saw him sitting down.
I’m not even sure he had a seat.
But he was there, night after night, sport after sport, sure as the referees or the ushers or the concession workers. He was part of the scene, an employee without a paycheck — although he was often more valuable to teams than some of their players. Oh, don’t worry. Diroff had a life outside of sports — he retired as a Detroit school teacher, fathered nine loving children, sailed the Pacific in World War II — but he seemed to find a special calling in the cheers he led. He once said, “God gave me a talent to do this, to make people feel good.”
So he wandered through Tiger Stadium, the Silverdome, the Palace, Joe Louis Arena, he went to parades and pep rallies. He slept in hotel lobbies and waited until the wee hours for the team planes to arrive.
He never did this for autographs. He was not some sick sports groupie. Quite the contrary; he did it to make the athletes feel better.
“I figured the boys could use some cheering up,” he once whispered to me at the Windsor airport, after the Red Wings lost a playoff series. It was maybe 3 in the morning, the place was all but deserted, even the parking lot was almost empty. But the Brow had his signs and his red and white colors and that crazy hat that looked like something a fisherman threw out.
And one by one, the players walked past him with their heads down, until they heard him croak, “We’re proud of you, boys! You did your best, boys!”
And they couldn’t help it, it was almost reflexive. They smiled.
They felt like hell, and they smiled.
Brow did that.
Now that’s a fan.
He was Everyfan
He leaves us so empty this morning. In an age when fandom is mostly about anger, envy and resentment, with those on the field seemingly pitted against those in the seats, Joe Diroff was like an olive branch between two worlds. He was a man the athletes wanted to see. He was a man the fans wished they could be.
He was every cheerleader, pep crew and six-year-old kid rolled into one. There was never a down side, there was always another game, another season. His death Thursday was the only loss he couldn’t overcome.
There goes the Last Pure Sports Fan. He used to pull me aside and say,
“When are you going to write a book about me?”
He’d stare at me through those thick glasses, the eyebrows like a squirrel’s tail, the plastic hot dogs and cardboard signs in his hand — and he’d always made me laugh.
“Aw, Joe,” I’d say. “Come on.”
“No, really. When are you going to write a book about me? I’ve had an interesting life. It would be a good book.”
Of course, he was right. It would have been great.
I still see him the night the Wings flew home from Edmonton, and they invited Joe on the team plane because he didn’t have money for a ticket. And there he was, in the middle of the aisle, leading that dumb cheer:
Strawberry shortcake, goosebery pie
And here were all these hockey players, big bruising guys, cheering like a bunch of second graders. It remains one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in sports.
Players have this saying, “the game will go on without me,” and they are right. But the game will not go on without fans, and we lost one of the biggest ones Thursday night. Someone jokingly remarked that wherever the Brow is now, he’s upset that the Lions hired a new coach and he won’t get to root for his era.
I have another thought. I see him surrounded by angels, gazing at him in a curious circle. And he’s pointing at them all, waving a sign and saying,
“Ready? One, two, three . . .”