Friday night, 33-year-old Chris Gonos was ready for the hug of his life. "That's Johnny Manziel," Gonos excitedly pointed out to his girlfriend before approaching Mr. Football and his entourage. Next, he got punched in the face. From the Cleveland Police Department's official report:
"At this time victim stated to the unidentified male, 'I'm the biggest Browns fan ever, I love you, I want to give you a hug.' At this time victimed [sic] stated that he took one step towards the unidentified male who he states was Johnny Manziel and was struck several times in the face by the offender."
While this is a wonderful metaphor for the experience of being a Browns fan, it must have also been a particular disappointment for Gonos. Instead of a hug with the coolest backup quarterback on earth, Gonos went home with a "swollen lip, right eye swollen, red face." The Gonos clan made its mark, though. Gonos told Cleveland Scene, "My brother saw what was going on and he ran and tackled Johnny Manziel—I guess he got the sack and the fumble. He tackled him, yeah, I'm talking about he speared him all the way to the back wall."
Despite the fracas, nobody was arrested. As Gonos put it, "I did not do anything wrong but be a fan." He's not wrong-—in fact, Gonos joins a long, storied line of fans "just being fans" and starting some shit in the process.
In New York City on May 15, 1912, Claude Lueker was just being a fan of the Highlanders when Ty Cobb's Tigers came to town. By the sixth inning, Lueker's light jabs had escalated to shouts of "half-n******," accusing Cobb, one of sport's most famous racists, of being the spawn of a white mother and a black man. Cobb charged into the stands and beat Lueker—who had recently lost most of both his hands in an industrial accident—to a pulp. As the beatdown raged, Cobb shouted at protesting fans he didn't care if Lueker didn't have any feet, he was going to pay.
During a game at the Polo Grounds in 1922, after getting ejected for throwing dirt in an umpire's eyes, Babe Ruth unsuccessfully chased a heckler through the stands before challenging any fan in the stadium to a fight from the dugout roof. His challenge went unaccepted.
In 1979, a New York Rangers fan grabbed the stick of a Boston Bruins player during a fight following a Bruins victory, and multiple Bruins players bounded into the stands after him. The fight lives on mostly for the scene of Mike Milbury catching a fan, removing his shoe, and proceeding to beat him with it.
Then there's the infamous Malice at the Palace, instigated by a fan who threw a beer at Ron Artest, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary.
Of course, alcohol is often the catalyst behind such incidents—see Ten Cent Beer Night, which saw cheap booze and on-field tension between the Indians and Rangers lead to an all-out, game-canceling brawl between fans and players in 1974, for an example of alcohol's destructive power on a larger scale.
Neither is Manziel the first pro athlete to find himself fighting with a fan outside of the stadium or arena. Perhaps it's a surprise that we don't hear more stories like Friday night's.
In 1997, Charles Barkley threw a man through a plate glass window after the man threw ice in Barkley's face (although witnesses disputed whether Barkley threw the correct man). Barkley later told a judge his only regret was that they weren't on a higher floor.
Six years later, Tim Hudson was repeatedly heckled in a San Francisco bar while signing autographs in the midst of an Oakland A's playoff series. The heckler eventually threw beer in Hudson's face, and punches were quickly thrown, although witnesses were unsure who punched first. Hudson, Barry Zito, and Hudson's brother had to be separated from a number of Red Sox fans (Oakland's playoff opponents) by the time the melee ended.
And just this year, unofficial Cubs mascot Billy Cub didn't take kindly to a fan sneaking up on him:
Stories like Hudson's aren't uncommon, although many are smoothed over or covered up before details can reach the press. The instigators in these stories were certainly less polite than Gonos, who merely wanted a hug from Johnny freakin' Football. But there is a common thread in all of it: fans, so often, feel entitled to do anything, say anything, even touch anything around an athlete. As Gonos might say, it's part of being a fan.
Perhaps these fans are right. But what they don't realize is that if they get into an athlete's personal space, the impending beating they catch is also part of "being a fan."