SANTA CRUZ — Dax Nollenberger sometimes gets notifications on his Apple Watch on Sundays inquiring about his activity. It believes he is working out because of his elevated heart rate. He isn’t. The 30-year-old Harbor High alum is planted on a couch, freaking out internally while watching his favorite NFL team compete.
There are millions of Bay Area football fans without a team to cheer as the playoffs began this weekend; the 49ers and Raiders didn’t make postseason. Nollenberger isn’t among the heartbroken this year, but he has experienced their pain 10, err 17, fold — he’s a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan.
The Browns (11-5) last week ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought with their 24-22 victory over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4), catapulting them into the postseason for the first time in 17 seasons. Those same two teams collide Sunday in the AFC wild-card game at 5:15 p.m. Pittsburgh is favored by 3 1/2 points.
“I’ll probably be decked out head to toe in Browns gear,” Nollenberger said of watching the game at his mom’s house in Santa Cruz. “I can’t eat because I’m so nervous. Fandom is so unhealthy, especially with the passion I have for the Browns.”
To accuse Nollenberger of hopping on the bandwagon would be a gross injustice. He has waited for this moment since forever. At least, it feels that way.
“They almost lost it,” Nollenberger said Sunday’s regular season finale. “It’s just such a relief. I’m always thinking doomsday scenario because I’ve been conditioned to be pessimistic. I know this means so much to northeast Ohio.”
Really, the whole Nollenberger clan is pulling for Cleveland. Nollenberger’s parents, Bart and Cindy, are from Ohio. His brother Nick, the director of broadcasting and media relations for the American Hockey League’s San Jose Barracuda, unknowingly motivated him into Browns fandom two decades ago, when a Raiders fan tried to pick a fight with his brother.
Nollenberger’s other brother, Tyler, the owner of a coffee stand in San Diego called Higher Grounds, also pulls for the Browns.
Nollenberger pulls rank on his two brothers concerning his connection to the team. He has a resume to prove it. He spent the past six years working for the organization before departing to start his own company, Elite Scout School. He’s also working to become a real estate agent.
After graduating Harbor in 2008 — he played football for the Pirates — Nollenberger wanted to attend a school with a reputable athletics program. He chose University of Arizona.
There he served student equipment manager on the Wildcats’ football team under longtime staffer Wendell Neal.
Neal eventually learned that Nollenberger was a Browns fan and that he was looking to serve on an equipment staff at the next level, so he contacted a Riddell rep, who contacted the Browns. Nollenberger was hired by the Browns without an interview.
Like his time in Arizona, Nollenberger put his head down and worked hard in his newfound role.
“It’s so much more than washing clothes,” Nollenberger said. The job included fitting players for equipment, placing helmet decals, setting up and breaking down the field for games and practice, assisting the coaching staff during practice and breaking in the K-Ball, which is used by kickers, among other tasks.
During his time on the equipment staff, Nollenberger lived with Browns college scout Scott Levin. Nollenberger constantly picked Levin’s brain on the ins and outs of scouting and continued to build relationships within the team’s scouting department.
After close to two years in equipment, Nollenberger made the jump to scouting assistant. A business major at Arizona, he mostly worked in-house for the Browns scouting department, dealing with data analysis. After crunching play-by-play data, he was high on several players the Browns ended up drafting, including defensive end Myles Garrett, quarterback Baker Mayfield, and cornerback Denzel Ward.
“It’s such a collaborative effort,” Nollenberger said of the scouting department. “It’s not like I had to stand on a table. There were were plenty of scouts who were high on these guys. The GM has the final say.”
Nollenberger, who worked under Paul DePodesta, among others, was pleased with his contributions.
“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride when someone you like is selected. The draft is my favorite time of the year because of what it represents. It’s an opportunity to get better.”
The Browns have done just that. They went 0-16 in 2017, 7-8-1 in 2018 and 6-10 last season. This year, they tied Baltimore for second place in the AFC North Division behind the Steelers.
Nollenberger has quietly pulled for the Browns through it all. He said he’ll try to keep his emotions in check during the playoffs, no matter how long they last for Cleveland. His Apple Watch will likely let him know how he’s doing.
It was a tough week for the Browns, who closed its practice facility after Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive for COVID and eight of his players are currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
“I have no expectations,” Nollenberger said. “If it doesn’t go well, then I won’t be as devastated. Just to be in the playoffs is such a momentous occasion. We can shock the world. We have so much talent.”