Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Art Modell as I knew him

(This story appears in the December 2012 issue of Fox Sports NEXT’s Orange and Brown Report.)

When news broke early on the morning of Sept. 6 that Art Modell had passed away at the age of 87 in Baltimore, I did not celebrate.

Why not? After all, the man committed the most egregious, unconscionable act in Cleveland sports history when he uprooted his Cleveland Browns and moved them to Baltimore following the 1995 season.

He was the owner who was on record as saying he would never move the franchise. And then he did. Ripped it right away.

He was the owner who said, “I had no choice.” And yet he did, but chose to ignore it for selfish reasons.

Modell was the owner who ingratiated himself to an adoring community of fans. And then reached in and tore out their hearts.

The Cleveland Browns, as much a part of the Cleveland fabric as the Terminal Tower and Cleveland Orchestra, moved to another city in one of the most stunning moves ever permitted by the National Football League.

Cleveland did nothing to deserve such shabby treatment. For years, fans poured out to watch the Browns in the city’s antiquated stadium. Sellouts were commonplace.
Despite some lean years on the field, turnstiles spun furiously on a Browns Sunday. It was the place to be seen. Even in bad weather, the joint sold out.

And then he did the unthinkable. So why not celebrate his passing? Why not throw a parade down Euclid Ave.?

To most fans of the team, the end could not have come soon enough for Modell, easily the most hated man in Cleveland sports history. It’s a title that will never be held by anyone else.

Worry not, LeBron, your infamous legacy is tucked away safely and permanently in the second slot. You did not move an entire team. You just moved yourself.

The hatred of Modell is still there. Any mention of is name in a conversation elicits a visceral reaction that devolves from mean to nasty to downright profane. There is no gray area.

Sure, there are some Browns fans, few in number, who have finally forgiven him after all these years. Time to move on, they say. A majority says it will never be time to move on considering what he did.

He asked for a new stadium when baseball threatened to pull out of Cleveland unless a new ballpark was built. The city wanted to build another large stadium to house both teams. But Modell said the only way he would agree to such a move was if he was the landlord.

Indians owner Dick Jacobs, who had enough of Modell’s landlord ways at the old stadium, said no and Jacobs Field was born. That’s when the Browns owner started thinking of leaving town, setting in motion the move of betrayal.

Modell, who could have sold his team to the late Al Lerner but didn’t because he wanted to keep it in his family, cemented his legacy the day he began betraying the city that enabled him to become one of the most famous men in the sports world. He became an immediate villain.

But here is where it changes somewhat for me.

I knew Art Modell. I knew him mostly on the professional level and for the better part of his nearly 35 years in Cleveland, I had a great amount of respect for him. He gave me no reason not to like him.

As far as I could tell, he treated everyone with respect unless, of course, they crossed him. But isn’t everyone like that when they’re done dirty?

When I had a weekend sports talk show on the radio in the 1980s and Art bought the station I worked at, I approached him because I was the type of guy who had no problem criticizing local teams. I needed to know how he felt about that.

Before Art bought the station, I had free rein with that criticism. I asked him if that would be a problem now that he owned the station and might be sensitive to any criticism of his team.

To my surprise, he basically told me to be myself. If there were any problems, he said, we would discuss them. That discussion never took place despite some heavy bombardment. Deserved, of course. He was hands off.

I always admired him because of where he started in Cleveland and where he eventually wound up. Arriving in 1961 from Brooklyn, N.Y., as a brash, 36-year-old high school dropout, he wasted little time in becoming a popular figure around town.

Art was a schmoozer. He loved being around people. He loved telling stories. He loved being the center of attention. He treasured his popularity. But above all, he loved most being owner of the Cleveland Browns.

Despite a few naysayers who said he would become a carpetbagger, fans embraced him in the early days. Many of those who castigate and vilify him today were around back then and remember the firing of the legendary Paul Brown in the winter of 1962.

When the Browns won the NFL championship against Baltimore in 1964, Art could have run for mayor and won in a landslide. And this, fans thought at the time, was just the beginning.

There was nothing people didn’t like about him. He gave to – and became heavily involved with – numerous local charities. He also was one of the most eligible bachelors in town.

His involvement in the community also led him to be chosen foreman of the Cuyahoga County grand jury for one year.

With his background as a television producer in New York, he knew getting around meant spreading the word about the Cleveland Browns. He was first and foremost a salesman. And with his sense of humor, he was quite successful.

He became one of the city’s glitterati. Many nights, he could be found at the Theatrical Grill on Short Vincent Ave. between E. 9th and E. 6th Streets in downtown Cleveland. It was a gathering spot for entertainment and sports figures on almost a nightly basis.

It was not uncommon to see Modell and the late George Steinbrenner sitting at the same table at the Theatrical when the New York Yankees were in town.

In his 35 years as a Clevelander, he went from an apartment on the swanky Gold Coast on the near west side of Cleveland to a beautiful mansion in tony Waite Hill. He gave up his bachelor status to marry television actress Patricia Breslin.

But Modell’s Cleveland world came tumbling down on that early November Monday in 1995 when news broke that the team was going to leave town after the season.

I’ll never forget the anger I felt that same afternoon in the parking lot of radio station WKNR in Broadview heights. When the news broke, we were summoned to the station to determine how to handle it.

The first person I saw was the late Geoff Sindelar and recalled yelling to him, “That goddamn son of a bitch!” The anger raged inside me. How could he?

Will I ever forget what Modell did to the city I love? Never. Too many bad memories, especially those last few weeks of the 1995 season when the city went into mourning when it became obvious nothing could be done to save the franchise.

I’ll never forget that last home game against Cincinnati in the old Municipal Stadium on Dec. 17, 1995. The surreal feeling I had as I watched the Browns beat the Bengals, 26-10. All the advertising signs were blacked out, giving the Stadium an eerie look even though the sun shone brightly.

The possibility that this was going to be the last professional football game in Cleveland nagged at me as fans systematically tore out the seats in the stands and threw them onto the field.

Those who praise him now that he’s gone call him an innovator. In many ways, he was. Most notable were the exhibition football doubleheaders he gave birth to in the 1970s and Monday Night Football. Of course, his Browns were on the inaugural MNF telecast.

He helped shape the image and eventual overwhelming popularity of the NFL when he and Commissioner Pete Rozelle began a romance with television in the mid-1960s. Rozelle leaned on Modell’s expertise in the TV industry to help forge what today is a multi billion dollar industry. Modell, the high school dropout, had made it.

He still has his legions of supporters who believe he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his numerous contributions. And there are just as many fans who abhor the very thought of this traitor’s bust in the shrine.

Will I ever forgive him? Again, never.

But now that he’s gone, I can honestly say I will still hold on to those fond memories of the man. Those can never be erased.

But I can never forget, nor forgive, him for the one mistake that changed my opinion of him forever. In an instant, all the good he did for those 35 years was wiped away by a single unconscionable act of stupidity.

That will never change.

Some day, perhaps a generation or two from now, the name of Art Modell in Cleveland will elicit nothing more than shoulder shrugs and curious looks as if to say, “Who’s Art Modell?”

His infamous legacy will slowly, but very surely, fade and perish.

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