Search

THE HEART OF A CITY CLEVELAND WON ROUND 1 IN WHAT WILL BE AN AGONIZING BATTLE TO HOLD ON TO ITS BELOVED BROWNS

Dec. 04, 1995
Dec. 04, 1995

Table of Contents
Dec. 4, 1995

THE HEART OF A CITY CLEVELAND WON ROUND 1 IN WHAT WILL BE AN AGONIZING BATTLE TO HOLD ON TO ITS BELOVED BROWNS

By Steve Rushin ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY RICHARD DEUTSCH

Amid all the confusion concerning their future, the Cleveland
Browns issued a statement last week. It was clear, concise and
unequivocal: We are not moving to Baltimore.

This is an article from the Dec. 4, 1995 issue Original Layout

"In fact, we are trying to move back to Cleveland," says
Cleveland Brown, a Cleveland native whose father, grandfather
and great-grandfather were also named Cleveland Brown, and whose
13-year-old son is named Cleveland Brown as well. The
38-year-old nuclear medicine technician now lives in Middletown,
Ohio. "And, no," he says, "my son and I are not changing our
names to Baltimore Brown, though I get asked that 14 times a day."

Of course, the other Cleveland Browns--the football team--are
planning a move to Baltimore. And what the Cleveland Brown
family asks of the Cleveland Brown franchise is this: When you
go, leave your once noble name in Ohio. "I'm not much of a
football fan," says Cleveland Brown, "but when the Browns said
they were moving, it really affected me. Not because of my name,
but because for 50 years support for that team by the people of
Cleveland has been phenomenal." And that, of course, is what
makes this particular move so extraordinary. And so
extraordinarily sad.

On Nov. 6, at a press conference in Baltimore, Brown owner Art
Modell announced his intention to move his team to Maryland next
season. Says Ron Brienes, a radio host at Cleveland's WHK, "I
have to believe that he didn't anticipate what the response
would be."

That is a howling understatement. Advertisers quickly pulled all
their ads from Cleveland Stadium; nearly all of the coaches' and
players' TV and radio programs were summarily canceled; and 24
hours a day, throughout the metropolis--in the airport, outside
the convention center, above one of the city's busiest
intersections--electronic message boards flash STOP ART MODELL,
like those public-service ads that urge the citizenry to STOP
TEEN PREGNANCY or STOP V.D.

But Clevelanders had only begun their collective impersonation
of a spurned lover. Last Friday, Judge Kenneth Callahan of
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court granted the city a
preliminary injunction that may ultimately lead to Modell's
being required to adhere to the terms of a contract he signed
with the city back in 1973, an agreement that was intended to
bind the Browns to Cleveland through the '98 season (box, page
64). Modell had apparently assumed he could liberate himself
from Cleveland by canceling the contract that he, as the
majority owner of the Browns, had signed with the stadium
company, of which he controls nearly all. He was mistaken. In
his ruling Callahan cited a remarkably prescient clause in the
'73 contract that gives the city the right to veto any
cancellation of that lease.

Modell will almost certainly appeal Callahan's ruling to the
state's appellate court, where his chances of success are not
good. Modell's next appeal will be to the Ohio supreme court,
and if he loses there, he and the city will go to trial in a
Cleveland courtroom in early spring. If a jury finds that the
Browns are obligated to fulfill the terms of their lease, Modell
will find himself in the unenviable position of owning a team in
a city he cannot visit. Henceforth, Modell will appear publicly
in Cleveland only as an effigy. He has fled his Tudor-style
mansion in suburban Waite Hill and is living in exile at his
condominium in West Palm Beach, Fla. "In one stroke he has torn
down everything he ever did," wrote Bill Livingston in the
Cleveland Plain Dealer last week. "He has wasted 35 years,
exactly half his life." And that would be sadness enough for one
story.

But sadder yet is the pain he has inflicted on thousands of
others who have involuntarily lost something forever. And make
no mistake: Whether Cleveland keeps the Browns for three strange
years or receives another franchise in the future, things are
unlikely to ever be the same again in this old Rust Belt city.
"What I have now are 18 years of memories in my basement," says
the Big Dawg, 34-year-old John Thompson, leader of the Browns'
famous Dawg Pound cheering section. "At least there's no way
Modell can touch them. Screw him."

That's exactly what Cleveland has decided to do: Screw the man
who screwed it. At least nine other lawsuits have been filed by
fan groups and ticket holders against the Browns, and Mayor
Michael White has adopted the slogan "No team, no peace." As he
surveyed his city from a law office on the 49th floor of the
Society Center, White invoked his municipal mantra. "I will tell
you, my friend, there will be no peace until the NFL owners meet
on January 17," vowed White, citing the date on which the league
owners are scheduled to vote on the move. "And there may not be
peace afterward, if we don't keep the Browns."

To understand why Cleveland is a single exposed nerve these
days, you must understand two things. "Football is America's
sport," explains 72-year-old Dante Lavelli, impeccable in a blue
blazer, rep tie and scalpful of silver hair. "And Ohio is the
cradle of football: Massillon High School, Ohio State, the Hall
of Fame and the Cleveland Browns.

"When I was in high school, before the steel industry went bad,"
Lavelli continues, "the main thing was to get a ticket to
Massillon's game on Saturday, even though I played for Hudson
High School myself." From Hudson, Lavelli went to Ohio State
("Most of the guys on our 1942 team are still living," he says
proudly) and from Ohio State to the Browns ("We were like a
family, those teams"). In '75 Lavelli was inducted as an end
into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, just down the road in
Canton, and these memories of a lifetime now warm him like a
summer sun.

Until, that is, Modell is mentioned. Lavelli had been chatting
pleasantly in the furniture store he owns in suburban Rocky
River, a big painting of a Brown helmet hanging from the
showroom's facade. He has had season tickets to the Browns since
his retirement in 1956. But now he goes ballistic and begins
loudly defaming Modell in a way we cannot possibly print or even
hint at. Nor, on reflection, does Lavelli want us to. "I'm at
the end of my rope," he says, by way of apology, after he has
calmed down. "It's just that everywhere you go, waitresses,
salespeople, truck drivers, eighth-grade kids--everyone mentions
the guy, and after a while, you get tired of listening to it."
He sighs. "It's hard to accept."

Lavelli steps outside the store to be photographed, and his
righthand man approaches. John DePolo is a sunny 68-year-old who
speaks in soothing tones, a good cop to Lavelli's bad. "You have
to understand his emotions," DePolo says softly, with evident
concern for his friend. "This isn't just football that's being
taken away. It's a part of people's lives."

It's a part of people's lives. On each autumn Sunday,
13-year-old Jenny Sheeler watches the Browns, whether they are
home or on the road, with her sister, Katie, and their parents,
Pat and Russ. The Sheelers hang Brown signs in their house in
suburban Twinsburg and root in their Brown warmup suits. "To
know that when I have my own kids, I can't bring them to Brown
games, that hurts me," said Jenny, standing outside Cleveland
Stadium before the Nov. 19 game between the Browns and the Green
Bay Packers. "It's sad that we won't be able to come to games as
a family anymore."

"The Browns are the only real team I've known," said
13-year-old Angela Woody, attending the game, as she always
does, with her little brother, Michael, and her father, James.
"They're a part of the history of our family."

And so it goes, across every age, gender and racial group in
northern Ohio. Tune in to Brienes's radio show. Listen at random
to two consecutive calls. The two voices seem to be those of
African-American males. And it isn't static that makes both of
them crack on the air.

"I have a four-year-old whom I wanted to raise a Brown fan, like
I was," says a man who calls himself Brainchild. "And this
sucker Modell has snatched that away from me. When you have
grown men crying about a football team, you can't say it's only
about sports. It goes way deeper than that. You ask why we still
go to games, even though they're leaving? Because it's who we
are. Football is in our blood. The Cleveland Browns are in our
blood."

"As I view it," says the next caller, who doesn't give his name,
"Art Modell has murdered my memories. He's murdered a friend.
I'm going to [Sunday's] game even though I know my money goes
straight into Modell's pocket. But I'm not going for him. I'm
going for my father, who raised me on the Cleveland Browns. I'm
going for [former quarterback] Bernie Kosar, who cried when he
had to leave the Cleveland Browns. I'm going to see a friend.
And to pay my last respects."

Have you noticed? Every one of the aforementioned fans grieved
as though he or she had lost family. And now you know what the
game means in this part of the country. Now you know why the
grown men cry.

And cry they do. For 18 years Thompson has been a Brown
season-ticket holder. For the last 10 he has also been Big Dawg,
the most visible--and not just because he's 5'11" and 385
pounds--Brown fan in a world full of Brown fans.

How full? The official Browns Backers club purports to be the
largest fan club of any professional team on the planet, with
more than 63,000 members of some 200 chapters from the U.S. to
the U.K. to Japan. When the move was announced, Browns Backer
president Bob Grace took a call from the president of the
Australian chapter, who asked, "Should we disband?" They should
not, he was told.

Indeed, when our friend Cleveland Brown lived abroad for 15
years, as a member of the Air Force and later as a
nondenominational missionary, he heard knowing comments about
his name wherever he traveled, from the Philippines to Italy.
"Browns fans are everywhere," he confirms, and none is better
known than Big Dawg.

So let the Big Dawg eat. He is seated at a table in Coaches
restaurant in downtown Cleveland. One almost expects him to be
served a bowl of Kibbles 'n Bits and to slurp the food up with
his mouth. But in fact, he doesn't order food at all. His
familiar dog mask is at home, but his own face looks hangdog
enough on this night. On another recent evening, Big Dawg was
honored for his devotion to the Browns before a Cleveland Crunch
indoor soccer match. His twin daughters accompanied him.

"In the third quarter," he says, his eyes suddenly reddening at
the rims, "they announced that it was my daughters' ninth
birthday. Their names are Megan and Michelle. We didn't know
they were going to do that." Clearly the gesture moved him, for
his eyes mist now at the mention of it.

At the conclusion of the Crunch festivities, a fan approached
Big Dawg and said, "Man, the Browns must have really been good
to you over the years."

And the Big Dawg replied, "The Crunch have done more for me
tonight than the Browns did in 18 years."

That irony had first occurred to him earlier that evening as he
prepared to kick out the ball to start the indoor soccer game:
It was the Crunch who were thanking him for two decades of
devotion to the Browns. And so that night, as applause rolled
down the arena aisles and reached this giant man, he couldn't
help himself.

Beneath a rubber basset hound mask, he wept.

One would have preferred to have filed a happier report, to have
given Cleveland a cleaner bill of health. Lord knows, no other
American city has endured as many invasive journalistic
procedures.

"Reporters from serious publications like The Wall Street
Journal, FORTUNE and The New York Times Magazine visit the city
at five-year intervals and produce long stories with titles
like 'Cleveland Bounces Back' and 'Renaissance in Cleveland,'"
travel writer Bill Bryson has said. "No one ever reads these
articles, least of all me, so I can't say whether the improbable
and highly relative assertion that Cleveland is better now than
it used to be is wrong or right."

Well, it's right. That's what is so vexing about Modell's
decision to forsake the city. In any number of ways Cleveland is
better than it has ever been, and this has much to do with
professional sports. The Indians, who won the American League
pennant this fall after 41 years of futility, play in jam-packed
Jacobs Field, across from the Cavaliers' glittering Gund Arena.
"They've taken a Rust Belt city from the outhouse to the
penthouse," says Lavelli. "And the Browns in a renovated
Cleveland Stadium would have added to that glory."

In fact, rusting, 64-year-old Cleveland Stadium looks even more
abject now that it slouches next to the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame and Museum--a grand glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei that
since its opening on Sept. 1 has hosted 2,000 visitors a day,
seven days a week, all year long. And yet, says Ken Johnston of
Toledo, while visiting the hall last week, "I'd rather have the
Browns than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

And who in northern Ohio would disagree? Jim Brown vs. James
Brown? It's no contest, as Mayor White is well aware. And that
visibly angers him. How could it fail to? The war in Bosnia was
resolved last week at an Air Force base in Ohio, for god's sake,
and still all conversation around Cleveland circled back to the
Browns. So White devotes virtually all of his hours to the
Browns.

With nearly $1 billion in new developments downtown and the
Browns' having been promised a rent-free future at Cleveland
Stadium, it is not so much an economic loss that the mayor
mourns but an emotional one. "This community has been wronged,"
says White. "We've loved this franchise for 50 years. These fans
are the most loyal of the most loyal of the NFL. And what they
got for 50 years of loyalty was a kick in the teeth."

It is on that apt note--a kick in the teeth--that we come to one
of the toughest s.o.b.'s ever to play pro football. If anyone
can offer a sober assessment of this mess, it is Lou (the Toe)
Groza. This is one grown man who does not cry.

He was raised above his father's saloon, across the street from
a steel mill in Martins Ferry, Ohio. In the early summer of
1945, the Toe was on Okinawa, steeling himself to storm the
Japanese mainland, when he read in his Army division's
newsletter that a new pro football league, the All-America
Football Conference, was being formed. Soon after, he received a
contract from Paul Brown, the coach and general manager of the
Cleveland franchise. Again: This was on Okinawa, during the war.
And though he was not yet 21--the deal would not be legally
binding--Groza signed to become an original Cleveland Brown. On
one condition: that he return to the States alive.

It is an absurd story, no less so for being true, but Groza made
it back and became a Hall of Fame offensive tackle and
placekicker whose field goal in 1950 won the championship of the
NFL in the Browns' first season as a member of that league. Now
over lunch in the Cleveland suburb of Berea, five minutes from
the Browns' headquarters, he stares down the broad avenue of
this century and places this impending move in perspective.

"You look back on your life," says the Toe, "and where you came
from and all that has happened since, and I suppose that
something like this ... well, it becomes just another incident
in a lifetime." He is reflecting over a Reuben sandwich, trying
to make sense of it all.

An hour later he is home, surrounded by mementos of his career,
and it emerges that the looming demise of the Cleveland Browns
is more than just another incident in Lou Groza's lifetime. Of
course it is.

"Our first home game was against the Miami Seahawks," Groza
recalls, gazing out on his backyard. "It was an exciting time,
right after the war. The last time I had played football was in
a freshman game at Ohio State in front of maybe 500 people. I
never played in a varsity football game. So to come down that
tunnel at the Stadium and to run out of the dugout and have
60,000 people cheering...." He smiles at the memory. "God, it
made you feel about this small." Two thick fingers are held an
inch apart. "It was thrilling," says the Toe. "And the crowds
have been like that for 50 years."

He has long been a part of those crowds, a Brown season-ticket
holder for more than three decades. He, too, must have been
bewildered when Modell announced the move, no? The Toe doesn't
answer. But Jackie, his wife of 45 years, does.

"We could have cried," she says.

It turns out they did. The Toe was asked to accompany Mayor
White as he presented the Browns with the city's financial
proposal that had been in the works for months. Afterward,
speaking at a press conference, Groza felt the tears quicken,
and he could not continue for the lump in his throat. It was an
epochal moment--almost literally the melting of a polar
icecap--and a stark sign that an era had passed in Cleveland,
whatever becomes of the Browns.

An Ohio State flag flies above the Groza garage. A winter gloom
gathers outside the window. But the Toe remains silent, lost in
his thoughts of pro football in Cleveland. His eyes go slick as
freshly Zambonied ice. "It's like a fire has just burned out,"
he says at last. "And all you're left with is ashes."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: COVER ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG COVER ILLUSTRATION Battle for the Browns Art Modell sucker-punced Cleveland, but the city is fighting back [Drawing of Art Modell punching dog dressed in Cleveland Browns uniform]B/W PHOTO: AP Cleveland's passion for its team began with Marion Motley (76) and the original '46 Browns.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE [Fans holding "SAVE THE BROWNS!" signs]THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE Modell may not have anticipated the rage that would greet his decision to move the Browns, but he has since had the good sense not to show his face in his private stadium box. [Fan holding stop sign with "ART" written on it; hostile signs hanging above empty stadium box; Art Modell]THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE The team's value would soar with a move to Baltimore, yet left behind will be discounted jerseys, a devalued Dawg (above) and two Cleveland Browns who will keep the name. [Discounted Cleveland Browns jerseys; Cleveland Browns fan; Cleveland Brown with son Cleveland Brown]B/W PHOTO: JAMES DRAKE Hardened by his World War II experience and signed to a Brown contract while still in the Pacific, Groza,Cleveland's alltime leading scorer, shed tears at Modell's betrayal. [Lou (the Toe) Groza kicking football for Cleveland Browns]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE [See caption above--Lou (the Toe) Groza]B/W PHOTO: AP The glue-fingered Lavelli (56), also an original Brown, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, reacted to Modell's announcement with unbridled fury, not sadness. [Dante Lavelli playing football for Cleveland Browns]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE [See caption above--Dante Lavelli leaning on car that has license plate reading: "MR. GLUE"]B/W PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.The enduring symbol of the team he played for 30 years ago, Brown was a poignant reminder of Cleveland's glorious past as he stood by the bench at the Browns' last home games. [Jim Brown playing football for Cleveland Browns]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE [See caption above--Jim Brown]