BEREA — The Browns held their first full-team practice of the season Friday afternoon, just hours after owner Randy Lerner announced the franchise’s possible sale.
To a man, though, Cleveland’s players insisted that an ownership change to Pilot Flying J Travel Centers president Jimmy Haslam III would not be a distraction.
“With all due respect to the significance of this news, most guys have never even been upstairs in this building,” kicker Phil Dawson said, pointing toward the Browns’ executive offices.
“It’s not going to affect us as much as people would think. Players come out and play, and owners own. That’s how it goes.”
As the longest-tenured member of the team, Dawson’s words carry significant weight in the locker room. Now 37, he signed with Cleveland prior to its 1999 expansion season and is the Browns’ second-leading all-time scorer with 1,155 points.
Dawson spoke softly when discussing the late Al Lerner, Randy’s father, who purchased the inactive franchise from the NFL in 1998. The elder Lerner passed away Oct. 23, 2002, transferring ownership to his son.
“It all started with Mr. Lerner, Al,” Dawson said. “He was a tremendous man who had the respect of the whole locker room. I still remember the entire team going to his funeral, which showed how much people loved him.
“When Randy came in, he was very personable, a very likable guy. He was around here a lot in the early years, and I know he loved being around the team. We will miss seeing him on the practice fields.”
While the 50-year-old Lerner maintained a very low public profile, he often exchanged pleasantries with reporters at practices and developed relationships with many Browns players.
“He’s my guy, I love the dude,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He always asked me to sign extra stuff for his family, so I got to know him pretty well. I just hope the best for him.”
Randy Lerner’s son, Max, also was a regular visitor to training camp — most memorably being taped to the goal post by a handful of players several years ago. He was the quarterback on St. Ignatius’ freshman football team last fall.
“I enjoyed Randy and I got to know Max real well,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “I actually went to see one of his games last year.
“(The possible sale) is pretty big news, and I understand that, but it’s one of those things that are way beyond our control. As players, it’s all about winning football games.”
Tackle Joe Thomas and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson echoed those remarks, but admitted being shocked when coach Pat Shurmur relayed Lerner’s announcement in an early morning meeting.
Browns president Mike Holmgren subsequently assured the media that “the Cleveland Browns aren’t going anywhere,” which Jackson said was something that crossed his mind earlier in the day.
The franchise leaving town again is a constant fear for many Northeast Ohio residents — even though there is no legitimate reason for it.
“I talked to a lot of fans over the years and they’re still hurt by it,” Jackson said of the original Browns’ move to Baltimore following the 1995 season. “It was tough for the community. They still don’t like Baltimore, and I understand why.
“For this to happen now, it’s hard to control everything in your life, and this is one of those issues you can’t control.”
Holmgren adopted a similar stance when asked about his future in Cleveland. His five-year contract to run the Browns’ football operations expires at the end of the 2014 season. The team is 9-23 during his reign.
“To me, a contract is a contract,” Holmgren said calmly. “I have said that before and I try to be honest with you about that. We’ll deal with those things as we go down the road. Right now, I am the president of the team, and that’s how I am operating.”
Shurmur, on the other hand, appeared to be feeling the stress about working under a possible new owner. He was curt and borderline impolite during a post-practice press conference, which is highly unusual for the second-year coach.
“I’m not going to answer any questions regarding today’s news,” said Shurmur, whose club went 4-12 last year. “If you’ve got football questions, I would be happy to answer them.
“I’m not talking about this. What I’m saying is, based on what we’re doing, it will not become a distraction.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.