My lasting memory of Art Modell is from a game he didn’t attend.
He couldn’t. He would’ve been in danger.
The home finale in 1995 was the Browns’ last game ever at Cleveland Stadium. It was also my last as a fan, before I turned in my foam finger for a notebook.
It was an experience I’ll never forget.
Modell died Thursday at age 87. He owned the Browns from 1961-95, when he moved the franchise to Baltimore. He is the last owner of a championship team in Cleveland — in 1964.
The news of his death brought an outpouring of sympathy from a variety of people, including former NBC executive Dick Ebersol, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer and Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.
“He told me that I was like a son to him, and that made me proud,” former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar said. “A lot of Clevelanders wouldn’t believe this, but Art is one of the most loyal and trusting persons I’ve ever met. I truly valued his friendship and will miss that.”
The opinions didn’t sit well with many Browns fans on Twitter and talk radio.
“Call me insensitive but I’m going ahead & declaring Art Modell’s passing as the Browns first win this season. 1-0 baby! Here we go Brownies!” fan and standup comedian Chad Zumock tweeted.
I never met Modell, because I didn’t start covering the team until its return in 1999. I didn’t become the beat writer until 2004.
I’ve used his name in print at least twice a year — when the Browns and Ravens meet — and have heard countless stories from colleagues, including one of great generosity. I have no doubt he was funny, easily accessible and a good quote.
But he forever ruined his legacy by moving the team. He ripped the hearts out of a city, a region and a loyal fan base that helped make him a famous man.
I will never forget.
The pain was still fresh for the home finale 17 years ago. Modell had announced the move about a month earlier, and the fans’ shock had turned to anger.
You can get over your wife leaving — even for your best friend. Your football team is another story.
So on Dec. 17, 1995, the frustration was unleashed on an innocent, if decrepit, stadium. In the fourth quarter of the 20-10 win over the Bengals, the noise started.
It didn’t stop.
The pounding came from every corner of the stadium and grew steadily louder. The fans weren’t going to leave empty-handed. Many had spent a good chunk of their lives in these specific seats and were determined to saw, hammer, blowtorch the wooden chairs out of the concrete ground.
The stadium was far from full, and the echoes made it sound like a construction site. It was surreal.
Fresh out of college, I had gone to the game on the spur of the moment with my uncle. I can’t remember if we went to witness history or say goodbye, or both.
I didn’t grab a souvenir, but I’m glad I went.
The three years without the Browns were brutal. Modell’s Super Bowl victory with the Ravens was a cruel joke. The continued struggles of Cleveland’s expansion franchise are constant reminders.
But that December Sunday in the stadium made the move real for me. And that’s the first place I went Thursday morning when I woke up to the news.
I’ve heard Modell’s side of the story. He was headed for bankruptcy and had been neglected by city leaders. He had no choice.
Yes, he did.
The same self-inflicted financial issues forced him to sell the team a few years into his stay in Baltimore. He should’ve sold the team to a Cleveland businessman and saved everyone — himself included — a ton of heartache.
If he had, he might be in the Hall of Fame today.
Modell’s legacy in the NFL is legitimate. He negotiated giant television deals and hosted the first “Monday Night Football” game. He helped complete the AFL/NFL merger by agreeing to take the Browns to the AFC. He won a championship and had 15 playoff teams in Cleveland.
The move trumps it all.
Never has an NFL transaction been greeted with such a harsh response. Browns fans demanded a new team with its old name, colors and history. His angry business partners throughout the league were forced to put an expansion team in Cleveland.
He made a prideful, selfish decision and it cost him. The city he tried so desperately to please hates him.
Unfortunately, his death doesn’t change that.