Back in January of 1986, I had my favorite Cleveland Browns memory when I was at the old Municipal Stadium watching the Browns and New York Jets double-overtime game where legendary former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar helped bring the Browns back late in regulation and then win it in overtime. The stadium crowd was delirious, as I remember so vividly hugging strangers in the upper deck of the old creaky stadium standing near one of the hundreds of steel poles that would obstruct your view during Browns games. That image has always stayed with me. Maybe you have your own vivid memory of a past Browns game.
Unfortunately, I also have an extraordinarily strong image of the day. I and the rest of Browns faithful all around the world learned on an early morning in November of 1995 that the Browns were being taken away from Cleveland by owner Art Modell. The city, the fans and the world were stunned. We didn’t have Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. We had cable sports network ESPN and I can remember turning on their channel to get confirmation that this was real and that this wasn’t a bad dream. The Browns were moving to Baltimore! “What?!! Are you kidding me?” And the anger began to grow. That anger continued and still continues for most Browns fans who remember that awful day in Browns history.
Before the Browns were shipped to Baltimore by the deceiving owner Modell, one has to try and first understand the feud between Art Modell and the founder of the Browns, the late-Paul Brown that began in 1961. To this day I still remember when I was a young kid hanging out at my grandma’s house that whenever Art Modell’s name was mentioned my grandma would say something negative or be disgusted by that name being brought up. So I knew, even at a very young age, that this guy named Modell was not to be liked. But why?
When the Browns were started by Paul Brown in 1945, they quickly became a dynasty winning seven football championships between 1946 and 1955. Prior to that time, Brown had coached at Ohio State and Massillon High School in Ohio. Mr. Brown was not only Mr. Football in Ohio but also becoming a national treasure.
Enter Art Modell. He bought the Browns in 1961 for four million dollars. Modell was more the eager business type and quite the contrast from coach Brown. At first, things were civil between these two giants, but that deteriorated soon after. Modell, a young 30 something wanted more control over picking players, etc. And the Browns players started running to Modell with their concerns rather than the more hard-nosed coach in Brown.
To add to the tension, coach Brown, who was also the Browns general manager, made a secret trade with the Washington Redskins prior to 1962 to get the late Ernie Davis, the Heisman Trophy winner from Syracuse. The Browns traded away NFL Hall of Fame player Bobby Mitchell. Modell was left in the dark on the trade. But then Ernie Davis became sick and was diagnosed with leukemia. Davis wanted to continue to train and prepare for the season and though coach Brown traded for him, he then refused to play him. However, Modell wanted to see Davis play. That never happened as Brown kept Davis sidelined the entire season.
Thus after the 1962 season, in early January of 1963, Modell decided to fire coach Brown. And that was the first reason many Browns fans began to loathe Modell. The legendary Mr. Football in Ohio was out.
Fast forward about 30 years in the mid-1990s. Modell, still the owner of the Browns, had been running the old Municipal Stadium by his own business called Stadium Corp. He had agreed with the City of Cleveland back in 1973 to start renting the stadium to the Browns and Cleveland Indians. When the baseball Indians decided to build a new ballpark, Jacobs Field (today’s Progressive Field), in 1994, it left Modell with an aging stadium to try and continue to manage.
Though the city of Cleveland continued to discuss with Modell ways to improve stadium upgrades and the people living in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County passed votes to supply additional funding for those improvements, Modell started to have secret discussions with the city of Baltimore to bring his Browns there.
Keeping in mind that from 1985-94, the Browns were on top of the football world, going to several AFC Championship games, including many playoff games like the one in 1986 that I attended against the New York Jets. The notion that something so big was about to occur to the Browns and its fans was almost too impossible to imagine.
The 1994 Browns team, coached by Bill Belichick, finished the season with an impressive 11-5 record. Going into the 1995 season many sports media outlets were predicting a run to the Super Bowl for the Browns. That season, after starting hot at 3-1, the Browns rumors started to surface that something wasn’t right.
And then on November 6th, 1995, in Baltimore, Browns owner Modell emerged from his secluded cave, now standing on a stage with the Baltimore mayor announcing he was moving the Browns to Baltimore for the following 1996 season. The world had just turned upside down for every Browns fan. After 50 successful and storied years as a franchise, owner Modell was playing games with a fan base that was loyal to its core. Instead of selling his team to keep the Browns in Cleveland, Modell took the heart of Cleveland and tore it to pieces.
The city of Cleveland was left empty and its fans left hopeless. Fortunately, the NFL intervened after the Browns move to Baltimore, keeping the Browns name with the city of Cleveland and promising a new Cleveland Browns team in 1999. But those three years of no Browns in the NFL was torture for Browns fans. When they finally returned, it was great. However, there was always something a little off knowing that this new Browns team was like a stunt double to the former team.
What made things worse was that while the new Browns were getting their feet wet, the Baltimore Ravens were swimming in the deep end, eventually winning the Super Bowl in the 2000 season. “That could have been us,” every Browns fan was heard screaming after that Ravens raised the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy.
So as you prepare to watch Monday Night Football between the Browns and the Ravens and wonder why some Browns fans share their complete and utter disdain for the Ravens just remember the name Art Modell. There isn’t a more horrific memory of my youth that doesn’t stay with me more than that day in 1995 when Modell announced the moving of the Browns to Baltimore.
Are new, more positive memories starting to build with the resurgence of this current Browns team? I think so. And what better way to put that Modell and the Ravens nightmare to rest than to have the Browns go out and beat the Ravens on Monday Night Football.