Saturday, September 15, 2012

“Modell Memories”

c. 2012 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Art Modell.

Owner and nemesis. Hero and goat. Leader and betrayer.

Even today, simply repeating his name can spur instant debate and disagreement. No other name in Cleveland history can evoke such passion. Mike Junkin? Earnest Byner? Albert Belle? Jose Mesa? Butch Davis?

King Asterisk, LeBron James, is a footnote, by contrast.

Modell was destined to become a lightning rod of sorts in local, and league history – especially when he fired legendary coach Paul Brown in January, 1963.

The Browns won their final NFL Championship under Blanton Collier, in 1964. Ironically, they did so by defeating the Baltimore Colts. This victory seemed to indicate that greater things were ahead for the franchise. Yet it was a fleeting moment of glory.

Modell served as league president from 1967-1969. He helped shape the first collective bargaining agreement with players in 1968, and negotiated television contracts that earned billions in revenue. He supported the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that produced pro football as we know it today. And he offered his Browns to participate in the first Monday Night Football game, where they beat the New York Jets.

But at home, his record was less spectacular.

The franchise stumbled and staggered through successive seasons of mediocrity. Eventually, the ‘Kardiac Kids’ came close, as did the ‘Dawgs.’ Yet there were no more titles for his team. Despite enduring fan loyalty, he lost money and fell out of favor after quarterback Bernie Kosar was released in 1993.

When Gateway brought new facilities for the Indians and Cavaliers, in 1994, Modell was patient. The next year, a plan was announced to fund refurbishing the tired and overworked Cleveland Municipal Stadium. But in early November, news leaked out of a secret deal to move the franchise to Baltimore.

Modell’s explanation was brief and unapologetic. “I had no choice.”

Mayor Mike White appeared on NBC’s venerable ‘Today’ show and was skewered for his incompetence in losing the city’s premiere sports franchise, by host Bryant Gumbel.

What followed has become part of the fabric of NFL history.

Fans exploded in angry protest. The result was a league decision unlike any other, made with the wisdom of King Solomon. The team name, colors and history remained here in Ohio, while the organization, players and assets moved to Maryland.

Only a few years after leaving the shore of Lake Erie, Modell was able to hoist a Superbowl trophy with his Ravens. Conspiracy theorists wondered aloud if pro football had become a scripted affair like TV wrestling. Meanwhile, the reborn Browns finished that regular season with a record of 3-13.

All these things were in my mind when I received a cell-phone text from my sister, on a recent Thursday morning.

“Art Modell died,” she wrote. “He was 87.”

After reading the message, I slipped into a deep mood of reflection.

WTAM radio personality Mike Trivisonno had interviewed Modell in the years that followed, providing useful historical documentation of the events that precipitated his move out of Cleveland.

But in personal terms, I recalled writing a poem of protest at the time, while watching news reports about the team.

Now, I wanted to read it again.

A search for the manuscript took longer than expected. I had to look through several folders of material stashed in my original four-drawer cabinet. The bitter rhyme was penned on a piece of notebook paper, which had been placed in a section marked ‘fragments.’

Reading the page, I realized it had been written on the day before Maryland Governor Parris Glendening introduced “the owner of the Baltimore Browns” to America.

My face reddened with a bit of embarrassment from the opening verse:

Modell Farewell
Nov. 5, 1995

Art Modell can go to Hell
He’s a sleazy, lowlife putz
If he wants to score with Baltimore
He can kiss my Buckeye butt!

Bill must go, this I know
But do not take the Dawgs
It’s butthead Art that should depart
Before our team is lost

Just say no, please don’t go
Keep the Browns at home
Let Modell hang himself
Leave our team alone!

Modell sold out, there is no doubt
This traitor deserves to fry
The mighty Browns are leaving town
Tell us why, oh why?

Paul Brown’s ghost is on the ropes
The Dawgs no longer bark
The legacy, the proud history
Trashed by a fool like Art

For an owner’s greed, we lose our team
What else is there to say?
Art and Bill cease to thrill
When the Browns are moving away

Art Modell found great success after leaving Cleveland, as did his unloved protégé Bill Belichick. These achievements only deepened the sorrow of Browns fans. Many chose to take a bandwagon leap into the camp of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Yet we had kept our team.

Former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano urged fans to forgive his erstwhile boss, in retrospect. He observed that Modell would have given his lone Superbowl trophy to Cleveland, were that possible.

Seeing his obituary caused me to bow my head, silently. Rage over his professional exit was long, long gone. I felt nostalgic. And humbled.

It was impossible not to ponder the emptiness he must have felt upon becoming so reviled in the city where he spent most of his career.

An old adage says: “Actions have consequences.” Clearly, the legacy of this iconic figure has been shaped by such forces, both good and bad.

But the time for debate and dissent has passed.

Rest in peace, Mr. Modell.

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