If I ranked the people who have had the biggest influence on my life, Art Modell would be unnervingly high on the list. There’s simply no getting around that. His Cleveland Browns were at the core of my childhood. His moving of the Cleveland Browns, in many ways, ended my childhood. His creation broke my heart again and again before tearing it entirely out of my chest. It would be a fine, grown-up thing to say that my life was impacted more by Shakespeare or B.B. King or Socrates or Jim Murray. Unfortunately, It wouldn’t be true.
He was a PR man through and through -- that’s how Modell made his money in New York in the years after the war. His father died when he was young, and he dropped out of high school and made his own way. Modell’s great talent, it seems to me, was understanding the power of television before most people did. Every era has these kinds of techno-visionaries, men and women who can grasp the potential of something like the Internet or mobile technology or social media in a way that passes by the rest of us. There have always been musical scouts who could recognize a new sound before it captured the charts and literary scouts who found new voices long before they made their mark at the bookstores. Art Modell could see the way television would change everything with a certain clarity that almost everyone else lacked. That vision helped him make the money that could buy him a pro football team. And, then, that same vision led him to help make football the biggest sport in the United States.
He bought the Cleveland Browns in 1961 with $250,000 of his own cash and a bunch of borrowed and invested money. He then worked the room, which was the entire city of Cleveland. He was funny. He was charming. He was a bachelor. He was great copy, and he knew it. But he had more in mind than just being known. Within two years, he fired the man whom the Browns were named after, the legend, Paul Brown. It was a nasty divorce, one with insubordination and bullying and backstabbing. Art Modell ended the war as undisputed king of the Cleveland Browns, Paul Brown emerged from his winter by founding and coaching and running the Cincinnati Bengals (which he purposely gave uniforms that were almost identical to the Cleveland Browns’), and the iciness between the two men never defrosted.
A year later, the Cleveland Browns -- led by the incomparable Jim Brown -- won an NFL championship. The Browns were, then, as powerful a force as any in pro football, one of the most recognizable names in American sports. There was no way to know then that Art Modell would live another 48 years … and the Cleveland Browns would not go to a single Super Bowl during that time. Well, of course there was no way to know then: There was no Super Bowl yet. That would come a little later. And television, Modell’s great passion, would make it the biggest thing in America … with or without the Cleveland Browns.
Modell liked to be seen. I grew up in Cleveland in the 1970s, and I saw him more often than I saw my uncle and aunt. He was always in the papers, being quoted on any number of topics. He was constantly on the news. He was forever speaking at some church or synagogue down the street, usually about politics (he was a staunch Republican who famously conceded that the NFL owners’ sharing of television money was pure socialism -- “It works for the NFL but not in real life,” I heard him say many times).
And during games he was ALWAYS on television, every week, every single week. Surely no owner ever got more TV time than Art Modell. His powerful role on the NFL television committee certainly was a factor in that. But the point is that you never saw a Browns broadcast that did not flash the image of Modell … and usually six or seven times a game. He would be up in his rather shabby-looking owner’s box, dressed in his long camel hair coat, and the camera would focus on him when the opposing team scored (head down, shoulders slumped) or when the Browns came back (toothy smile and two hands up in the air!). I have to tell you, I loved that man. I knew nothing about him except the most important thing … he owned the Cleveland Browns and loved them as much as I did.
Well, it seemed that way. The Browns were too important to me as a child, way too important, all this for reasons that I assume would burn out a whole team of psychiatrists. When they lost, I could not eat, and I could not see the point of anything, and this lasted not for a few hours, but until the following weekend. When they won, I could not sleep and could not concentrate on unimportant things like math tests, though this lasted a shorter time, before the next week’s panic set in. I can only assume that in landfills and recycled products across America, there must be traces of the hundreds and hundreds of Cleveland Browns prospectuses that I wrote throughout my childhood, crazed predictions about Super Bowl victories, detailed and entirely ridiculous analyses of how Jerry Sherk’s injury or Doug Dieken’s leadership or Webster Slaughter’s improved pattern-running would affect the team’s future. Art Modell understood. That’s what I believed. That horrible gnawing in my abdomen when the Browns fell behind -- he felt that. That intoxicating mix of joy and relief when the Browns scored to take the lead -- he felt that too. He had to. I had seen him on television.
His Browns were natural heartbreakers. I don’t know how much Modell deserves the blame for that. Probably not a lot. He was as much a victim of the devastating destiny as anyone. The first good Browns teams of my lifetime were the Brian Sipe teams of 1979 and ’80; Sipe was a small and fairly weak-armed quarterback from San Diego with movie-star looks who had a knack for leading the Browns back to victories that seemed like sure losses. This turned my pre-teen years into turbulent exchanges of deep depression and cartoonish celebration -- as if the pre-teen years aren’t ALREADY that. It wasn’t good for me. Modell’s emotions did not seem to hit such extremes -- head down, shoulders slumped, no, wait, toothy smile and two hands raised in the air! -- but he seemed with us. When the Sipe promise ended with an ill-advised pass and an interception, Modell promised that the glory would soon be ours. The team promptly fell apart.
It re-emerged with a hard-nosed coach from Hardnose, Pa., named Marty Schottenheimer, and a gawky Ohio kid named Bernie Kosar, who manipulated the draft system so that he could play quarterback for his beloved Browns. When those Browns first began to emerge, Modell seemed in all his glory … he did love being in the middle of winning. But those teams, like all of Modell’s Cleveland teams, would in the end crush everyone’s spirits. John Elway drove his team 98 yards to keep the Browns from a Super Bowl. Earnest Byner fumbled as he ran toward the end zone and the Browns missed their other chance at the Super Bowl.
Schottenheimer was pushed out. There was talk about him having too big an ego and wanting too much control. These were some of the same things said when Paul Brown was fired too. The same man pulled the trigger on both, which might tell you something. The Browns coughed and wheezed and reached one more AFC Championship Game under grandfatherly Bud Carson (no crushing defeat this time -- 37-21, Broncos, in a game that never felt that close). And then the team fell apart again.
Modell soon hired Bill Belichick, long before he became the Hoodie, and there were some good moments and more bad ones, but of course none of it really mattered. Something had fundamentally changed. Art Modell had started to check out on Cleveland. He had reasons, I suppose -- a decrepit stadium, a perhaps dismissive city that focused its energies on a new ballpark for baseball and a new arena for basketball and took the Browns for granted, a money problem that was probably deeper than anyone really knew -- but in the end, those reasons would never be good enough for anyone who lived in Cleveland.
I was in Cleveland Stadium -- known as Municipal Stadium throughout my childhood -- on the last day before the Browns moved to Baltimore. The rage and frustration and sadness in the crowd that day seemed visible to me, like breath turning to steam in the cold, and some people tore out the stadium seats, and some people threw stuff on the field, some people held signs, and some people just tried to root for the Cleveland Browns for the last time. The Browns beat the Bengals 26-10 that day. I walked the field afterward for a long time, seething, crying, wondering how Art Modell -- no matter what his problems or issues -- could have done this to the city he knew.
Or did he know? A few years after that day, a longtime friend of Modell’s called me and said that Art really wanted to talk to me, really wanted to explain. Of course, this was after the Cleveland Browns had died, after Modell’s Baltimore Ravens had won a Super Bowl, after a new team that called itself the Cleveland Browns had emerged in a brand new stadium with a beautiful owner’s box for an owner who was not Art Modell. The friend said that Modell felt terrible about having to move the Browns, but that he had no choice and that if only I heard it from him, I would understand.
We never did connect for various reasons -- I’m not sure it would have made much difference. I had spoken with Modell before. I think I knew what he would have said, because I heard him say those things before -- things about how much it hurt him to move the team, about how hard he had tried to make it work in Cleveland, about how much the city meant to him and so on. He would have said, as he did on the day of the move, that bit about how he had no choice. He would have said that his love for Cleveland was expressed in his leaving behind the Browns name and the orange and white and brown colors and the history for a future team. Maybe he would have said something else, though. I don’t know. Like I say, in the end, he decided not to call.
Art Modell died on Thursday. He was 87 years old. It’s hard to describe the emotions. Modell was a giant in pro football, the driving force behind the television impact that made the NFL the biggest thing. He was an owner who cared about his team and who tried perpetually to win, and really what else could a fan ask of a sports team owner? He inspired loyalty in many, and he was often called a good family man, and he was self-made. His teams, for better and worse, branded and shaped my childhood and, let’s face it, my adulthood too. I’m a sportswriter in part because of Art Modell. I try to be hopeful in part because of Art Modell. I believe it will all end badly in part because of Art Modell.
And he moved the Cleveland Browns. There are new Cleveland Browns, of course, and I have tried to care about them in some way, but I do not live in Cleveland anymore, and it’s not the same. Something was severed. Something broke. In the end, Modell might have just told me that moving the Cleveland Browns was a business decision -- an obvious business decision, at that -- and that he had to do it, and while he regretted that people were hurt by it, well, people often get hurt by hard business decisions, a lot of people in Baltimore were made happy by it, and anyway, countless people every day make painful decisions about things that matter a whole lot more than football.
He might have been right if he had said all that. The adult in me would have heard him. The child, though, would not. The child is still waiting for the Cleveland Browns, my Cleveland Browns, to win the Super Bowl. They never will. I know, deep down, it’s not Art Modell’s fault. But he was the guy on television.