In Browns' home, they fear an identity crisis 'State of disbelief' exists over possible loss of football team

November 05, 1995|By Ken Murray and Michael James | Ken Murray and Michael James,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Dick Ambrose played linebacker for the Cleveland Browns from 1975 to 1983. After his National Football League career ended, he remained here to practice law.

He remembers what pro football meant to Cleveland then, and what the Browns mean to the city now.

"The loss of the Browns would be a big loss to Cleveland's identity," Mr. Ambrose said yesterday. "It's really a dark day for Cleveland.

"I'm still in kind of a state of disbelief," he said. "It's like being on a space walk, and somebody closes the door on the capsule and you're still out there."

The news of the Browns' apparent exodus could be seen and heard all over Cleveland yesterday.

Football fans jammed talk radio phone lines with callers ranging from furious to sobbing. Leaflets attached to pizza boxes urged voters to pass a tax referendum to fund stadium renovation. City officials urged citizens to bring "Keep Cleveland Browns" signs and wear red to today's Browns game. Protesters stood in front of city hall amid a heavy snowstorm accompanied by thunder.

"The gods of Cleveland are mad today. There's thunder in the sky and snow all over downtown," said one of the protesters, Tim Savoca, 32.

Another demonstrator, Scott Diosy, 23, said: "I think this is a disgrace for our elected officials and the NFL. We get 70,000 people out for games every weekend, and we're 30 minutes from the Pro Football Hall of Fame [in Canton, Ohio]. How in the world could this happen?"

When Mr. Ambrose joined the Browns in 1975 as a 12th-round draft pick from Virginia, they held a special place in the city's psyche, despite a 4-10 record in 1974.

"The Browns were the city's identity," Mr. Ambrose said. "There wasn't much else going on. The [NBA] Cavs were new and hot. Even then, it was still a football town. We were terrible, but we were still the talk of the town."

Mr. Ambrose, who has been a lawyer in Cleveland since 1987, said he was aware the Browns had a stadium problem, but didn't realize the seriousness of the situation.

"This talk has been going on for years," he said. "Everybody knew something had to be done about the stadium. But I think there was a lot of foot-dragging on the part of the political forces. Also, there was a large reluctance on the part of the fan base, or voters, to feel they're responsible for building a new stadium.

"I think the Browns never gave a true sense of urgency. I thought it was more positioning, just working this to get the best deal possible."

Word of the Browns' possible move was slow to reach Houston, where former Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan is a mathematics professor at Rice University. Mr. Ryan had returned to Cleveland last December for a 30th reunion of the team's 1964 championship team, but was apparently unaware of the crisis state that exists here.

"It doesn't anger me," Mr. Ryan said of the news, "but Cleveland without the Browns is a very empty city, in my limited point of view. That would be a shame.

"I can understand his [owner Art Modell's] situation. The economics of the sport changed so drastically. Cities without teams are making very tempting offers."

While Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White held a news conference to challenge the move, hundreds of distraught fans phoned the Browns' offices to complain. The calls ranged from demands for refunds on season tickets to threats of lawsuits.

Dennis Roach, campaign manager for the pro-stadium Go Cleveland Committee, said Mr. Modell "rankled a few folks" when he broke a self-proclaimed moratorium on the stadium-improvements issue yesterday morning, saying he was not optimistic about staying.

Mr. Roach said he was disturbed at Mr. Modell's posturing in recent developments.

"I've been in Cleveland all my life, and he's been here the 35 years he's owned the team," Mr. Roach said. "I don't recall him ever being as deceptive as he is. The problem is, we've never really been given an opportunity to say, 'Here's a deal. Here's the numbers.'

"The idea of renovating the stadium is not the city's, but the team's idea. Five years ago, when we got the original sin tax passed to build Gateway [the sports complex that houses the Indians' Jacobs Field], he was offered a chance to have a multipurpose stadium. At that point, he declined and said he wanted a football-only stadium."

The Browns, Mr. Roach said, have represented Cleveland pride long before the Indians won the American League pennant.

"The Browns have been to a lot of people a reflection of what's good about Cleveland," he said. "When it's fall and the team is playing, the town is excited."

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