Cleveland still can't forgive Modell

Despite good things he did for the city and NFL, move of Browns will always be the owner's sad legacy, some say

September 08, 2012|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Matt Wood cannot understand it when Baltimore fans shrug off Cleveland's bitterness toward the late Art Modell.

"It's bewildering to me when Baltimore fans say, 'Big deal, he moved the team,'" said Wood, who writes for the Cleveland Browns fan website Dawgs by Nature. "It's like, dude, you're in bed with our Irsay."

There it is right there. If you grew up in Baltimore and want to know how Cleveland fans felt Thursday when Modell died, think back to how you felt about the death of Robert Irsay. Did you instantly forgive the man who moved the Colts?

"There's no way to get away from it," Wood said. "He hurt Cleveland fans a lot. He hurt them deep."

It's not that Clevelanders are organizing parties to defile Modell's grave — though there is some of that talk on fan websites. It's more a sense of sadness, that this man they once appreciated as the face of a cherished institution will forever be associated with loss.

Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season, saying it was the only sound financial choice he could make for his team and family. But Clevelanders have never believed that. He could have accepted a renovated stadium over a new one, they say, or he could have sold the team to another local family. No explanation, really, could ever have soothed the aggrieved.

"Cleveland is a lot like Baltimore, so you know, it was like you stole their child away," said retired kicker Matt Stover, who made the move to Baltimore with the team. "If you steal someone's child away, nothing else matters. They're going to come out kicking and screaming."

Stover said he always believed Modell knew his relationship with Cleveland would never be mended.

"It was excruciatingly painful for him," Stover said. "He knew how many people it was going to affect."

Modell's sons, David and John, say they don't dwell on criticisms from Cleveland and noted that they have received more than 150 condolence emails from the city.

"An individual can say whatever they want to say about Art Modell," David Modell said Friday. "Many things are said about good people all the time that are untrue or unclear, but I know my father. I just wish more of those who are vilifying him knew him, because they would stop."

While the rest of the NFL celebrates Modell's memory via a video tribute or moment of silence today, the Modell family requested the Browns not participate out of concern it would not be well received. As a result, the Browns canceled their tribute and will be the only team in the NFL not to participate.

The coverage in Cleveland of Modell's death was more melancholy than angry. The headline above his obituary on the front page of Friday's Plain Dealer was measured: "The longtime Browns owner won 1964 title, moved team."

Writers perceived as nemeses offered more warm thoughts than sour.

Tony Grossi, who has covered the Browns for more than two decades, said Modell is deservedly a hero in Baltimore.

"To me, Art was a joy to cover in my years as Browns beat writer," said Grossi, who works for ESPNCleveland. "His showmanship, storytelling and his unfailing humor were golden to any reporter. I appreciated his passion to always strive to bring a winning team to Cleveland, and I respected his amazing power to survive so many health and financial obstacles."

Grossi sounded more sad than anything when talking about the way Modell left the city.

"We certainly had our battles over the years, but I always respected him," he said. "Naturally, I regret the way his career ended in Cleveland and all the ramifications of that tragic episode of his fascinating life."

Joe Posnanski, a Cleveland native who writes for the website Sports on Earth, said Modell was a powerful symbol.

"You knew, as a kid growing up in Cleveland, who owned the Browns," Posnanski said. "He was on TV all the time. There was never a game where they didn't show him."

He remembered a holiday song during the 1980 season that began, "On the first day of Christmas, Art Modell gave to me …"

The owner's position in the city made the sense of betrayal that much deeper, Posnanski said, calling the loss of the Browns easily the worst episode in Cleveland's anguished sports history.

"There was this feeling that Art Modell understood Cleveland, that he knew us," the writer said. "When the talk first started that they might move, it seemed absurd. Art Modell? He had owned the team for 35 years."

The strange twist to this saga of antipathy is that few should be better attuned to Cleveland's feelings than Baltimore football fans. The name Irsay is still dirt in this town, 28 years after Mayflower vans hauled the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis and 15 years after the perpetrator, Robert Irsay, died and passed the team to his son, Jim.

The barbs Clevelanders direct at Modell sound so familiar it's eerie.

In 1998, the first time the Colts returned for a game in Baltimore, some fans wore T-shirts depicting a Raven urinating on Irsay's grave and others directed obscene gestures at Jim Irsay's box.

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