BEREA (92.3 The Fan) – When Art Modell stepped onto a stage in Baltimore on Nov. 6, 1995 the vast majority of the current Browns roster was busy learning to read, write, add and subtract.
They had no idea the significance of that day or the pain that it created for the city that they now play for.
Many Browns players still don’t but Modell’s passing Thursday morning offered them a glimpse at one of the saddest and darkest chapters in Cleveland’s history.
“A lot of these guys were in elementary school,” tight end Ben Watson said. “I was in high school. So for us, it’s kind of learning now what it’s all about. But we do, I believe, I respect Modell for what he did for the league. Maybe not for how he left here in Cleveland and everything, but as a whole from what I understand, he did do a lot of the NFL.”
Watson admitted that he, along with many others within the locker room are simply too young to know who Modell was or what he did – but there is reverence and respect for his families loss as well as the feelings of Clevelanders who have fount it impossible to forgive, let alone forget.
“We don’t really know who he is,” Watson said. “Now that we’re Browns obviously we care because the Browns is our history, but we don’t know as much about it as some of the people that have been here before. But that being said, we honor him as a piece of NFL history and we respect what people feel about him here in Cleveland as well.”
Around the country tributes have been pouring in as Modell is remembered for his league-wide contributions – network television, labor agreements, revenue sharing et all.
But not in Cleveland.
And understandably so.
Modell’s death has reopened a gaping wound, which has yet to heal for fans who are still bitter over his decision to move the team to Baltimore in 1996.
“I’ve learned a lot myself being here,” Watson said. “I didn’t know much about Art Modell and the team leaving. As I’ve been here for the past three years, I’ve heard a lot, a whole lot about it, and I’ve heard the anger about some of it. You can kind of understand. The way the fans here are very passionate about the organization, you can understand some of those things.”
Many Browns fans were overjoyed at hearing the news Thursday morning.
All day on ’92.3 The Fan’ caller after caller expressed their anger – some more diplomatically than others.
That anger is prominent on social media as news of Modell’s demise spread.
No one is more in tune with the fan-base than Josh Cribbs, who did his best to put the delicate situation into perspective.
“Fans are just voicing their opinion,” Cribbs said. “Fans are die hard but at the same time this is a person’s life. I know a lot of them, even though they might have some words to say that aren’t positive they can respect the fact that it’s a person’s life. He has a family and he was loved in the NFL – might not be so much in Cleveland, we all understand why, but at the same time it was a person’s life and you just respect that.”
The Ravens will honor Modell with a viewing Saturday morning at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and with a decal bearing his initials ‘ABM.’
“It would make more sense to have [the tribute] in Baltimore,” Cribbs said. “It’s still a person’s life. There’s no coming back from that. I think he knew how upset the fans were. I think his family knew how upset the fans were about them moving the team but life is more important that football.”
Ironically, the Ravens will kick their season off against the Bengals on Monday Night Football – a program that Modell helped create.
The Browns played the first ever Monday night game at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1970 and beat Joe Namath and the Jets 31-21.
Modell also fired the Browns’ namesake – legendary coach Paul Brown who had won 7 league championships before he bought the team in 1961. Brown went to Cincinnati and formed the Bengals sparking a bitter rivalry that lasted for decades.
There is some question as to what, if anything the Browns should do prior to kickoff Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles to recognize Modell – and would it even be appropriate.
“Whenever someone passes, your thoughts to go to his family and it’s never anything other than that,” kicker Phil Dawson said. “So in terms of how the NFL decides to handle this, that’s their decision. There’s really no way of predicting how our fans are gonna process the news, but I’ll just kind of leave it at that.”
Dawson, who is the lone remaining player from the 1999 expansion club, said that there hasn’t been much conversation within the locker room about Modell or the impact of him moving the team has had on fans.
“We’re trying to get ready for a football game and no disrespect to the news at all,” Dawson said. “But if guys ask, I’ll do what I can to fill them in. But I’m by no means an expert on the whole deal. By the time I got here, all that was said and done.”
Making it more difficult for Browns fans to get over Modell’s betrayal is how awful the expansion Browns have been – 10 double digit loss seasons in 13 miserable years and 2012 doesn’t look to be promising.
They are forced to harken back to the days of Jim Brown, Otto Grahm, Lou Groza and the last NFL championship in 1964.
They cling to memories of Brian Sipe and the Kardiac kids, Bernie Kosar, Kevin Mack, Earnest Byner, Hanford Dixon, Frank Minnifield and Eric Metcalf.
Even the painful memories of ‘The Drive’ and ‘The Fumble’ are bearable compared to what has taken place since the team returned because at least the Browns were on the cusp of the Super Bowl.
“Our fans and the players, we’re thirsty,” Cribbs said. “We’re thirsty for the moments when we know we’re going to get above .500. We know we’re going to be at the cusp of making the playoffs. But when we do, that’s a sight to see in Cleveland.”
For many, the new expansion Browns will never replace the Browns that Modell so callously ripped from Cleveland and they never will be.
It used to be that when the Browns were awful, it was a major story.
Today it’s the norm.
Whenever they win again, it will be headline news.
“I can’t wait,” Cribbs said. “I hope it’s this year because our fans deserve it. I don’t think there are any fans more deserving than ours.”