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The Suburbanite
  • Modell’s death brings back memories of Browns move

  • Art Modell’s death spawned touching tributes, heartfelt condolences and sympathy from every corner of the NFL map.

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  • Art Modell’s death spawned touching tributes, heartfelt condolences and sympathy from every corner of the NFL map.
    Except one.
    When news of the gregarious NFL owner’s death reached Cleveland, there were few tears, little praise and even less compassion.
    “Good,” said Debbie Wentz of Brunswick. “That’s what I thought when I first heard about it. I’m still bitter about the move.”
    Modell’s passing at the age of 87 from natural causes rekindled memories from Cleveland fans, who may never forgive him for taking his franchise and their team — the beloved Browns — to Baltimore after the 1995 season. He remains reviled in this football-mad city, which had its heart broken by a longtime civic leader.
    “He took away our football team. How could you do that?” asked Jim Thwaite, owner of Whitey’s Army and Navy Store in Berea, Ohio, where the Browns have had their headquarters for more than 30 years. “We are blood and guts, blue-collar Browns fans. It didn’t make any sense, still doesn’t.”
    For all his wonderful contributions as a philanthropist in Cleveland, a city he loved as much as his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y., or the impact he had on pro football’s growth and explosion on television, Modell’s choice to move the Browns will be long remembered in Ohio.
    To a majority of Browns fans, nothing else matters.
    The Decision?
    Even LeBron James came in a distant second to Modell as Public Enemy No. 1.
    When Modell packed up the Browns, he said he had no other choice after the city refused to build him a new stadium. In the weeks that followed the Nov. 6, 1995 announcement of the move, shock turned to an uproar and “No Team, No Peace” became a rallying cry in Cleveland, a city as intertwined with its professional teams as any in North America.
    Modell fled for safety reasons, and for a time employed bodyguards for protection. He never did return to his beautiful home in Waite Hill.
    But in their darkest days, Browns fans united, and with a grass-roots movement that joined generations, they convinced the NFL to give Cleveland an expansion team after three miserable years without football. Modell agreed to leave the team’s name, colors and history behind.
    His Ravens then went on to win a Super Bowl. The new Browns have been to the playoffs just once.
    Still, some Clevelanders say they just had to move on.
    “I have, it’s the right thing to do,” said John Gressler, a retiree from suburban Medina as he shopped at the Browns team shop for a birthday present from his wife. “I’m not too sure the city has and I’m not too sure it was all Art Modell’s fault.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Perhaps sensitive to their fans’ feelings toward Modell, the current Browns released a one-sentence statement following his death that read: “The Cleveland Browns would like to extend their deepest condolences to the entire Modell family.”
    There are no plans to honor Modell, who became the Browns owner in 1961, before Sunday’s season opener at home against Philadelphia. Any acknowledgment of his passing might lead to an angry backlash by thousands.
    “I pray to the lord they don’t do anything,” tweeted Ted Riegling, a Browns fan. “I would hate for this city to add another black eye, by booing him.”
    Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs understands the fans’ disdain toward Modell. He knows any tribute would be unwelcome.
    “We all understand the severity of it,” he said. “Fans are just voicing their opinion. Fans are die-hard. At the same time, this is a person’s life so 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.
    “That’s a loved one, he has a family and he was loved in the NFL. There might not be so much love in Cleveland, we all understand why, but at the same time, that’s a person’s life. We should respect that and respect a person’s family.”
    Modell’s death was felt most by those who knew him best.
    Doug Dieken played his entire 14-year career at right offensive tackle for the Browns with Modell as his boss. Standing outside the team’s training facility, Dieken said he lost a friend.
    “Having worked for him for 25 years, it’s kind of sad,” Dieken said. “He was good to me. He gave me a job. He kept me around. I understand the way people in Cleveland feel to some extent, I just hope that they remember the good as well as the bad.
    “Unfortunately, that one bad thing really seems to outweigh all the good he may have done while he was here.”
    Dieken, who has served as a radio analyst for the Browns since 1985, remembered how Modell helped players who fell into financial hardship and how the team was his extended family.
    “He wore his emotions on his sleeve,” Dieken said. “He was on the team flights. He was at all the practices, and you could tell whether we won or lost just by looking at him.”
    No defeat hurt Modell more than losing Cleveland.
    “There was a lot of pain,” Dieken said. “He knew that he had hurt a lot of people, but to some extent it came down to it was either going to be bankruptcy or move. It’s unfortunate he made the choice, but in some ways you can understand it, especially with a family.
    Page 3 of 3 - “It got to be a billionaire’s game and he was just a millionaire.”