I remember sitting in the office of former Browns public relations director Kevin Byrne the day after the team's move to Baltimore was announced in November of 1995, not sure how to deal with the emotions of the moment.
There was a palpable sense of sorrow and disappointment in the entire building. For many fans it was truly like losing a loved one, undoubtedly producing tears for some, anger for most and remorse for all.
That day came back to me Thursday morning after learning of the death of former Browns owner Art Modell at age 87. Art lived a long life - longer than expected because of numerous health issues. The final years allowed him a chance to win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, but it also provided his many critics with more time to launch verbal insults and to devise sick things like a Modell Death Watch.
The Associated Press
Owner and CEO of the Baltimore Ravens Art Modell talks with reporters at the newly named M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Md. in this May 6, 2003 file photo. The Baltimore Ravens said Modell died early Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had been admitted Wednesday.
Art is inarguably the most hated sports figure in Cleveland history, a title he claimed with ease over basketball legend LeBron James. LeBron is an individual that took his talents to South Beach. Art took an entire team - a piece of Cleveland seemingly as lasting and entrenched as Severance Hall - and moved it 300 miles east to Baltimore.
The scene of Art sitting next to Maryland Governor Parris Glendening in Baltimore to officially announce the move was surreal to dazed football fans back home. None wanted to watch the celebration, but we were glued to the television as if we were watching O.J. in the white bronco. Something terrible had taken place, and we needed to watch it unfold for reasons only psycho-analysis might reveal.
Now that Art has died, the normal thing to do is allow him to rest in peace. This is where those that literally hate the man will laugh. R.I.P. to them is an acronym for what they want to do to his legacy - rip it apart and stomp on it.
I've said for years that the day Art dies a holiday-like atmosphere will break out among many Browns fans. I learned Thursday morning how right I was when I read three comments from an online obit. One of the three asked viewers to let Art rest in peace with prayers for his family. The other two took the opportunity to get in more tasteless jabs over his still warm body.
I stopped scrolling down the screen at that time, feeling no further need to see human behavior at its worst. I will never understand why people can reserve so much hatred and twisted emotions for a man that simply moved his business. Sure, it was a treasured part of the Cleveland community that gave the city's residents and many fans elsewhere years of pleasure, along with some indelibly painful moments, but the last time I checked no one died. No son was brought home in a flag-draped pine box from a war somewhere across the world.
I was angry when Art packed up and left town. I was also angry at coach Bill Belichick and Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White and Ohio Govenor George Voinovich and countless other power brokers that for whatever reasons turned their backs on Art.
The death of the old Cleveland Browns is a classic conspiracy theory that continues to spin without a final resolution. There's a grassy knoll with more than just one elderly gray-haired man on it. There is no Zapruder film, unless someone caught the scene of Art and his entourage meeting John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, on the tarmac at BWI to sign documents finalizing the move to Baltimore.
The best theory is that the Browns were done in by a perfect storm of mismanagement by Modell, who basically broke the bank to sign receiver Andre Rison, and obstinate political and business leaders that seem to have had it in for him.
Art needed someone that wanted him, and there were plenty of them in Baltimore, where the Colts had been ripped from the hearts and souls of fans by Robert Irsay in 1984. It was a quick and easy deal that gave Art financial security for his family while forever pegging him as a villain not worthy of redemption in northeast Ohio.
It's sad that the real person won't be remembered much in coming days. Art was a philanthropist that gave his time and money to numerous charitable causes. If you were just mildly close to him he would be glad to help you or a loved one in any way.
To reporters that covered the Browns he was a gold mine an owner that not only talked but was entertaining. I can't begin to count the number of times Art held court from his perch on the Art-mobile the golf cart he drove around the practice facility. No one could tell funnier stories with a delivery as good as Jack Benny's
Personally, I was thankful that Art treated me with the same accord he did reporters from larger news organizations. I could call him at his offseason home in Florida any time to get a comment. Believe me when I say he knew where Warren, Ohio was located, which sadly hasn't always been the case with front-office personnel since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.
It's doubtful Art will ever be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which I'm not so sure would bother him. Along with another reporter, I sat for an hour in the family room of Art's Maryland countryside home several years ago. Joining us was Art's wife Pat, who passed away last year. It became clear during our conversation that Pat was more upset about the Hall of Fame snub than Art.
I also remember that the phone next to Art's recliner never seemed to stop ringing. More than one of the calls was from a friend in Ohio. He couldn't go back home, but he still had friends in this area.
It was hard not to like Art. He was born with a comedian's brain and a street-wise charisma. The fact he wasn't from old money made it all the better. If he was able to scrounge up $4 million from investors to purchase the Browns in 1961, maybe we all could have done the same thing.
During an interview with now former Browns owner Randy Lerner last February the conversation somehow turned to our favorite Modell stories. I always assumed there was tension between the Lerners and the Modells, but on that day Randy came across as someone that clearly had a soft spot for Art.
When I think of Art, I think of him sitting on a team charter flight into Kansas City many years ago. Shortly after the plane touched down the pilot aborted the landing. As the plane made a quick ascension and stomachs became unsettled, Art turned to those close to him and said, "We now have the only all-white team in the NFL."
That's the Art I will remember. I miss that, despite the mistakes he made that led to a fateful decision 17 years ago.