Telich’s Take: Art Modell… A Tarnished Legacy

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Art Modell always picked up on the first ring.

But one day in 1995, not long after he called for a moratorium on talk of possible Browns Stadium improvements, Modell said, “Hello” after the 3rd ring.

I would usually call him, record some of the conversation and run a clip on the news.

On this day, I recorded and aired a comment he had about the situation.

Moratorium be damned, I thought.

But after the comments aired, Modell called my boss and read him, the station, and me, the riot act.

He felt betrayed. I felt I was doing business as usual. But in those days, Modell felt the city, and especially Mayor Mike White were portraying him as an intractable, stubborn sports team owner.

I sit back now and envision a proud man, who made some bad deals, and see a desperate person.

Debts were piling up and the threat of bankruptcy was real.

Modell saw a scenario where he would lose everything, especially 35-years of ownership of one of the leagues top franchises.

What we came to realize is that during that moratorium, Modell was casting life rafts, and he secretly found people in Baltimore, his safe harbor to float his franchise.

When the word of betrayal came down, the vitriol towards Benedict Arthur (as he was called) and his family was epic. He could no longer set foot in the city were he was such a big player. The city with the medical and cultural institutions his family was so active in backing. He had taken a civic treasure, and hijacked the emotions of millions of fans here and around the world.

I will never forgetting running laps with Earnest Byner after the final Browns home game at Browns Stadium during that horrendous 1995 season.

With the sounds of fans hammering and hacking down stadium seats, Byner, who epitomized the grit and toughness of Browns, football circled the field and hugged fan after fan.

Tears were welling up in Byner’s eyes. Fathers and sons, daughters and mothers were grabbing him, hugging him and pouring out their hearts.

“We love you, don’t leave,” one fan said to Byner.

Each message just cut right through your heart. Yes even a so called hard bitten reporter, at my core I’m a Cleveland kid too.

I saw the 1964 title game with my dad and brother. I knew losing the team was no less a blow than if Republic Steel shut down the furnaces.

I am not certain, but I would like to think if Modell had been on that lap with me and Earnest, he might have reconsidered. But he had already sat on that dais on a November Monday in Baltimore telling the fans there what they had to look forward to.

Modell can say that he left the team name and the colors here, but that’s only after muscle flexing lawyers spelled out the legal headlock he might be in for trying to take everything.

He went from one of the forward thinking owners in the game to a pariah, instantly. Hated in Cleveland. Never welcome again.

Modell owned the team from 1961, when he led a group that offered $4 million. Arts stake? $250,000, all financed by a bank.

It was a shrewd and daring move. That’s the man Cleveland saw.

The man who fired an icon in Paul Brown. The man who married a Hollywod actress, Pat Breslin, and graced the society pages of the Cleveland papers. Philanthropist. Big dreamer, who in the end, would have to sell much of his stake in the Ravens, to preserve his families financial status.

Art Modell was a wise cracking, fun loving man who ultimately got his wish to win a Super Bowl, much to the consternation of Browns nation.

The man from Brooklyn who struck it big in Cleveland, died at age 87 of failing health. He was surrounded by his sons and several of the players he came to love in Baltimore.

Modern day Gladiators like Ray Lewis. The men who loved him back and went out on the playing field to win for him, what he couldn’t get done in Cleveland.

His service will likely be this coming Tuesday. His wife Pat, had preceded him in death last October.