One of the last NFL assignments I handled for The Cincinnati Post, back in the day when there was a Cincinnati Post, was what was supposed to be the final game in Cleveland of the city’s beloved Browns. It was Dec. 17, 1995, in my final year covering the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals, led by a nice guy but painfully ineffective coach by the name of Dave Shula, were awful in those days, and they went into this game at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium — a drafty multi-purpose monstrosity built in 1931 — against the equally terrible Browns, with a crotchety bastard and mostly still floundering coach by the name of Bill Belichick. (Shula went on to become a partner in his dad’s string of steak houses. Belichick found some success with a team in New England.)
Browns owner Art Modell, unhappy with that creaky old stadium on Lake Erie, had announced a month earlier that he was moving his team to Baltimore after 50 years in town. It was an almost unspeakable betrayal of one of the most loyal fan bases in any sport. The news did not go over well with Clevelanders. (A good video on the last game is here.)
After the game (another Cincinnati loss), standing in the biting cold on the sidelines, I remember looking up to see fans pulling up whole rows of seats to take home. Some had started small fires. Cops lined the field, fearing the worst. People were crying. People were cursing. Some looked like they didn’t want to leave. Some, pushing against the fences toward the field, seemed as if they wanted to burn the place down.
If that whole stadium would have crashed to the ground, right then and there, nobody would have been surprised.
A nasty, gray day in northeast Ohio, in an ancient coliseum with the old NFL world almost literally coming to an end around you … you don’t forget something like that.
Three full seasons later, newly married, living in a new city, working at a new job in a fledgling young medium (the internet!), I somehow talked my new bosses into flying me back to Cleveland to see the new Browns in their comeback game. Cleveland had been granted a new franchise and the city had built a new stadium (something the traitor Modell dreamed about for years) on Lake Erie. As a going away present after fleeing to Baltimore with the city’s team, Modell had left Cleveland the team’s nickname. (The old franchise that Modell moved became the new Baltimore Ravens. In 2001, in only their fifth season, they won the Super Bowl.)
So the Browns returned that day in 1999, but nothing was the same. The Dawg Pound, where the rowdiest Cleveland fans woofed in the old stadium, was replaced by a replica Pound which just didn’t have the same gritty verve. The stadium was nicer than the old one — not hard to pull off — but it seemed so antiseptic. The colors were the same. The team wasn’t.
The football, at least from the Cleveland end of things, was even worse. The Pittsburgh Steelers won, 43-0. The hapless Browns, who would go 2-14 that year, gained only 40 yards. They managed two first downs on their first two “drives,” and then didn’t get another the whole game. Their offense had the ball for all of 12 minutes.
I had, evidently, no seat (^) in the press box. (In those cases, when it’s really crowded — as the first game back in Cleveland for the Browns would have been — the home team normally sets up tables in another room where the unlucky with no seats watch on TV.) I, evidently, didn’t eat (^). (That’s a thing in press boxes, too, in pretty much any sport; the press meal. It used to come included with a press pass, and they’d punch your pass, or tear off a stub, to let you into the press dining room. Most places now, they still have a room, but you often have to pay for a meal.)
The return, as far as memories go, didn’t come close to measuring up to the game almost four years earlier. The return, for Cleveland, has not gone well even now, by any measure. In the 20 years since the city got a team back, Cleveland has had two winning seasons. The Browns’ new stadium, now named FirstEnergy Stadium, has never hosted a postseason game. The Browns have made the playoffs once, lost their only game (at Pittsburgh) and haven’t been again in 16 straight seasons (counting this one), the longest streak in the NFL. Last year, they went 0-16, only the second NFL team to go winless in a 16-game season.
Modell, who had spent 35 years as owners of the Browns, never returned to Cleveland. He died, at 87, four days before the 2012 season. The Ravens dedicated the season to their owner, and won the Super Bowl again that season.