For a moment, it was like old times.
The Browns were playing at home against the Tennessee Titans, a team that was once known as the Houston Oilers, and, later, more ludicrously, the Tennessee Oilers. The Browns would eventually emerge victorious, 20-14, for their third win in eight games. It was the second quarter.
Browns fullback Terrelle Smith caught a little swing pass coming out of the backfield and headed upfield. Three yards out from the line of scrimmage, Smith collided with a defender, paused for a second while the defender was knocked backwards, and then headed upfield again. After another yard or two, Smith again collided with a Titans defender. Again, the defender bounced off and Smith chugged forward. Ultimately, Smith was pulled down by excellent Tennessee linebacker Keith Bullock for a seven yard gain.
It looked like a play from a bygone era.
"Very Mack-esque", said Sam Chambers, signed on as "SamAtlanta", in the Bernie's Insiders chat room.
I felt like I might get close to being a little misty-eyed there for a moment, right in the middle of a dull half of football played by two sub-mediocre teams. Today has some special meaning for me, and probably for you as well.
Sam and I probably would never have gotten to know each other if it wasn't for the events exactly ten years ago today. He was mostly active on Prodigy in 1995-6, and I spent a lot of time on AOL back in the old Browns discussion boards there. We both participated in Usenet and Browns mailing lists back then, as Browns fans pulled together to protest the theft of their team. After a while, you sort of got to know who everyone was.
Now, ten years after Art Modell joined Parris Glendenning and Al Lerner to stab Browns fans in the back on a hastily constructed dais in Baltimore, Sam and I are still here. On Tuesday night, I'll get a chance to talk again to Joe Brownlee, the Ohio native who provided such terrific news updates to the Usenet group and mailing lists during the dark winter of 1995.
We're still here. The fans are still here. But so much has changed.
Unfortunately, we're still forced to think back to the 1980s for an analogy when we see a good play.
In the third quarter, I looked out over new but non-descript Cleveland Browns stadium. My position in the press box was enough, upon reflection, to realize how 1995 turned my life upside down. But the half-empty stadium I saw showed how life has changed for everyone associated with Cleveland Browns football, and perhaps not for the better.
On that November morning ten years ago today, Art Modell set in motion a series of events that still resonate each Fall and Winter weekend.
Art Modell was a failure. He was a washed-up old man who had managed to create a financial black hole while even in total control of a local monopoly. On that Fall day in 1995, he got more money than most of us will ever contemplate. But he failed in the goal that he most wanted to achieve, passing the team along to his son.
Browns fans got the expansion team we wanted to fill the empty void left behind when he conspired in secret with the City of Baltimore to take our team away.
We know now that we wound up with a new stadium which has never duplicated the atmosphere of the old place. We have a stadium where the well-to-do fans in special sections bolt to an indoor lounge when the rain starts to fall. We wound up with seven years of bad football, with the team once again rebuilding for the future.
There were winners, though. The betrayal of Cleveland Browns fans created unprecedented opportunity for the National Football League, and the league pursued that opportunity with a greed-fueled fervor that put the California Gold Rush of 1849 to shame.
With no new team on the way unless a stadium was built, the NFL managed to get the city of Cleveland to shell out hundreds of millions for a new Stadium in record time. Voters agreed to hand over tax money to the city to build a Stadium, which was then handed over to the new owner.
With their lust for money not yet sated, the NFL waited until the absolute last second to declare a new ownership team for the Browns. Owners like Cincinnati's Mike Brown were able to use the emptiness of Cleveland as a way to blackmail hundreds of millions from their local communities in the form of new ballparks.
Then, the league was able to pull untold sums from the Lerner family to return football to Cleveland (and erase their embarrassment at helping Modell) via blind auction.
Billions of dollars wound up leaving the hands of private citizens and going into the hands of the NFL.
The cynics know who won that battle in 1995. Paul Tagliabue did. And Jerry Jones. And Al Davis. And Bud Bidwell. And the rest of the Rich Owner's Club.
Mike White won too. Remember him? He was Cleveland's mayor at the time, who put himself out front of the crisis like the canny politician he is. He won re-election because of his role, which had him shouting frequently over the radio airwaves in an oft-replayed clip "It's not over! It's not over!".
White is gone from the Mayor's office. Art Modell long ago lost his team.
But it's still not over. The NFL is rich, but we can win the battle of 1995 yet.
It's not over because we're still here. You, me, Sam, Joe, and everyone else. If you weren't there with us in 1995, you've joined us since.
It's not over because I can still look out onto this field and see Reuben Droughns running like he is Mike Pruitt, like something out of our past. Droughns ran today like the Browns of old - that history we fought so hard for - coming back to life. That's our history. Granted the team has not lived up to it yet, but when they do, it will be ours.
It's not over because, when that torrential rain came down in Cleveland Browns Stadium today, no roof closed over the field. There was no coddling cover to protect the financial elite. Many fans stayed right there, basking in the downpour and loving every minute, like the Browns fans of old. Yes, the new place doesn't feel like the old place, but one of these days it will. When it does, it will be ours.
It's not over because I look out of this press box and I can see the images of Frank Gatski, Paul Brown, and Dante Lavelli, three individuals who epitomize this no-nonsense community and the style of football we love. Someday, there will players and coaches who might come close to the legacy they established, and we kept in their name.
In the fourth quarter, the Browns ran a reverse to Dennis Northcutt, and out there in front to block was Trent Dilfer. The oft-criticized quarterback from out of town threw himself out into the play in a way that matched this blue-collar town, a place where no one is too important to work. For a moment, this team, itself, was ours.
Let the sneering skeptics tell you how the fans were taken advantage of. Of course we were… we had no choice but to make a deal with the NFL corporate monster.
But it's still not over.
Stay with us. Don't give up. Eventually, Cleveland will be back on top. Eventually, we'll be able to have more than brief reminders of the past.
When it happens, when there are more games, victories, and cheers like today, everyone will know. The NFL's bag of silver will have been spent, Art Modell will be gone - but we'll still be here, and the future will blend with the past.
Our history. Our past.