Every generation has a few events that truly stand out. Pearl Harbor. The Kennedy assassinations. Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. Watergate. The Challenger explosion. 9/11. We all remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news, and we remember them clearly.
For Browns fans, one of those days was Monday, November 6, 1995. The day Art Modell announced that that he was moving his team to Baltimore.
Actually, it started a few days before. At the time, I was very active on the Browns bulletin board on the (now defunct) Prodigy network, and that's where I first heard the rumors the previous Friday, November 3. The national media started picking up the story on Saturday. On Sunday, during the pregame show, NBC reporter Will McDonough said, "It's a done deal. The Browns are moving to Baltimore."
A friend and I were running a small Browns Backers club - the North Georgia Browns Backers - back in those days. About 50 of us sat absolutely dumbstruck at hearing this news. I can't recall a more subdued group of Browns fans, before or since.
On Monday, I watched the ceremony from Baltimore in stunned silence. I listened to Governor Paris Glendenning gloat about the clandestine meetings with Modell and his representatives. I watched as Modell took the podium and declared that he "had no choice" but to move the team. And I was absolutely sick to my stomach. The Great Betrayal had indeed occurred.
How could he do such a thing? How could he turn his back on the city? How could he slap the faithful fans in the face? Quite a few words come to mind when I think of Art Modell. Greed, incompetence, betrayal, disloyal, fool - they all fit. But the strongest word that comes to mind is "traitor". The man betrayed the legions of fans, who put over 70,000 butts in the seats of that old stadium every week. Simply put, he betrayed me.
We can argue all day long about who was at fault. Who was responsible for this travesty? Was it Modell, the City of Cleveland, the NFL? There's enough blame to go around. Yes, the Browns stadium issues were the last on the list for Cleveland. Jacobs Field, Gund Arena, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came before him. Modell told Cleveland what he wanted - a major renovation of the old stadium - and Cleveland had the funding on the ballot - ironically, the day after Modell announced the move. It passed by a landslide, proving that the fans still loved their team.
The events of the next several months are well documented. The City of Cleveland, led by Mayor Michael White and countless fans across the country, successfully lobbied the NFL, and we got our team back. I was proud to take part in the "Save Our Browns" effort, including a big rally at the NFL owners' meeting here in Atlanta. I've been a fan since 1968, and I wasn't going down without a fight.
Neither were all the other Browns fans out there. We got our team back. Sure we had to wait 3 years, but we had our team. It was unprecedented, and it's not likely to happen again. (Sorry, New Orleans.) During all of these efforts, I had the pleasure of getting to know many of you, even though we've never met in person. (That's one of the cool things about being a Browns fan, by the way. I can find like-minded people almost anywhere I go!)
But who really won the war? Us, the fans? I don't think so. The NFL pocketed $500,000,000 (that's half a billion dollars) when Al Lerner bought the new franchise. The TV networks got one of their biggest markets back. NFL Properties got tons of royalties from Browns merchandise.
The day Modell announced the new name of his team, I was in Baltimore for a conference at a hotel on the Inner Harbor. The big pep rally (which wasn't very big) was right across the street, so I decided to attend. I stood there in my suit and tie, and heckled Modell as loud as I could, until one of Baltimore's finest suggested that I stop. It had absolutely no effect on the proceedings, but I'm sure Modell looked my way at one point, so I felt better.
But I still didn't have my football team. Not yet, anyway. And Baltimore had the Flying Rats. That just wasn't right.
A lot has happened in the ten years since The Great Betrayal. Here are my thoughts on the past ten years in the life of this Browns fan.
Ten years ago, we witnessed The Great Betrayal. It looked like the end of Cleveland Browns football. Ten years later, we have our team back, though it's not the kind of team we'd all like to see. We've seen complete turnover in ownership, front office leadership, three head coaches in 7 years, and a revolving door on the locker room. It hasn't been an easy road.
Ten years later, we all hope the leadership team of Randy Lerner, John Collins, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel will deliver championship level football to Cleveland once again. In sports, winning heals a great many wounds. And once we're a winning team again, the memories of The Great Betrayal will fade even further into the backdrop of Cleveland Browns history.