Ever look on Heaven's scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines." "> Ever look on Heaven's scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines." ">

Thanks, Al. Semper Fi.

<I>"If the Army and the Navy<BR> Ever look on Heaven's scenes,<BR> They will find the streets are guarded<BR> By United States Marines."</I>

"The Marines have landed, and the situation is well in hand." – Richard Harding Davis, war correspondent (1885)

 

FORT GRATIOT, Mich. – High above the rowdy mob that calls the east end zone of Cleveland Browns Stadium home, a solitary red and gold banner ripples in the unforgiving Lake Erie wind.

 

The banner emblazoned with an eagle, anchor and globe is that of the United States Marine Corps.

 

It's rather appropriate the Marine flag flies over the Dawg Pound because that particular collection of fans is known for being a horde of ruffians allied by a fierce, unwavering loyalty … just like Marines.

 

The flag flies there at the behest of Al Lerner, owner of the Cleveland Browns and a Marine officer from 1955-1957.

 

Lerner, 69, succumbed to brain cancer Wednesday, and the stadium lights will burn a little less brightly from now on.

 

Perhaps as much as owning the Browns or MBNA, the Marine Corps was important to Lerner. He was often seen wearing the old green Marine cap (or cover, as we leathernecks call them) he wore in the service nearly a half-century ago.

 

The Marine ethos installed in the Corps' recruits remained a theme in Lerner's life. He was loyal and smart and played by the rules. He did not seek fame or glory at the expense of others. Truly one of the few and proud.

 

Lerner's lifelong philosophy of "team" versus "I" is evident in a talk he gave to a group of young lieutenants a few years ago.

 

"It is not about you, lieutenants, it is about us. If you think it is about you, you missed the point," he was quoted as saying.

 

He summed it up simply and eloquently for the newly minted leaders: "Officers eat last."

 

The sort of attitude and set of beliefs gives insight into a private man and the values that made him great while his peers, including Art Modell, failed. Selflessness was the hallmark of Lt. Al Lerner.

 

As we take stock of Lerner the man, it's inevitable that his few flaws will be discussed. The most obvious misstep Lerner may have ever taken was the help he lent Modell in 1995. Although Lerner said he never regretted helping his longtime friend move the Cleveland Browns to Maryland, he did say in retrospect he might have done things differently and felt "stupid" about how the pathetic drama played out.

 

There may be more to the story than we will ever know. It's very difficult to believe a man as shrewd enough to becoming the 36th wealthiest individual in the nation could have been so out of touch as to misjudge reaction to Modell's Baltimore scheme.

 

Instead, I prefer to think Lerner took a bullet for the greater good. It's what Marines do. He certainly understood the Browns stood little chance of contending under Modell's ownership. The stadium was a shambles, the relationship with the media and public was a wreck and the team finances were a pile of hash. The product on the field was second-class.

 

The only way to staunch the hemorrhaging was to wrest ownership from Modell. The only way to do that was to get him out of town. Lerner certainly was an NFL insider and his gobs of cash gave him access to the NFL's illuminati even as just a minority owner.

 

Hence, Lerner likely could have known or been assured that an expansion team would come to Cleveland if Modell bolted. The NFL would be rid of its public relations nightmare in Cleveland, fill a market void in Baltimore and get a genuinely good person and proven businessman in Lerner into an ownership role. Al just greased the rails by putting Modell in touch with his Baltimore business associates. He had a battle plan, and executed his maneuvers and tactics flawlessly while under enormous scrutiny and criticism – the sign of a great leader.

 

I think Lerner knew in 1995 he would own the Cleveland Browns and mold them into his image.

 

The NFL is a ruthless business, but loyalty to the game can run high among some owners. Art Rooney of Pittsburgh must have wanted a class opponent in Cleveland. I imagine he couldn't have cared less how a USFL-style team would fare in Baltimore. The league and its owners knew football in Cleveland was the right thing, and they knew Al Lerner was the man to own the Browns. Whether the bumbling Modell swam or sank in Baltimore was of little concern.

 

The differences between Lerner and Modell are legion.

 

When Modell owned the team, the team media guide featured three pages of gushing tribute to the man. Al Lerner was a person who avoided the spotlight, preferring to see the deeds of those around him take the glory. Lerner has just eight paragraphs in the current media guide. He was self-deprecating, but proud.

 

The pride, a genuine pride and not hubris, had its roots in his humble beginnings. The son of immigrants, Lerner lived the Horatio Alger story and became a billionaire through a business savvy that began while he earned $75 a week selling furniture. He turned his business acumen into a vast real estate empire, and later founded MBNA, the world's largest public credit card company.

 

I have a Cleveland Browns MBNA Visa card in my wallet. I got the card because I support the team and I respected Al Lerner. I like to think my meager debt to Lerner's company paid some tiny portion of the $530 million he plunked down for the team and stadium in 1998.

 

Cleveland Browns Stadium, a concrete and glass wonder that doesn't lack for MBNA ads, was Lerner's Camelot, and his knights were men like Carmen Policy, Butch Davis and Tim Couch. Like Arthur's band, Lerner's men were charged with a simple mission: Bring to Camelot the Holy Grail … the Lombardi Trophy. And do it honorably.

Their quest is ours, and was Lerner's. But Al didn't publicly lust after the trophy, unlike his predecessor. Modell thirsted for a Super Bowl not for Cleveland, but for himself and his place in history. His insatiable hunger led to desperate gambles, obscene decisions, immoral dealings and broken hearts. His march to the championship game was on the backs of the fans. There was no honor in it. The grotesque Modell got his victory, but history will not be kind to him. He fell from grace a long time ago.

 

Cleveland is a city only its native sons and daughters could love. Al Lerner was from Brooklyn, but he came to love the town as if he hailed from the North Shore. His philanthropy, such as his gift of $100 million in June to the Cleveland Clinic, just staggers the mind. His charitable deeds are lengthy, including significant financial assistance to the families of a New York City firefighter and police officer killed at the World Trade Center.

 

If Lerner made mistakes in his life, they are truly insignificant to the good he did in the world.

 

He brought back the Cleveland Browns and turned the hollow shell of Modell's mess into a gilded foundation from which glory is surely to soon spring. A team that was a sickly ghost of its former self was resurrected into something more powerful. A city's hopes were reborn along the way.

 

Al Lerner made Cleveland a better place. Few individuals can say that.

 

From the Halls of Montezuma

To the shores of Tripoli,

We will fight out country's battles

In the air, on land and sea.

First to fight for right and freedom

And to keep our honor clean.

We are proud to claim the title

Of United States Marine.

 

Lt. Lerner, you kept your honor clean and your duty is done.

Dismissed.

 

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,

For he today that sheds his blood with me,

Shall be my brother."

– William Shakespeare, Henry V


The OBR Top Stories