BEREA - As the Browns walked about the locker room to prepare for practice Thursday, the sense of loss was everywhere.
Al Lerner was not only the team owner, he was a friend to some players. To them, the death of Lerner Wednesday was like losing a teammate.
Cornerback Corey Fuller has many fond memories of Lerner. One came when Lerner asked him to give a speech to MBNA employees at a company resort in Maine. Lerner was chairman and chief executive officer of MBNA, the largest independent bank lender through credit cards in the United States.
"They had 650 top executives there, and their families," said Fuller, who has been with the team since its return to the NFL in 1999. "He said to speak to these people about teamwork, but most of all tell them where you come from. How can I talk to the top executives of MBNA about teamwork when they make billions of dollars?
"I did exactly what they asked me to do. I told my story and where I come from and what it takes to be a team. Ever since that day I spoke, we basically fell in love with each other. I really found out how much he cared about me, and how much he truly loved me. He said it to me so many times."
Fuller and linebacker Jamir Miller were two of the closet players to Lerner. Like Fuller, Miller signed with the Browns as a free agent prior to the 1999 season.
Miller recalls the day last December when he learned that he had been selected to the AFC's roster for the Pro Bowl. The news came on a phone call from Lerner.
"I was in the training room, and he was on telephone. I said, 'Hello, Mr. Lerner, how are you doing?' He said, 'I'm doing real good.' I said, 'Why is that?' He said, 'Don't you know that you made the Pro Bowl?'
"For him to take that kind of interest in me really made me feel good," added Miller, who tore an Achilles' tendon in the first preseason game this year. "When I was injured, he was one of the first persons I spoke to. He was truly a great man, and he'll be missed."
Eleven players on the current roster were with the Browns at some point during the 1999 season, including quarterback Tim Couch. Couch remembers Lerner as being like one of the guys.
"I think the reason why everyone respected him so much is because outside of the money, he was just a normal guy," Couch said. "You could talk to him, and he was a lot of fun to be around. He was a classy guy that everyone wanted to be around and looked to follow."
NOTHING DRAMATIC: The Browns' future won't undergo a dramatic change. Carmen Policy, president and chief executive officer, expects a smooth transition of ownership from Lerner to his heirs. Lerner established a trust that ensures the team would remain in the family. His 40-year-old son, Randy, will operate it.
"The way the team is presently constituted from an ownership standpoint allows it to have continuity and is totally within the grasp of the immediate Lerner family, with the exception of my small percentage," said Policy, who has 10 percent ownership. "From a financial standpoint, I would dare say that there isn't a team in the league that is better situated financially than we are in terms of lack of debt and in terms of the planning he (Lerner) implemented to take care of the Browns, not only for the immediate, but the long-term future."
A bigger question involves how the transition of ownership will affect the team's competitive future. Randy is expected to step into his father's role as chairman and will be responsible for all major decisions. Policy will retain his role as president.
"Randy is a fan," Policy said. "He grew up wearing Cleveland Browns pajamas, bed sheets and pillowcases. His room was a shrine to the Cleveland Browns.
"I think he will be more passionate than his dad, who didn't display a whole lot of passion very often," Policy said. "On the business side, I think you'll see Randy stepping into the shoes of his father and handling things much the way his father did."
WHAT'S NEXT?: What the transition of ownership means for Policy remains to be seen.
Policy's immediate goal will be to make sure the transition to Randy is handled smoothly. He paused briefly when asked if he views his role in a different manner now that Al has passed away.
"If Al Lerner lived to be 100 and still owned the team, and I was still living when he turned 100, I would probably be here if Al wanted me here," Policy said. "It's something I haven't thought of in terms of long term.
"What I have to do is get a job done. What I have to do is make sure the Lerner family investment, and the Lerner family franchise, is in good shape and well run. That I promise I shall do. I plan on doing that without any view towards some termination date."