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Issue Date: September 2009


Fade Route

Forty-five years ago, the Cleveland Browns won the city’s last major professional sports championship.
Michael D. Roberts
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com
The fall doesn’t seem as radiant and expectant here as it once did. It could be my age or the economy. It’s certainly not the sky, which is as crisp as a Rembrandt this time of year. I suspect that elusive ingredient is the loss of faith in a football team to call your own.

I grew up on winning Cleveland Browns football. It left an indelible memory.

Forty-five years ago, I took the photograph on page 24, a memento of Cleveland’s last glorious sports moment. I shot it from the stands with a 400mm lens. You can see the dim light of the afternoon in the grayness of the shot.

Every time the media cites the occasion, I think of the light that day at the former Municipal Stadium, when the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts 27-0 to win the city’s last major professional sports championship.

The photo shows Baltimore’s Hall of Fame quarterback, Johnny Unitas, about to throw a pass as surging Browns defenders rush him. The Browns chased Unitas all afternoon, dispatching the highly favored Colts in a game that proved almost anticlimactic.

The light wasn’t the only thing fading on that long-ago December day. The Cleveland franchise was losing its status as professional football’s equivalent of the New York Yankees, a reputation it had gained from its parade of championships and understated white uniforms.

The old Browns reflected the town and the era. They debuted in 1946 with a disciplined work ethic and a clean appearance, a sure attraction for a blue-collar town fresh off a war.

For more than 15 seasons, the team either won or contended for the championship. Fans accepted the victories and the seemingly endless supply of star players as gifts from Providence. The team generated exhilarating civic pride. In many ways, the Browns were Cleveland’s soul, an everyman’s proxy that could stand up to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

By 1964, two factors had dimmed the Browns’ achievements. The wide-open game of the American Football League, established in 1960, was attracting attention and dulling the NFL’s image.

Also, Cleveland fans viewed owner Art Modell with suspicion. Modell had bought the team in 1961 and fired legendary coach Paul Brown two seasons later.

John Minco, an advertising executive with the Browns in those days, remembers the front-office tension between the two men. The coach had led the Browns since their founding and had enjoyed free rein. Modell wanted the team to be in his image.

“Art would schedule a meeting with Brown, and then Paul would ignore him,” Minco recalled. “It was obvious that this was not going to work.”

Players were challenging the coach’s stern methods. Jim Brown, the team’s star running back, was said to be lobbying for the coach’s removal.

Modell took advantage of a lengthy newspaper strike to fire Brown, replacing him with longtime assistant coach Blanton Collier. It was Collier who led the Browns into the ’64 championship game, but 25 of the 42 players were Brown’s picks.

The championship game was not a sellout, though 79,554 attended, and thus was blacked out on local television. Some Clevelanders traveled as far as Toledo to watch it. I paid $10 each for fairly good tickets. The temperature that day was in the 30s with a 20-mph wind coming off Lake Erie. I’d see worse in that stadium.

In those days, Municipal Stadium was filled with men dressed in coats and ties and women in fall dresses, usually arriving directly from church. Most were polite and sober. The grotesque Dawg Pound was still years away. Everything about the game was simpler — including the concessions, which featured anemic hot dogs.

You knew the players; free agency had yet to make chaos of the league. Though enormously popular, they did not hold celebrity status. They worked off-season jobs and rarely appeared on police blotters.

The Browns were underdogs to the powerful Colts, and some of us braced for a loss. But Cleveland installed a complicated pass offense, while Baltimore focused on Jim Brown.

I have never seen a player as fearfully explosive as Brown. Whether he carried the ball or not, his presence caused a crippling hesitation in the defense.

The game was a rout. Wide receiver Gary Collins caught three touchdown passes as quarterback Frank Ryan, a Ph.D. student in mathematics with no prior arrests, picked apart the Colts defense. I remember a defensive back, No. 40, slipped on the infield skin. Collins took a pass over his shoulder and was gone.

The town celebrated, falsely predicting another dynasty.

Despite the victory, Cleveland remained wary of Modell, his firing of Brown unforgiven. I spent much of the summer of 1966 with Modell, researching a lengthy profile forThe Plain Dealer.

That anxious summer, Jim Brown was in Hollywood making a movie. Speculation was mounting that he might retire, and the uncertainty was affecting ticket sales. I was in Modell’s office the day a Hollywood film executive called. He told Modell that the movie would not be finished in time for his star to play that fall. I don’t remember exactly what Modell said, but his face was flushed with anger.

After 1964, Modell didn’t have much luck here. His stewardship was fickle and controversial. He never found a coach of Paul Brown’s caliber — partially because he did not want to contend with a strong figure (a flaw he could never overcome). Free agency did him in: Municipal Stadium couldn’t generate the money to keep up with high-bidding teams, and Modell had to borrow to keep the roster competitive. The Super Bowl eluded him until he moved the team to Baltimore. He became a tragic figure the Greeks might have cast: A likeable man, one of the city’s most ardent supporters, who became the most loathed man in our history.

Since that last championship, Browns fans endured 45 years of disappointments, now expressed in simple phrases: “Red Right 88,” “The Drive,” “The Fumble.” The one that hurts the most, perhaps, is largely unknown: “The Deal.”

This summer, at the funeral for developer Dick Jacobs — who dramatically resurrected the Cleveland Indians — former city council president George Forbes told the story of waking one Sunday morning in 1998 to take a call. It was Jacobs, in Atlanta for the NFL’s meeting to award a new franchise for Cleveland.

“George, I’m going to bid for the new Browns franchise, and I want you to be my partner in the deal,” Jacobs said.

“I told him there was no way, because I didn’t have any money, but he said not to worry,” Forbes recalled. “Can you imagine what the Browns would be like today had he bought them?”

Instead, then-mayor Mike White threw his influence behind the bid of the late credit card magnate Al Lerner, who got the team. The decade since has been the worst era in Cleveland football. The once-great franchise is now a coaching graveyard and a symbol of fan frustration.

My friend Tim Taylor, a lawyer from Westlake, tells me he just got rid of his season tickets. They had been in the family since 1946.

“They gave us the colors,” he said. “But all that glitters is not gold.”

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