Well, it's right. That's what is so vexing about Modell's decision to forsake the city. In any number of ways Cleveland is better than it has ever been, and this has much to do with professional sports. The Indians, who won the American League pennant this fall after 41 years of futility, play in jam-packed Jacobs Field, across from the Cavaliers' glittering Gund Arena. "They've taken a Rust Belt city from the outhouse to the penthouse," says Lavelli. "And the Browns in a renovated Cleveland Stadium would have added to that glory."
In fact, rusting, 64-year-old Cleveland Stadium looks even more abject now that it slouches next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum—a grand glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei that since its opening on Sept. 1 has hosted 2,000 visitors a day, seven days a week, all year long. And yet, says Ken Johnston of Toledo, while visiting the hall last week, "I'd rather have the Browns than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
And who in northern Ohio would disagree? Jim Brown vs. James Brown? It's no contest, as Mayor White is well aware. And that visibly angers him. How could it fail to? The war in Bosnia was resolved last week at an Air Force base in Ohio, for god's sake, and still all conversation around Cleveland circled back to the Browns. So White devotes virtually all of his hours to the Browns.
With nearly $1 billion in new developments downtown and the Browns' having been promised a rent-free future at Cleveland Stadium, it is not so much an economic loss that the mayor mourns but an emotional one. "This community has been wronged," says White. "We've loved this franchise for 50 years. These fans are the most loyal of the most loyal of the NFL. And what they got for 50 years of loyalty was a kick in the teeth."
It is on that apt note—a kick in the teeth—that we come to one of the toughest s.o.b.'s ever to play pro football. If anyone can offer a sober assessment of this mess, it is Lou (the Toe) Groza. This is one grown man who does not cry.
He was raised above his father's saloon, across the street from a steel mill in Martins Ferry, Ohio. In the early summer of 1945, the Toe was on Okinawa, steeling himself to storm the Japanese mainland, when he read in his Army division's newsletter that a new pro football league, the All-America Football Conference, was being formed. Soon after, he received a contract from Paul Brown, the coach and general manager of the Cleveland franchise. Again: This was on Okinawa, during the war. And though he was not yet 21—the deal would not be legally binding—Groza signed to become an original Cleveland Brown. On one condition: that he return to the States alive.
It is an absurd story, no less so for being true, but Groza made it back and became a Hall of Fame offensive tackle and placekicker whose field goal in 1950 won the championship of the NFL in the Browns' first season as a member of that league. Now over lunch in the Cleveland suburb of Berea, five minutes from the Browns' headquarters, he stares down the broad avenue of this century and places this impending move in perspective.
"You look back on your life," says the Toe, "and where you came from and all that has happened since, and I suppose that something like this...well, it becomes just another incident in a lifetime." He is reflecting over a Reuben sandwich, trying to make sense of it all.
An hour later he is home, surrounded by mementos of his career, and it emerges that the looming demise of the Cleveland Browns is more than just another incident in Lou Groza's lifetime. Of course it is.
"Our first home game was against the Miami Seahawks," Groza recalls, gazing out on his backyard. "It was an exciting time, right after the war. The last time I had played football was in a freshman game at Ohio State in front of maybe 500 people. I never played in a varsity football game. So to come down that tunnel at the Stadium and to run out of the dugout and have 60,000 people cheering...." He smiles at the memory. "God, it made you feel about this small." Two thick fingers are held an inch apart. "It was thrilling," says the Toe. "And the crowds have been like that for 50 years."