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BG Falcon Media

The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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Owner’s death stings city, fans

Al Lerner and Art Modell are forever linked by both commonalities and association. They were both boys from New York City who became self-made millionaires. Business took them both to Cleveland, where they became heavily involved in the community. And they both owned the Browns. One will be reviled in the history books as the man who moved the Browns.

The other some people will continue to try and join at the hip with his friend. He was the facilitator, the man on whose private jet the papers were signed to tear Cleveland’s heart out. The man who sat on the dais in Baltimore on that fateful November day in 1995, mere feet away from the devil himself.

Lerner, who died last week of brain cancer, did support Modell when he decided to move his football team. But neither man could have anticipated the unprecedented backlash from both fans and the business community. Modell has won a Super Bowl in Baltimore, but he lost a lot more in Cleveland, his home for nearly 40 years.

He lost business partnerships, charitable ventures, and many, many friends. Lerner was among them. The chairman of credit card giant MBNA corporation was a minority shareholder in the Browns who had used his assets to bail Modell out of more than one financial jam. But the move was too much.

After the fingers were pointed at Lerner as a Modell conspirator, their friendship crumbled. Lerner sided with Cleveland’s interests the more distant Modell became, and when Lerner tossed his hat in the ring for ownership of the new Browns franchise, Modell tried to rally favor against him. Modell did eventually relent, however, and Lerner got the team.

Lerner’s passing was terrible and saddening for the city of Cleveland, which may be the thing that separates him from Modell the most. Tears were shed by people outside his own family.

Letters of condolences poured in via Internet from all over the area. His many charitable endeavors were celebrated. He wasn’t remembered as Modell’s accomplice. He was remembered as a great man who lived a great life. When Modell dies, it will be hard to picture Cleveland having the same reaction. He threw it all away when he bolted for Baltimore.

To his credit, Lerner showed tremendous backbone when confronted by the media about his role in the move. He never apologized for helping Modell. He said he was helping a friend and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Lerner was never a player in the negotiations with Maryland officials, though. His involvement never went beyond his plane and his moral support.

Lerner exonerated himself by doing things right in his four short years as the team’s majority owner. He soothed the wounds from five years of fighting and bitterness by welcoming back fans, making the return of their beloved team a yearlong celebration. He embraced the Browns’ legacy, making the team’s alumni a more active part of the organization. Players ate first-class meals at camp, stayed in first-class hotels on the road, and had access to services like a on-call tailor.

When Lerner was first diagnosed with brain cancer 18 months ago, perhaps knowing his days were numbered, he began the process of transferring control of the organization to son Randy, who now becomes the team’s majority owner. His last appearance to the team was prior to this season’s opener against Kansas City. The working-class boy who grew up in the kitchen of his family’s luncheonette had been a Marine, a self-made billionaire, an avid philanthropist, a good friend, and an NFL owner. His journey was coming to an end, and he had lots to bestow upon his players. They sat mesmerized at this man, who even at 69, was wise beyond his years.

Alfred Lerner will be remembered most for the last few years of his life, when he was most visible to the public eye. But we should all be so lucky to have a full life as good as Lerner’s, and be able to give of our spoils so freely.

Cleveland lost the owner of its football team last week. But it lost so much more.

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