The last game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was December 17, 1995, and the old stadium, an ancient behemoth that fit 80,000 fans inside of its rusty steel and concrete frame, was completely sold out.
Modell had just sold the team to Baltimore. A shiny new stadium was in the works, but Baltimore already had one. So there we were, saying goodbye to our team on a frozen Sunday afternoon, trying to remember what our hands felt like.
The loss cut deep. In spite of our willingness, year after year, to brave subfreezing temperatures while getting pounded by lake effect and cheap beer in the stands, our team was gone. For years, the Browns had choked and fumbled in crucial moments. Then we’d spend the off-season waxing nostalgic about lost glory. Now a few hours of game time lay ahead, and it would be over.
My dad and I drove downtown from my family’s home in Cleveland Heights. We parked the car and walked down Superior Avenue past the encampments of homeless men wrapped in blankets, huddled over steam grates. I was home on college break, and like most young men and their dads, we didn’t talk about much. Football gave us a reason to hang out, and something to banter about.
“Who do you think it’ll be?” I asked.
“We’re pretty evenly matched,” he said. “We’ve got a decent team this year, but morale is low – we’ve been losing ever since Modell decided to move the team.”
“How’s Testaverde doing?”
“Better. I miss Bernie, though.”
And we hustled towards the stadium with the crowd.
Sunday is my dad’s only day off. My grandfather grew up on East 80th off of Cedar Avenue, a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland. He rebuilt the family company, which made photo albums and photo mounts, after the Depression nearly wiped it out. He became successful and moved out of the city, but my family never forgot that our good fortunes rested on a foundation of hard work, sacrifice and luck. My dad worked a lot – it was part of the reason we didn’t spend much time together. Sunday was a day of rest with two sacred rituals: church and football. My dad and I went to a lot of games at the old stadium. The funny thing about this is that I don’t like football.