THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : Tagliabue Has to Block This

The elderly man rose from his seat in the south end of Cleveland Stadium and walked slowly to the north end, to the 10th row, to a factory worker named Vince Erwin.

The Cleveland Browns’ game had ended Sunday afternoon, but Erwin was still wearing a dog mask, the one he has worn at every home game for the last 10 years.

The older man walked up, grabbed his hand, and shook it.

“I never seen this guy in my life,” Erwin said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”


Thank you, said the stranger.

For what? asked Erwin.

For being there, said the stranger. For showing the world how much we love this football team.

It was then that Erwin noticed the man was crying.

Erwin looked away in embarrassment before realizing that darn near everybody in that infamously tough, rude, crude “Dawg Pound” section was crying.

“You wonder, we wonder, isn’t there anybody out there who can step in and say, ‘You cannot move the Cleveland Browns?’ " said Irwin.

There is. He works at 410 Park Avenue in New York, far from the Dawg Pound, far from the passion that has made this league so great.

You wonder, we wonder, if NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is listening.

If Tagliabue can stop suing everyone from team owners to bar owners long enough to realize that the integrity of his league is crumbling around him.

You wonder, we wonder, if anybody up there in the NFL office has the courage to stare into that sick grin of Brown owner Art Modell and say, “Enough.”

If anybody will shove Modell into a corner and slap his hands on the wall above Modell’s head and say, “We will not schedule the Baltimore Browns. You leave Cleveland, you leave the NFL.”

When two poorly supported teams climbed over our back-yard fence this spring, the NFL lost a couple of pieces of jewelry. Pretty, fashionable, but not altogether necessary.

If a team leaves Cleveland, the league loses its heart.

It loses a stadium that has attracted an average of more than 69,000 fans to each home game in each of the last seven years. Only three times during those seven years has the team had a winning record.

It loses one of football’s best rivalries, the Browns versus the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It loses football’s best rooting section, the renowned Dawg Pound.

“The Cleveland fans have been through a lot of tough years, yet they’ve always been there,” said Bernie Kosar, former Brown quarterback. “In the whole northeastern area [of Ohio], the Browns are like a way of life. This would be so bad.”

It also loses a city where you figured pro football would survive if it was killed everywhere else.

One team left, they would put it in Cleveland, where snow and mud still look good on players, where losing teams are never allowed to simply walk away, where men like Vince Erwin built their lives around the Browns.

For the last decade, on Sundays when the Browns played at home, Erwin, 36, has shown up at the salt factory at 4 a.m.

He worked until 10, drove to the game, then returned afterward to finish his shift.

Erwin was one of, oh, about 10,000 fans who did pretty much the same thing.

“It’s funny here, but during the first preseason game every year, it was like no fans would be watching the game,” he said. “We would all be too busy catching up on each others’ lives after not being together all summer. The fans here are like a family.”

Even under the NFL’s poorly written and ambiguous guidelines, the Rams and Raiders qualified to move.

The Browns do not, and will not, ever.

Art Modell, the man who brought the world Bill Belichick, the man who masterminded the recent benching of Vinny Testaverde for a kid who couldn’t start for any of 25 other teams, says he needs more cash.

Because he blew a bunch of money on dog free agents like Andre Rison, that’s why.

He says he needs more luxury boxes to sell, because those unshared revenues are the only way today’s owners can get ahead.

Yet he had an opportunity to improve his situation when the two new facilities were built in Cleveland, and declined. He chose to sit on his hands and wait for the league’s yearly revenue-sharing check.

Tagliabue must pause in his support of Modell’s revenue position to think a second about elderly men who walk the length of a stadium just to say goodby.

He must use his phalanx of lawyers to convince a judge that his teams are no longer just businesses, but public trusts.

He must keep the Browns in Cleveland. Forget labor peace, forget record television dollars, Tagliabue’s legacy as commissioner depends on it.

As does the future of football in Los Angeles.

Our civic leaders do not want carpetbaggers like Modell to fill our void. Yet if he is allowed to blatantly ignore the rules, then Ken Behring of the Seattle Seahawks will be in Anaheim by the end of the year.

Which would be nice, except this town will never support him, or his kind.

Expansion teams work. Expansion teams can win. Just ask the San Francisco 49ers.

Before the Browns’ departure, this area was set to get one of them. Now, we may get somebody who smells like Art Modell, somebody whose luggage is loaded with heartbreak.

Perish the thought.