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Brown Backers Revolt : Modell, NFL Are Targeted by Angry Fans

ASSOCIATED PRESS

An army of angry fans has laid siege to Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell and the National Football League.

They lob faxes over the ramparts of the NFL offices, bombard team owners with angry telephone calls and letters, and pour a stream of boiling invective from television, radio and the newspapers onto the shell-shocked survivors.

The Browns Backers, a nationwide network of more than 300 fan clubs dedicated to one of the league’s oldest and proudest franchises, is fighting furiously to block Modell’s plan to move the team to Baltimore next year.

These hard-core, hard-nosed football fans are the shock troops in Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White’s three-pronged offensive: fighting the move through the legal system, fighting in front of the NFL owners, and fighting in the court of public opinion.

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“What the Browns Backers and the Save Our Browns campaign has started is a tsunami that is working its way across this country,” says Bob Grace, a founder of the Browns Backers who is marshaling the troops for White.

“Everybody, in the last five or six years, has gotten totally frustrated with professional athletics and professional teams -- with the strikes and the way that fans have been treated, with the ignorant manner in which owners such as Art Modell have run the teams,” Grace said. “We would be remiss if we didn’t take advantage of this and try to get people motivated.”

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Bob Grace is a big guy.

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A barrel-chested, 47-year-old marine engineer, Grace played football for Ohio State, briefly, and later for the Navy.

He even tried out for the Browns, in 1978. Unfortunately, he says, he was going for the same position played by the Browns’ top draft choice that year: linebacker Clay Matthews.

“It was a very short career, if I could call it a career,” Grace said. “More like a short tryout.”

His love for the game remained. In 1984, Grace says, a chance conversation with a Browns public relations official led to the founding of the Browns Backers, a club for what Grace describes as the “beer and bologna crowd” -- the folks who can’t afford the pricier, tonier Touchdown Club.

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In other words, about 95 percent of the football fans in this gritty Lake Erie city.

Within a few years, Grace said, there were Browns Backers chapters all over the country. To date, the club has registered about 45,000 members, he said.

“I haven’t talked to anybody in the Browns Backers who in some way hasn’t had a family connection,” Grace said. “There are people who were born and raised in southern California, but their parents were Browns fans -- when the games were on they tuned them in, they subscribed to certain newspapers. I really don’t know what to tell you other than the fact that this is something that’s in our blood.”

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When Art Modell announced Nov. 6 what most Browns fans already knew and feared -- that he had signed a 30-year deal with Baltimore -- that Brown-tinged blood was boiling.

The deal was announced on the eve of a countywide referendum on extending a “sin tax” on alcohol and tobacco products for an extra 10 years to help pay for a renovation of aging Cleveland Stadium.

The sin tax extension passed, with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Thirty-six hours later, White was back in the “sin tax” campaign headquarters, launching what would become the Save Our Browns campaign. On his left was Bob Grace.

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A few days later, when White kicked off a petition drive aimed at gathering millions of signatures from unhappy fans, Grace was there.

At a news conference urging fans to turn out for home games despite their loathing for Modell, there was Grace.

When the Browns Backers rode an 18-bus caravan to the Nov. 13 Monday Night Football game with Browns arch-rival Pittsburgh, Grace led the pack.

White promises a campaign that is at least as strong on Super Bowl Sunday as it is now.

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“We have to stay in their face. We have to create such a hullabaloo over the next 60 days that we can’t be ignored,” White said. “That’s why Bob Grace, with his Browns Backers in all of these cities, is so important.”

The Browns Backers’ secret weapon against the NFL may be the NFL itself. The outcry is fueled by people’s disgust with the role of money in modern sports, Ohio Gov. George Voinovich said.

“They’re getting, like, up to here with it,” said Voinovich, marking a spot just south of his chin. “Who do these guys, these owners and players, think they are? We’re the fans. We pay the money. We’re the ones that watch.”

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Not everyone is convinced that the battle can be won. Leo Rosen, 51, of Alliance, came to last week’s Green Bay game but says all the tough talk is hype.

“I’m here because I like football, not necessarily because I like the Browns,” he said. “I’m close enough to Ohio State and Pittsburgh that it’s about the same drive for me, so I’ll go there to watch games.”

Another fan, 68-year-old Frank Restifo of Maple Heights, says the city’s best chance has been lost.

“The shame of it is, I don’t think I’ll see an NFL team back in Cleveland in my lifetime,” he said.

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Grace remains confident of victory. His troops are keeping up the pressure on the league while the city’s lawyers threaten Modell from behind.

“At this point the attorneys absolutely feel that what Art Modell has done with the lease is indefensible,” Grace said. “How he could think he could get away with it is beyond them.”


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