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Reality Check In Cleveland: A Season Without The Browns

August 14, 1996

CLEVELAND (AP) _ It’s as if all the memories are still trapped inside Cleveland Stadium, in there with the red and yellow seats that seem to rise a mile high. Some are written on its faded brick walls, like ``Shawn was here: Oct. 4, 1992,″ or the note smeared on a dirty window by some wise-guy Pittsburgh fan: ``Steelers rule.″

It’s all still there on the banks of Lake Erie, everything except the cheers. And, oh yes _ the football team.

It’s been obvious for quite a while there will be no pro football in Cleveland this fall. Now that the NFL season is almost here, the hard reality is setting in.

``Probably the strangest thing is going to be watching a football game where you don’t have that intensity,″ said John ``Big Dawg″ Thompson, leader of the famous dog-mask-wearing Browns fans who populated the Dawg Pound. ``The intensity will be totally drained out of it. It’s going to be strange.″

The very thought of one of the NFL’s most loyal cities being without a team is strange indeed. The Baltimore Ravens, who used to be the Browns, already are playing exhibition games and open the regular season on Sept. 1. There will be no players in orange helmets, no Dawg Pound in the bleachers on that day.

A farewell celebration will be held Sept. 21 at Cleveland Stadium, which sits alone and empty and abandoned on the lake. The wrecking ball is supposed to start swinging in November, with construction on the new stadium beginning in the spring or summer of 1997.

``Depressing″ was how 27-year-old Cris Nahra of Cleveland described the town without the Browns.

``Everyone won’t have anything to do on Sunday afternoons,″ she said. ``It was the only way we could get the guys to take us out.″

Nahra was having lunch one summer day at Cleveland’s new downtown mall called the Galleria, around the corner and up the street from Cleveland Stadium.

The mall is new and trendy, sleek and attractive, a stunning contrast to the steel and brick monstrosity known as ``The Mistake By The Lake.″

Within sight of the football stadium is the new Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. There’s a new museum called the Great Lakes Science Center. About 10 blocks across town is Jacobs Field, where every Indians baseball game has sold out since the park opened two years ago.

And right next door is Gund Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers and site of the 1997 NBA All-Star Game.

It all symbolizes the revitalization of an American city, one that was tired of being a joke. But the empty stadium and parking lots filled with tourists’ cars represent the sad irony in the story: The one thing that had always held Cleveland together is gone.

``It’s still one of America’s great cities,″ said Bill Futterer, president of the Cleveland Browns Trust, which is in charge of bringing a team back to the city. ``It has some of the greatest sports fans in the world.″

The NFL has promised to restore football in Cleveland by 1999. It’s Futterer’s job to talk about that team and the future. He’d rather not get into a debate about Art Modell, the owner who moved the Browns to Baltimore, or lament fall Sundays in Cleveland without football.

``I think it’s time for all of us to look at the future,″ Futterer said. ``I simply have too many things to address in the future that leave me no time to deal with the past.″

A lot of fans are following his lead, finding ways to stay busy. Thompson, the Big Dawg, is one of them.

``The way I look at it, the sooner the new team comes, the better off we’ll be,″ said Thompson, who is coaching a Little League team instead of following the preseason NFL camps.

Other fans are finding diversions, too.

``It’s called fantasy football,″ said Jay Conrad of Cleveland, waving a magazine that outlines how to pick a winning team of pros and beat the competition in statistical categories.

Some say they’ll root for real NFL teams.

``The Green Bay Packers,″ said Conrad’s friend, Joel Carver. ``We’ve all kind of adopted ’em, probably because they’re the only team that’s owned by a city and won’t move from that city.″

Thompson and his Dawg Pound have taken a liking to the Buffalo Bills, who will welcome Browns fans to Rich Stadium on Nov. 17 for a game with Cincinnati. There will also be a flag football game between former Browns and former Steelers on Oct. 27 in Cleveland.

And Browns fans are actually talking about the possibility of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moving to Cleveland _ even as soon as next season. On Sept. 3, Tampa voters will be asked to approve a tax increase partly to fund a new stadium.

``We could see the orange helmets back on the field next year,″ Thompson said, noting that Ohio Stadium in Columbus would be available if a team arrives before 1999.

Futterer’s response? Not so fast, Big Dawg.

``The stadium cannot be completed prior to the 1999 season. It’s a physical impossibility,″ Futterer said. ``So I think anything that deals with any scenario other than the Browns playing in 1999 is highly speculative and has no foundation.″

But at some point in the future, Cleveland and football will start over.

``Everybody wants to prove to Art Modell that he made the biggest mistake of his life,″ Thompson said. ``We want to see him suffer. We want him to see that we’ve got something better than he ever had and say, `I can’t believe I walked away from that.′ ″

End advance for Aug. 17-18

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