Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.
What he remembers are the sounds, like the din of a construction site: The hammering, the sawing, the bleacher seats and the fixtures being wrenched from their moorings. What he remembers is that someone handed him a saw and that he used it detach his own seat from its base. What he remembers is how he sat there long after the game had ended, unable to move, listening to the noises of a stadium being torn apart as he watched Art's wife break into tears.
He wasn't really named Art, but everyone in the Dawg Pound had a nickname back then, and this guy just happened to resemble the owner of the Cleveland Browns. It was a name bestowed on him long before the real Art Modell became a supervillain in Cleveland, long before he wrenched away the team that had belonged to this city for generations. But now it was December 17, 1995, and Ralph Giffels had been a Browns season-ticket holder for 10 years, and Art had become too ill to attend the games, including this, the last home game at that rickety old football stadium on the lakefront. And Giffels will never forget the sight of Art's wife, a woman in her 70's, a woman he had come to know through the communion of football, fighting to hold herself together. That day, 20 years ago this week, Ralph Giffels contends, was the last gasping breath of the authentic Cleveland Browns.
Forty-one days earlier, Modell had made the announcement that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. No one saw it coming. Giffels was standing in a coffee shop that day when he heard the news; before he could steel himself, he felt tears running down his face. He was a younger man then, unmarried and without kids, and as it had for many others, the Dawg Pound—the section of end-zone bleacher seats in Municipal Stadium that had organically blossomed into the place where hardcore Browns fans congregated for eight home games each year—had become a second home for him. Once, he had seen a few lunatics use a rope to hoist a case of beer from the parking lot over the stadium wall and into the Dawg Pound. Those people were his friends, even if he didn't know their real names.
"That place was a pit," Giffels says, "but everything about it was magical."
The shock and anger in Northeast Ohio became a living, breathing entity that fall. No one knew what to do with themselves. No one knew when football might return to Cleveland, or if it ever would, and so the final game at Municipal Stadium took on a funereal tint. Tickets were stamped instead of torn, and programs sold out before the game began. In the parking lot, people hung Modell replicas in effigy. All the advertising had been removed, so other than handmade bedsheet signs and a couple of cynical team-erected thank-yous to Modell, the stadium was naked. The week before, Giffels' friend Joe had ripped out his seat and taken it home with him; for that final game, his seat was a cavern. "There was definitely a hole there," Giffels says.
The Browns, weighed down by the heaviness of what was happening around them, had lost six in a row and were 4-10 coming in, but they beat the Bengals that day, 26-10. From the Dawg Pound, a few fans threw firecrackers and cherry bombs, and others hurled some bleacher seats onto the field, enough of a nuisance that the officials switched end zones when the Browns were driving toward the Dawg Pound on their final drive.
"Security said it was getting too dangerous," quarterback Vinny Testaverde joked afterward, "but I didn't really notice anything except for a few explosions."
Sometimes Giffels hears the national media talk about the old Browns, and what he hears is people like them telling people like him to get over it already. He hears them say that the Browns are still Cleveland, and if the new Browns ever overcome their perpetual awfulness, the city will embrace them once more. And maybe that's true to an extent. But it's never been the same to him, just as it's never been the same to a lot of people who came of age clinging to the idea that the Browns were a mom-and-pop franchise, the hallmark of an industrial city that would never fully give in to the overt commercialism of professional football. Modell's decision altered the city forever. Giffels had season tickets in the new stadium for the first couple of years, but by then his life had changed (he got married and had kids), and the Browns had changed, and the friends he'd once sat with in the Dawg Pound were scattered all around, many of them gone for good.
And so 20 years later, he clings to the memories he has. The seat he sawed out that day hangs on the wall in his basement. And when he thinks of the sounds that day, and when he thinks about Art's wife, he still gets choked up. He wanted to carry everything he could with him out of that stadium; on his way out of the gate that day he separated a turnstile from its base, but it was too heavy to carry to the car. That day, he says, was the last time he ever saw Art's wife. But that day was the last time he ever saw a lot of people, and a lot of things. Most of it, he had no choice but to leave behind.