As the Gulfstream jet lifted off the runway on its secret mission, Cleveland Stadium came briefly into view.
Scattered among the plane's leather-upholstered seats were four men who
knew the stadium better than the masons who built it: Browns owner Art Modell,
his son and two close advisers.
The mood was unusually subdued for this tight-knit group. Even Modell,
ever ready with a quip, was reflective as the plane pierced the overcast,
autumn sky. No one mentioned the stadium below. Modell saw it out of the
window and thought -- correctly -- that he had spent the last of more than 300
It was shortly before dawn on Friday, Oct. 27, and the 70-year-old team
owner had not had a full night's sleep for days. A high school dropout who had
made enough money in television and advertising to buy the Browns at the age
of 36, Modell helped build the team and the NFL into powerhouses. Now he was
headed to Baltimore to sign papers transferring his franchise to the city.
The deal would add perhaps $60 million to the value of the franchise he
bought for $4 million in 1961. In Cleveland, it would render him Public Enemy
His son, David Modell, got some bagels and rolls from the plane's galley
and brought them out. James Bailey, the Browns' executive vice president and
Modell's right-hand man, busily shuffled papers on a fold-out table. Across
from the elder Modell was the plane's owner, Alfred Lerner.
The cigar-smoking billionaire had known Modell since the 1970s, bought 5
percent of the team in 1982 and begun flying him to away games at a doctor's
request after his partner suffered a heart attack. Lerner's close relationship
with Modell had prompted Baltimore to ask for his help two years earlier in
getting an NFL expansion franchise. He failed to deliver a single vote,
Now he was flying a team to Baltimore, nonstop.
A few hundred miles away and under sunny skies, John Moag closed the door
of his home in the exclusive Baltimore suburb of Ruxton and headed for his
green Lexus. Chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority for just 10 months, he
was about to score a victory that had eluded the state's richest and most
powerful people for 11 years.
News of the deal would make it appear breathtakingly sudden. But, in
reality, it was the culmination of stealth negotiations stretching back
several months, built upon a financial and political foundation laid years
earlier. Vital assistance also had come from Cleveland's corporate and
government elite, who failed to heed ominous warnings.
Bragging rights, however, would have to wait. The deal was top-secret, and
Maryland had agreed to compensate the team if word leaked out before the
Browns' last home game, Dec. 17, and depressed ticket sales. Only a handful of
trusted associates, and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, knew. And Moag's
As he neared his car, he saw that she had filled it with orange and brown
Right man for the job
Before his appointment last January, Moag had followed Baltimore's
football quest the way most fans did -- through news reports. But Maryland's
new governor had different plans for the Washington lobbyist, whom he knew
from their days together in Prince George's County politics.
Glendening recognized Moag as a hustler of abundant skill and ambition,
just what he needed for a job often at the center of political firefights. The
Stadium Authority chairman, besides overseeing some of the state's biggest
public works projects, was in charge of Baltimore's painful effort to return
to the NFL.
A month after Moag's appointment, the two met at the State House to assess
what had gone wrong during the city's odyssey to return to the NFL, and to
decide whether the fight could be won.
Moag had spent many of his formative years in Baltimore, living in
Pinehurst and, on weekends, traveling to Waverly to park cars on lawns for
Colts games. Now, at 41, he had the unpaid job of trying to return the legacy
of Johnny Unitas to Memorial Stadium.
The Colts had spent 31 seasons there. The team's gutsy play and riotous
fans brought national respect to the city of longshoremen and steel workers
before it all ended one slushy night in March 1984, when the shoulder pads and
championship trophies were secretly loaded into Mayflower vans and hauled to
The man charged with trying to erase that memory was viewed with suspicion
by some Baltimore football fans already uneasy about the election of a
Redskins supporter and non-Baltimorean as governor. Despite his Baltimore
roots, Moag was in many senses also an outsider, with a career built in
Washington and its Maryland suburbs. He was the youngest partner in the
history of Patton Boggs & Blow, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying