Historic day at Browns practice as Election Day loomed

Former President Ronald Reagan at Browns' practice facility in Berea in 1988 with beaming owner Art Modell and RB Herman Fontenot. Ed Meyer photo, with father's handwritten notations in blue ink.
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Reagan's 1988 visit, personally arranged by Modell almost to the date 30 years ago, remembered by many

By Ed Meyer

The nation’s voters finally have had their say, and Election Day has come and gone.

But this memory, 30 years ago almost to the date, never will.

Former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who passed away in 2012 at age 87, had arranged for President Ronald Reagan to attend a practice session at the team’s gated facility at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea.

It was a cold, damp Thursday afternoon, Nov. 2, 1988.

Reagan was escorted into the facility from his heavily guarded presidential limousine, and was greeted by Modell, his late son David, head coach Marty Schottenheimer and the three team captains – quarterback Bernie Kosar, defensive end Carl Hairston, and running back Herman Fontenot of the special teams.

Here’s how I described it for the Friday morning Akron Beacon Journal newspaper edition:

“With Secret Service agents acting as Reagan’s blind-side tackle and Browns owner Art Modell standing vigil on his right flank, the president completed passes to tight end Ozzie Newsome and offensive tackle Rickey Bolden.”

Reagan, who was 77 at the time, hit Bolden squarely in the hands in the middle of his chest.

Modell, a longtime Republican power broker and contributor, had personally arranged for the team’s beat reporters to be present with all of the players and coaches – an arm’s length from the most powerful man in the world – as Reagan stood in our midst to take a team photo.

His entire traveling press contingent, with legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas at the forefront and clearly not happy, was kept at bay from the rest of us behind a roped-off section where the president could barely hear her shouting some questions.

I was even allowed to bring my camera to snap photos of the historic moment.

“It’s still the most memorable day in my entire time as the Browns beat reporter,’’ former Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Tony Grossi, still covering the team for ESPNCleveland.com, said Wednesday as we both recalled what a day it was.

He has been covering the team for 34 years.

“To be able to get that close to a sitting president, especially one with that kind of charisma, was something I’ll never forget,” Grossi said.

To think that somewhere there, Secret Service agents had The Football with them – the name for the device to activate the nation’s nuclear codes – was remarkable as the thought struck me while I was writing this piece.

Although the day was gloomy and wet, the mood of the players could not have been any more uplifting. To a man, they were thrilled.

“It was definitely a great thrill,” Hairston, whose nickname was “Big Daddy,” said afterward. “I got to meet the biggest daddy of them all.”

Fontenot, an all-purpose running back as we called them then, was born in Beaumont, Texas, and played college football in bayou country at Louisiana State. He was the player only inches away from Reagan, in my photo above.

“It was a big thrill for me just to be standing that close to him and meeting him in person,” Fontenot said after the president had gone. “I was nervous, even though the conversation was basically: ‘Hello, how are you, how are you doing?’ Coming from a man that big, from where I came from, that meant a lot.”

Reagan’s visit, maybe 10 minutes long, was his first appearance at an NFL practice during his eight years in the White House, a Secret Service agent told me.

It was, as I recall, his final campaign appearance in Ohio as he was stumping the state on behalf of the man who would succeed him, George H.W. Bush.

Election Day was only five days away, and Bush would soundly defeat the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, to become the nation’s 41stpresident.

(Many thanks to Beacon Journal librarian Norma Hill for her assistance in sending a copy of the 1988 story from the newspaper’s archives.)

The continuing Hue Jackson saga

They had to know this was coming.

Within hours of the Oct. 29 firing of head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam addressed the media and said the essence of the decision was that the organization could no longer tolerate “internal discord” between the two top coaches.

Haslam was accompanied at the head table by Browns General Manager John Dorsey, a tough linebacker in his playing days who often talks the way he played, but neither of the head honchos would elaborate or answer questions about just how deeply the internal discord had grown.

But now someone is having a say for them.

Sports Illustrated’s NFL writer, Robert Klemko, weighed in Tuesday with an in-depth story, citing as many as five sources “within the organization,” that was headlined, “Dysfunction in Cleveland: Hue Jackson’s Paranoid Final Days and Baker Mayfield’s Resilience.”

The lengthy story detailed how players have rallied around the leadership of the rookie quarterback, who was the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, after he took a cheap, illegal blow to the helmet from Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead in a 26-23 Browns overtime loss.

Mayfield jumped up after the hit and hurled a pretty good back-alley profanity at Whitehead. Browns players loved it, saying it showed how the young Mayfield, 23, can inspire with his toughness.

The Sports Illustrated story went on to say, in juicy detail, how Hue Jackson had “a leaguewide reputation as a relentless self-promoter” when he was hired by the Browns in 2016.

Hunkering down in his office, Jackson also “paid close attention” to the live broadcasts of Haley’s Q&A sessions with the media, which are recorded by the team, then would verbally needle his offensive coordinator for not keeping in lockstep with Jackson’s comments about the team’s 2-4-1 start, according to the SI story.

From my viewpoint, the dysfunction between Jackson and Haley was beginning to wear on Mayfield, and the team fortunately put an end to it by getting rid of both men before it got any worse.

My view on Hue

You often hear coaches and front-office execs say one play is seldom the backbreaker in a defeat.

I don’t necessarily agree.

One play in the 33-18 shellacking of the Browns by the Steelers two weeks ago convinced me that Jackson was going to be fired the next day, and there I sat in front of the big screen, watching ESPN’s First Take show when the announcement came a few minutes before noon.

The play involved a double sack of Mayfield that was hard to watch in real time, let alone on the many closeup camera angles of the replays.

With the Steelers romping 26-12 early in the fourth quarter, Mayfield was flushed by a ferocious rush from Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive end Tyson Alualu.

Watt got Mayfield in his clutches from behind, the hard-charging Alualu got to him in front, and Mayfield crumbled to his knees, somehow managing to throw the ball away amid the crush of black jerseys.

You could plainly see Mayfield grimacing as he was going down.

He looked like a staggered boxer being saved by the bell as he walked back toward his bench.

In the CBS-TV broadcast of the game, the excellent analyst and former great quarterback of the San Diego Chargers, Dan Fouts, noted that the Steelers were wearing their old “throwback jerseys” from the days of Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell.

“I know exactly how Baker Mayfield feels,” Fouts said shortly after the vicious sack, “because of the original Steel Curtain.”

Fouts also consistently noted that the Browns’ offensive line protection was so poor, that “it’s been that way all day. The pressure forces him out of the pocket.”

If you think the Browns’ braintrust didn’t hear, or wasn’t paying much attention to Fouts’ biting commentary, you don’t deserve a mulligan.

Fouts also said that the Browns’ rookie left tackle, undrafted free-agent rookie Desmond Harrison, wasn’t exactly having a stellar day trying to keep the Steelers’ outside rush off of Mayfield’s blind side.

“What I don’t understand,” Fouts said, “is that the Browns aren’t giving the rookie any help.”

You can bet that Haslam and Dorsey had the same line of questioning for Jackson and Haley after the game, and when they weren’t satisfied with what they heard, the time had come to put an end to the mess – a better way of saying they were no longer going to tolerate “internal discord.”

Mayfield is the heart and soul of the franchise.

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