Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Steve Sabol: Artist and Visionary

Steve Sabol, who co-founded NFL Films with his father Ed, lost his 18 month battle with brain cancer today. When Ed Sabol was selected for induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, Steve Sabol said, "My dad has a great expression: 'Tell me a fact, and I'll learn. Tell me a truth and I'll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.' And now my Dad's story will be in Canton and hopefully that will live forever too." NFL Films told the story of the NFL with heart pumping music serving as the soundtrack for a dramatic narrative--often written by Steve Sabol and read by John Facenda, the legendary "Voice of God"-- voiced over dramatic footage of the sport in all of its glory and guts and all of its passion and pride. Football became America's most popular sport in large part because of the way that NFL Films glorified the league's coaches and players and glamorized even the gritty aspects of the game. NFL football at its highest level is fast motion chess played out in real time by superb athletes who are simultaneously making predetermined moves by enacting their coaches' strategies but also--at a split second's notice--spontaneously reacting to changing circumstances, using their physical and mental gifts to improvise if/when the carefully crafted strategy breaks down. Steve Sabol both educated and entertained NFL fans and he deserves to join his father in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Walter Browne's Passion for Chess

Walter Browne won six U.S. Chess Championships (1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1983), trailing only Bobby Fischer (eight wins in eight attempts) and Sammy Reshevsky (seven wins in 21 attempts), and he is also a world class poker player who earned $131,445 for finishing second in the 2007 World Series of Poker $2500 H.O.R.S.E. event. Poker is more lucrative than chess but chess is Browne's passion, as he explains in the preface of his 2012 autobiography The Stress of Chess...and its Infinite Finesse: "Chess is a natural cerebral high for me and it surpasses any physical pleasure or material possession...As we are a playful species and chess is the highest form of intellectual combat, it seems only natural to be immersed in it."

Browne believes that chess is life and can teach us much about life. Toward the end of the preface he elaborates about this:

"Adjusting to the environment has always been the quintessential human survival skill, fighting the elements. Perhaps like the struggle of our pre-historical ancestors is the struggle within myself that I project into competing at different games.

Whether it is the preparation, sometimes months prior to an event, or the enormous amount of stamina needed to play, chess requires tons of energy.

On the contrary, poker needs little preparation and requires approximately 5% of the energy of chess."

The January 12, 1976 Sports Illustrated includes a lengthy profile of Browne, who was then 26 years old and near the height of his powers. Browne had recently won his second straight U.S. Chess Championship, finishing just ahead of Ken Rogoff, who would soon abandon his promising chess career to become one of the world's most acclaimed economists. Rogoff noted, "Chess may start out as an art, but after nearly a month of hard playing in a tournament it becomes an athletic event."

Browne's career as a gamesman took off when he dropped out of high school as a 16 year old: "If you have a strong mind you don't need school," Browne explained. "School is for the masses, not for geniuses." The decision to leave school was a simple calculation for Browne, who said that he figured out "I don't have time for chess, poker and school."

Browne acquired quick cash as a young poker player before being banned from several late night haunts in New York but he never lost sight of his true love: chess. At 19, Browne began pursuing the Grandmaster title in earnest and he achieved that goal a little over a year later at a time when there were only a few dozen Grandmasters in the world (there are well over 1000 Grandmasters now).

Browne told SI reporter Ray Kennedy that in addition to his chess prowess, "I can beat 97 out of 100 experts in Scrabble, 98 of 100 in backgammon and 99.9 of 100 in poker. At hi-lo, table-limit poker, I'm the best in the world." In the fall of 1975 Browne embarked on an incredible two month, whirlwind tour of the United States during which he visited 50 cities, played more than 2000 chess games in simultaneous exhibitions and pocketed about $15,000 for his tireless efforts. Browne sought to promote both himself and the game: "I don't have time to waste. God didn't give me any. We can't wait for Bobby to help us. He's like a volcano that has gone to rest. We've got to help ourselves. Right now."

Browne faced the legendary Fischer just once in official tournament play, a 98 move epic struggle in 1970 during which Fischer first stood better but then was on the brink of losing before he managed to salvage a draw. That contest took place near the end of Fischer's career--Fischer won the World Championship in 1972 and then did not play in public for 20 years--and very early in Browne's career. Despite Browne's eventual U.S. Championship success and a remarkable string of victories in various big tournaments around the world, he never came close to reaching the ultimate goal that he freely mentioned to Kennedy: winning the World Chess Championship. Browne qualified for three Interzonal events but never advanced to the Candidates round, the stage that ultimately determined who would face the reigning World Champion in a match for the crown.

While that failure undoubtedly disappointed the ambitious Browne, he can take solace in the philosophy that he expressed in the preface to his autobiography: "I firmly believe that by competing you are a winner, no matter the result."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Art Modell Remembered

Art Modell, who broke the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans by moving the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season, passed away early this morning at the age of 87. I have been a passionate Cleveland Browns fan for most of my life and I hate what Modell did but I never wished physical ill on him; I reserve such thoughts for tyrants, mass murderers and people of that ilk. I did fervently hope that Modell's Baltimore Ravens would never win a Super Bowl (sadly, the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV) and I still fervently hope that Modell will never be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Though younger Cleveland fans who despise LeBron James for abandoning the Cleveland Cavaliers may disagree, Modell will likely always be the most hated figure in Cleveland sports history. The sad thing is that it did not have to be this way. Modell was a beloved figure for most of his time as the Browns' owner and if he would have kept the team in Cleveland he would have been viewed as a civic hero. The Browns won the 1964 NFL championship during Modell's fourth season as owner and that remains the last major title captured by a Cleveland professional sports franchise. The Browns lost the 1965 NFL championship 23-12 to the dynastic Green Bay Packers and also lost in the 1968 and 1969 NFL championship games, thus missing out on opportunities to play in Super Bowls III and IV. The Browns missed the playoffs in 1970 but qualified for postseason play in 1971 and 1972 before enduring an eight year drought.

My earliest football memories date back to the final portion of that drought, specifically the 1978 season when the Browns went 8-8 and showed a lot of promise. When I was a kid I thought that Modell was a great owner: he seemed so passionate about the team and it appeared that he would spare no expense in his attempts to bring a Super Bowl title to Cleveland, which of course is ironic in light of the way that Modell later betrayed the city's loyal fans. Some of my fondest early sports memories relate to the Kardiac Kids teams of 1978-80; the Kardiac Kids only made the playoffs once--losing a January 4, 1981 AFC Divisional playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders--but those players forever earned a place in the hearts of Browns' fans: team stars Brian Sipe (1980 NFL MVP), Ozzie Newsome (1999 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee), Mike Pruitt, Greg Pruitt, Clay Matthews, Dave Logan, Reggie Rucker and Joe DeLamielleure (2003 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee) remain among my favorite players of all-time and I also fondly recall Calvin Hill, Dino Hall, Keith Wright, Thom Darden, Ron Bolton and many other Kardiac Kids. When drug abuse became a rampant problem in the NFL and pro sports in general during that era, Modell helped to create the Inner Circle group to counsel and treat Browns' players who were struggling with addiction issues.

After a few down seasons in the early 1980s, the Browns acquired quarterback prodigy Bernie Kosar--a Northern Ohio native who won a national championship at Miami and then graduated with a double major at the age of 21--in the 1985 Supplemental Draft. Kosar earned a Pro Bowl selection in 1987 and he led the Browns to three AFC Championship Games in a four season span (1986-89) but each time the Browns came up short against the Denver Broncos; two of those losses were so painful that they have been permanently branded with shorthand descriptions of the team's downfall (The Drive and The Fumble). Injuries robbed Kosar of his ability to stay on the field, let alone remain a top notch quarterback, but when then-young Coach Bill Belichick cited Kosar's "diminishing skills" as the reason to cut the beloved local hero in 1993 both Belichick and Modell received a lot of criticism from the Cleveland media. Strategically, Belichick was right--Kosar never again established himself as an NFL starter, though he did win a Super Bowl ring as Troy Aikman's backup in Dallas--but the way that the Browns abruptly got rid of Kosar rubbed people the wrong way (and perhaps foreshadowed how Modell would later betray the team's fan base in a much more profound manner).

Belichick rebuilt the Browns much the way he later rebuilt the New England Patriots, leading Cleveland to an 11-5 record in 1994 and the franchise's most recent playoff victory (a 20-13 triumph over Bill Parcells' Patriots), but this would turn out to be the franchise's last hurrah. Unbeknownst to the general public, Modell had literally mortgaged the team's future in a reckless attempt to buy a championship and he found himself in desperate financial straits. He should have sold the team to his minority partner Al Lerner--the man who ultimately brought the Browns back to Cleveland as an expansion team in 1999--but Modell stubbornly refused to do this because he wanted to eventually pass the ownership to his adopted son David. Publicly Modell acted like he was trying to keep the Browns in Cleveland but privately he sneaked away to Baltimore and arranged a very profitable deal that not only resolved his fearsome debt but also rewarded him lavishly for bringing an NFL franchise to Maryland to replace the Colts, who infamously fled Baltimore in moving fans in the middle of the night back in 1984. When news of Modell's betrayal became public knowledge during the 1995 season, the Browns collapsed on the field and Modell became persona non grata in his adopted hometown. Modell fired Belichick after the 1995 season and although the Ravens did win one Super Bowl the whole sorry saga was a very Pyrrhic victory for Modell: Belichick--using the same blueprint he tried to employ in Cleveland (despite Modell's incessant meddling)--created a dynasty in New England and Modell's dream of keeping the team in his family crumbled when he once again mismanaged his finances and was thus compelled to sell the team to Steve Bisciotti in 2004.

Modell is considered a huge figure in NFL history--serving as an influential owner for more than four decades--though his role in the development of the Monday Night Football package has been overstated; NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and ABC impresario Roone Arledge deserve the bulk of the credit for MNF's success. Bill Livingston mentioned two excellent reasons that Modell should be remembered as a mediocre owner: (1) The Cleveland Browns posted a lackluster 161-174-1 record during the final 22 seasons under Modell (including eight playoff appearances and seven seasons with double digit losses) and (2) "As a businessman, he managed to lose money hand over fist as an NFL owner. It is a feat of impressive ineptitude." The NFL is essentially a socialist monopoly that virtually guarantees that all 32 team owners will make a profit, yet Modell managed to go broke twice--once in Cleveland and then a second time in Baltimore just a few years after he received a sweetheart deal to move the Browns.

In one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, Marlon Brando (playing boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront) laments, "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it." Modell could have been a Cleveland hero, a beloved figure and a Pro Football Hall of Famer but instead he is widely viewed as a betrayer. His downfall is his own fault but that does not make it any less tragic; indeed, the hubris and shortsightedness that often leads to ruin are the very essence of tragedy.