BEREA: Early Friday morning, Browns coach Pat Shurmur addressed his players on the first day of training camp in which the veteran players and the newcomers would take the field together.
But before the second-year coach launched into any football-related material, he broke the news that owner Randy Lerner was in the midst of negotiations to sell the team.
That’s how the players learned of the possibility that Jimmy Haslam, a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2009, might just be the next man to sign their paychecks.
“What we’re trying to do as a football team should be unchanged by what was talked about today,” Shurmur said he told the players, already taking care to try to keep the big news from becoming a big distraction. “We are a much better football team, we’ll be much better prepared this season. I feel like we’ve got a better group to put on the field and I think we function better as a staff.”
Some of the players had heard what seemed like an out-of-the blue rumor a month ago out of Philadelphia that the team was up for sale, but many were still stunned by Friday’s news.
“Yeah, I was surprised,” said kicker Phil Dawson, the longest-tenured player on the team, entering his 14th season with the Browns. “I mean, everyone always speculates and reads the stuff that’s out there, but I certainly didn’t expect to hear that today.”
Veteran left tackle Joe Thomas was just as stunned by the morning announcement.
“I think everyone was pretty surprised,” said Thomas, in his sixth season after being the Browns’ first-round pick in 2007. “I don’t know if that was something anyone was really thinking about.”
Despite the reminder of sports being a business first, the players appreciated hearing the news directly from the organization.
“I was impressed that [Shurmur] addressed the team before anyone else found out,” said seventh-year linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “Just looking around at guys coming off the field, it brings you together. Something like this happens and [there is] a lot of unknown right now. Basically, [Shurmur] was like, ‘it is what it is, you can’t control it.’?”
Once the news had some time to sink in, a common theme emerged from the players when they spoke to the media following the team’s two-hour practice.
“It wasn’t expected,” defensive back Joe Haden said. “But we’re just out here to ball, we’re out here to win games. So everyone is just really focused in on what’s going on out on the field. [Ownership is] going to be able to control [the sale], and whatever happens, happens. But we just know whenever we do get on the field and play, we just want to win games. That’s our main focus.”
Dawson echoed the sentiment.
“With all due respect to the significance of the news, it really doesn’t change anything for us out here,” he said. “Most guys have never even gone upstairs in this building. So, our little world is out between these white lines and we’re going to continue to focus on that.
“All that stuff, it will obviously affect us in some way, but I can’t stand here and now and tell you exactly how other than to say it’s not going to affect us as much as you might think. We just come out here, play football, try to do what our coaches say and then we go home and go to bed. That’s pretty much how it goes.”
Separating the human element from the possible business transaction wasn’t as easy for those who had gotten to know Lerner personally over the years.
“He hasn’t been very hands-on, but I think a lot of the guys know him pretty well,” Thomas said. “He’s a very personable guy and he’s pretty close with some of the veterans on the team because he’s not afraid to come up to you and talk a little bit and one-on-one, which is great. A lot of the guys really appreciated that.”
Linebacker Scott Fujita wished Lerner well but said it doesn’t change much for the players.
“We have to focus on what we do on the field, that’s the most important thing,” he said.
The players did their best to keep their focus on football, but Dawson allowed himself a little time to reflect on the Lerner family’s significance to the team’s history.
“It all started with Mr. Lerner, Al, a tremendous man who had the respect of the locker room,” Dawson said. “I still remember the whole team attending his funeral. That shows the kind of respect we had for Al. Then, Randy came along and was a very personable, likeable guy, especially those early years when he was around a lot and I got to know him.
“It’s Randy’s right to do whatever he wants to do and whoever’s buying the team, it’s their right to buy the team. So there’s no hard feelings or ill will or anything like that.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Aeros blog at https://ohio.com/aeros. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.