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 Sundays there.

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 No. 1.

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, including Modell's.

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 wife.

As he neared his car, he saw that she had filled it with orange and brown balloons.

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 Indianapolis.

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 firms.