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In final season, Modell leaves a lasting legacy
Decades before the tortuous franchise move and the triumph of a Super Bowl, Ravens owner Art Modell's emotional ties with football became rooted in Roy Lumpkin.
At age 9, Modell walked a couple of miles to save on car fare and squeezed out a quarter to sit behind the bench of the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers, where he was mesmerized by his first real hero. Nicknamed "Father," Lumpkin was a hard-nosed blocker from the 1930s who always played without a helmet, exposing his bald head.
"After all those hits to the head, I think he became an NFL owner," joked Modell, delivering the punch line with that memorable chuckle.
The legacy of Modell, who will be attending his 43rd and last NFL training camp as an owner next week, will be defined by his relentless will and wit. Part competitor and part comedian, he is one of the last blue-collar types in a white-collar business.
Modell, 78, is set in his old-school ways in which the team is a livelihood rather than high-priced amusement, and players are more like sons than employees. When he got married, he honeymooned at a preseason game.
When former players needed money, he opened his wallet. And when they died, he paid for their funerals.
The NFL is Modell's life, and he is just as much a fabric of it.
Modell doesn't just know about Vince Lombardi. He worked alongside the legendary coach to complete the league's first collective bargaining agreement.
He doesn't just reap the profits from the partnership of the league and television. It was Modell and late commissioner Pete Rozelle who negotiated the first contracts that are now the standard and what separate the NFL from other sports.
Countless other policies were touched by the influence of Modell unbeknownst to many. When the owners weren't thrilled with an issue he was trying to pass at the league meetings, Rozelle would call for a break, banking on Modell to crack up the room with a story and ease the tensions.
"Art Modell is a legend of our game," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said, "and one of life's unforgettable characters for all of us who have been fortunate to know him."
For Modell, getting into the league was tough, and leaving it will be tougher.
Minority owner Steve Bisciotti plans to exercise his option and buy the remaining 51 percent from Modell for $325 million at the end of this season, which brings the total price to $600 million. The Anne Arundel businessman wants Modell to stick around as an adviser and has an office for Modell a couple of doors down from his own in the team's headquarters that are under construction.
Modell plans to stay involved, though he admits it won't be the same.
He was 35 and living with his mother in Brooklyn when he tapped out his life savings - "I had money left for lunch afterward" - to buy the Cleveland Browns for a then-record $4.295 million in 1961. Selling the franchise makes a tremendous profit, but he feels like he will lose a piece of himself in the process.
"I've had a love affair with the NFL for 43 years," Modell said. "This is the end of an episode in my life. It's hard for me to pull away. I will, though."
Hard worker from start
Winning a Super Bowl five seasons after the most controversial franchise shift in NFL history doesn't surprise those close to Modell. More than a survivor, he thrives on conquering crisis, dating back to his teenage years.
After the death of his father, a 15-year-old Modell dropped out of high school to support his mother and two sisters. His first full-time job was as an electrician's helper, cleaning hulls of ships in a Brooklyn shipyard.
"I think that's a big part of who he is," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public relations and a confidant of Modell for more than 20 years. "He appreciates the common person. He appreciates hard work. And he's highly, highly competitive, yet he has this incredible compassion for being one tough guy."
By the age of 18, he began two years of service in the Air Force and then enrolled in television school under the G.I. Bill. He produced Market Melodies, one of the first regular television shows in the nation, but he found his calling in the NFL.
One of his fondest memories is walking onto the field at Yankee Stadium for the first time as an owner. He looked up at the seat - Section 16, Box 44a - where he avidly watched Giants games.
At that moment, he realized being an owner doesn't stop you from being a fan.
"Everything was a dream," Modell said.
A bond with players
Saying loyalty and Modell in the same breath would draw growls from Cleveland's Dawg Pound. But there's no disputing that this hands-on owner operates with a personal touch.
When former Browns Don Fleming and Ernie Davis died, Modell pitched in to cover funeral costs. When another Brown, Eddie Johnson, suffered with cancer, Modell quietly sent a $15,000 check to help handle medical bills.
And when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was charged with murder, it was Modell who flew down to Atlanta to be a character witness at his bail hearing.
"The whole football team is like a family," said Modell's wife, Pat.
Art Modell is there for more than the bad times. He has taken several players under his wing and allowed them to move off the field and into the organization.
The Ravens' general manager (Ozzie Newsome), assistant pro personnel director (Vince Newsome), director of player development (Earnest Byner) and special teams assistant (Bennie Thompson) all played for Modell.
"I look at Art as a type of father because of the commitment that he's made to me and the support that he's given me throughout my career," Byner said.
The starting point for all Modell's relationships is on the practice field.
After a player signs, he usually receives his first handshake from the owner.
Unlike many of his peers, Modell is a fixture at practice. Despite suffering a heart attack and a stroke in the past 15 months, it's nearly automatic that he'll be sitting in his golf cart on the sideline whether it's 100 degrees or snowing.
"Art talked with me every day," tight end Shannon Sharpe said during his time with the Ravens. "He knew everything about what was going on in my life. He showed real concern. But it wasn't just me. He knew the practice squad players' names. He treated them the same."
No regrets about move
The dramatic losses by the Browns in the AFC championship games - from John Elway's drive to Byner's fumble - stung Modell. However, the most painful chapter of his life remains his move from Cleveland, which cuts deeper than any defeat.
An unbearable stadium situation prompted Modell to uproot the beloved Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and rename his franchise the Ravens. Although he left the Browns' colors and tradition, the once well-respected member of the Cleveland community became a villain in his adopted hometown of 35 years.
"Yeah, it hurt," Modell said. "They [the politicians] lied to me. They sold me out. They took for granted that Art Modell would never move the team.
"I have no regrets about moving. I'm sorry I hurt people in the process."
Modell has yet to set foot back in Cleveland, which city politicians say is his fault and not theirs.
Michael R. White, Cleveland's mayor at the time said, "The only person who drove Art Modell out of Cleveland is Art Modell in a great big moving van."
Giants owner Wellington Mara supported Modell, a longtime friend, in his move, saying any reasonable person would agree he got a bad deal in Cleveland.
"The trouble is they directed the wrath at the victim rather than the spoiler who drove him out of town," Mara said. "In all fairness, he left behind more than the city of Cleveland gave him the whole time he was there."
Elusive Hall of Fame
Nothing would make Modell happier than to return to the Cleveland area, specifically the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
"It would be nice to get into the Hall, but I have no control over the process," Modell said. "I know [Raiders owner] Al Davis is in and he moved the team twice. Doesn't that say something to you?"
In January 2002, Modell was among 15 finalists for the first time but was passed over after being one of the most heated topics of debate. Although he failed to repeat as a finalist six months ago, he is expected to return as a nominee this year.
"I believe that in the near future his entire record should be recognized as entitling him to be in the Hall of Fame in Canton," Tagliabue said.
Among Modell's major accomplishments were his working as chairman of the league's television committee for 31 years, his lobbying other owners in the 1960s to share television revenues and his willingness to move the Browns to the AFC when the AFL-NFL merger took place.
He's also been a leader on diversity by promoting minorities to key positions in his front office and elevated Newsome to be the first black general manager in NFL history earlier this year.
"I think people who were close to the operation of the league appreciate what he has done," Mara said. "It has been clouded by the bad taste from Cleveland."
Intensity and humor
For all of Modell's charisma, he can't find anyone to sit with him during games.
"I was advised not to do it by the people who had the job before me," Ozzie Newsome said.
Said Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney: "I used to sit with him, but I told him that I can't anymore because you're too wild."
Two decades ago in Pittsburgh, Modell became so incensed about one of his players being ejected and poor officiating that he banged on the door outside the officials' room after the game. Referee Ben Dreith answered, "Art, you know you can't come in here or it will cost you $10,000."
Modell hesitated for a moment and said, "Will you come out for $5,000?"
Sure enough, Dreith came out and Modell was fined by the NFL office.
These days, Modell is quieter, but that doesn't mean he has mellowed. His wife sits in front of him in the owners' box and the rule is no talking.
"Why do you think he has had a couple of heart attacks?" his wife said. "It was football."
His competitive nature is only rivaled by his comedy. He sees himself as a combination of Lombardi and Jack Benny.
"The tougher the situation," Newsome said, "the better his humor."
And it looked pretty bleak last year at this time. After his team went through its historic salary cap dismantling, Modell suffered a heart attack and a mild stroke in a three-month span that left him with blurred eyesight.
After watching his rag-tag players for the first time at training camp, Modell joked, "Right now, [my vision] might be a blessing."
Seeking Super finish
Humor is said to be a great medicine, but winning the Super Bowl is the best cure-all.
"As soon as we won that game against the Giants in Tampa, somebody mentioned `The Fumble' and `The Drive.' I said, `What fumble and what drive?' " Modell said. "You never forget those lows, but the high in Tampa wiped out everything else."
Modell is once again setting his sights high this season.
The Ravens return 21 of 22 starters from last season's 7-9 team. Plus, they have added two first-round draft picks (linebacker Terrell Suggs and quarterback Kyle Boller) along with free-agent offensive tackle Orlando Brown, receivers Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson and cornerback Corey Fuller.
"I don't know how much progress our competitors have made in the division or in the conference," Modell said, "but this Ravens team is better than the one I had in Tampa that won the Super Bowl."
The players acknowledge that Modell's final season places special meaning on the year.
"I hope we give him something that he'll remember," said kicker Matt Stover, who is playing his 13th season for Modell, the longest of any current Raven.
For a man who lives by his will and wit, it would only be fitting for the Ravens to send him out smiling.
"It's been a good run, I kid you not. It would be wonderful to cap it off on a high note," said Modell, flashing a wink. "I have a feeling. You can't take that away from me."