Unforgettable is what it's been Ravens: Since announcing move, owner has endured stadium uncertainty, illness and strained friendships.

November 06, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

It's been a tough 12 months for Art Modell.

When he announced a year ago today that he was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, team owner Modell transformed himself from an elder statesman of pro football to its Benedict Arnold.

Longtime friends shunned him. Community leaders who once courted him vilified him. He was bashed from Capitol Hill to the World Wide Web. His nomination to the Hall of Fame failed, and his legacy as an NFL builder was dashed.

Then, when he got to Baltimore, a rebellious Maryland General Assembly threatened to revoke the deal, leaving him and his franchise homeless.

Oh, and he almost died.

In April, he contracted a blood infection, possibly from a cut. The infection sent his blood pressure plunging, his temperature up to 105 degrees, and pushed his kidneys to the brink of failure.

Doctors administered five antibiotics intravenously and Modell, 70, gradually recovered.

In a wide-ranging interview in his Owings Mills office, with its panoramic view of the team's practice fields and the colorful fall foliage beyond, Modell reflected on his first year as a Marylander.

"It's been a year that will never be forgotten. A memorable year in more ways than one," Modell said.

A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Modell was a young Madison Avenue ad man in 1961, when word came to him that the Browns were for sale. He assembled an investment group that paid $3.9 million for the team, and he moved to Cleveland.

He soon became a member of former commissioner Pete Rozelle's inner sanctum, at the center of every policy decision made during the league's boom years.

Although he has long maintained a summer home in Florida, Modell was a dominant figure in Cleveland affairs for more than three decades. He hasn't been back since he took the podium at Camden Yards last Nov. 6 and made the announcement that would break the hearts of the legions of loyal Browns fans.

Overall, he said, it's been the most traumatic year of his life. But also the most rewarding.

His reception in Baltimore has been warm, he said. The response of the fans -- who've sold out every Ravens game -- has been

heartening. Even the team, which has turned in a lackluster performance on the field, has shown promise, he said.

"We lost some friends in Cleveland, although I'm beginning to realize they might not have been our friends," Modell said.

One relationship that suffered is his long-standing friendship with Cleveland billionaire Al Lerner. The two became close in the 1970s, when they jointly invested in some radio stations. Lerner -- who started out in business in Baltimore and ran Maryland National Bank before selling it to NationsBank -- bought into the Browns in the 1980s, helping Modell through a financial bind.

But the man who used to fly Modell to every away game and was a fixture in the Cleveland Stadium owners box has not made it to a Ravens game. And the two have talked about Lerner's cashing in his 9 percent share of the team to spearhead a drive for an expansion franchise in Cleveland, Modell said.

The NFL agreed, in a settlement of lawsuits sparked by the Browns relocation, to put another team in Cleveland by expansion or relocation by 1999 and name it the Browns.

"I think there is a good chance he will divest," Modell said. If so, Modell said, he may seek local investors for that share of the Ravens. But he's not sure he favors expansion for Cleveland, with so many existing teams needing better stadiums.

"There are a lot of people in the league who oppose expansion. Having the experience of moving, I would like to explore every possibility. I think we have to look at our own first before we look at expansion," Modell said.

He and Lerner are still friends. "But it doesn't have the intensity of friendship it once had. But it's not cold," Modell said.

Modell declined to discuss the reasons for their drifting apart. Lerner did not respond to requests for comment.

Mutual acquaintances say the two men were surprised by the outcry provoked by the Browns' move. Lerner, who played a crucial role in Modell's decision and was the initial go-between for Modell and Maryland, found himself in a place he generally shuns: the spotlight.

Lerner responded by trying to distance himself publicly from the decision. This angered Modell, according to friends.

As for his own legacy, Modell said it has unquestionably suffered in the controversy over the past year. In this, he finds irony: The popularity of the Browns and their relationship with Cleveland were due in part to his stewardship, he said.

"People will judge me as they judge me," he said.

But he holds out hope the rancor will fade.

He insists, as he has for the past year, that he was forced to move because community leaders failed to fulfill promises to renovate his decrepit stadium. Clevelanders say that they were making progress and that Modell never adequately informed them of his situation or that he was considering moving.

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