Old pals share dream

An NFL Odd Couple, owners Modell, Mara face off in big game

January 26, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

The elderly gray-haired man with a lifetime of experience at the horse track walks to the betting window and slides his wager across the counter. He's worth a couple hundred million dollars, but his bet is always the same: two bucks.

This man, Wellington Mara - co-owner of the New York Giants and half of the NFL's geriatric Odd Couple - goes to the races not for money but for excitement. For a devout Roman Catholic like him, it's kind of like bingo. But with crowd noise.

It's also typical of the modest lifestyle he maintains even as he runs one of the most storied teams in sports, in the hyperactive media market of New York and now, again, in the glare of the Super Bowl.

Which makes it a bit unusual that Mara and Ravens owner Art Modell - the Odd Couple's other half - are among the best of friends.

But they are.

And they have become a storybook subplot to Super Bowl XXXV, with national media chasing them around to ask each about the other, these two old-guard guys who couldn't be more different and couldn't be more alike, living the same dream in the same year.

"They're the best of friends, but they're two different packages, two different personalities altogether," says Ernie Accorsi, who worked as Modell's general manager from 1984 to 1991 and has worked as assistant general manager and now general manager for Mara since 1994.

"One of the things they share are values," he continues. "They've always put the good of the league ahead of what was best for their own teams."

They have unwaveringly stuck together in business for decades, have been as close as brothers most of their adult lives - Mara is 85, Modell, 74 - a relationship solidified further by a brush with death.

Mara is conservative, always has been, married 47 years, 11 children, 34 grandchildren, his demeanor a tad shy, an Irish Catholic who goes to Mass every day, who can be found betting the ponies when not at the office or at church.

Modell, who is Jewish, is the extrovert. His flash and style during his younger days in Cleveland gave him the image of a local playboy of sorts. He was a bachelor until age 43, never hesitant to bend an elbow with the rich and famous. He dared to court a beautiful movie and television actress.

And succeeded.

Oh, and one other key difference: Mara's team has won two Super Bowls. Modell's team is making its first appearance.

A brush with death

"He means the world to me and always will," Modell says, and then tells a story he has told 100 times, at least, but his vocal inflections, his sudden rapid stringing together of sentences and then his halting stops for deep breaths are signs that the emotions are still there.

The story is about the time Modell almost died.

It was 1983, when open-heart surgery was not as common as it is today, meaning the risk was far greater. But doctors in Cleveland gave Modell little choice.

A heart attack had alerted doctors to his condition, and other complications made the operation even more dangerous.

The chances that he would die on the table were very real.

"Well, I woke up afterward, thank goodness," Modell says. "My wife is there and I see her and she tells me Well [Mara] had been there, and I really did get tears in my eyes. He heard what was going on and flew right in just to be there. That's what kind of guy he is, and that's what kind of friend he's been."

Mara had paced the hospital halls and said the rosary until it was clear that Modell would pull through, tending to his friendship and then hurrying back to tend to his business.

A long history

Both men got their teams in the old-fashioned ways: Mara inherited his; Modell borrowed for his.

Mara's father, Tim Mara, bought the Giants in 1925 for $500. After the stock market collapse in 1929 threatened control of the team, he turned it over to his sons, Jack and Wellington, making the younger son, known as "Well," the youngest owner ever.

He was 14.

"As far as I'm concerned, he is the NFL," Modell says. "He has lived and breathed the NFL."

In 1961, Modell, a New York ad executive who saw television as the sales tool of the future, bought the Cleveland Browns, relying heavily on advice and support from Mara - and a hefty bank loan to pay the $4 million purchase price.

While Mara had been in professional football since before he could shave, Modell was 35, a handsome guy who knew the big shots in his new town of Cleveland and who later with his wife befriended celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Milton Berle.

Mara was content with racetracks and churches, but Modell was a bona fide, dashing man-about-town.

Perhaps another personality difference shows in the way the two men have behaved in the days since the Super Bowl teams were decided.

There are seemingly slightly fewer than a billion reporters in Tampa, Fla., and Modell would talk one-on-one with each of them if he could. Mara, on the other hand, is leaving the talking almost solely to his coaches and players.

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