Art Modell a true NFL visionary

Ravens owner emeritus celebrates 85th birthday, looks back on brilliant career

June 20, 2010|By Kevin Cowherd

Art Modell turns 85 on Wednesday, which is hard to believe of the man who brought football back to Baltimore 14 years ago and healed this city's broken heart.

A few days ago at the Castle in Owings Mills, the Ravens staff surprised him with a big, beautiful cake and a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday."

Modell, the team's owner emeritus, sat at a front table in his wheelchair and beamed. Dressed in a loose-fitting blue shirt and dark slacks, he looked better than he had in a long time and bantered easily with everyone who stopped by to offer birthday wishes.

"My health is reasonably good," Modell said. "I'm grateful for that because I went through an awful lot. Two heart attacks. Two strokes. But I came through.

"I'm grateful to the high commissioner for that," he added with a laugh. "And I don't mean Roger Goodell."

It seemed like a great time to sit down with Modell and reflect on his long and storied association with the NFL, first as the owner of the Cleveland Browns for 35 years until he moved the team to Baltimore in 1996, then as the Ravens' majority owner until he sold them to Steve Bisciotti in 2004.

Sometimes, you forget what a giant Modell was in the league's early years.

Look at all he did. He headed the owners' labor committee that negotiated the league's first collective bargaining agreement with the players.

He played an instrumental role in the merger of the NFL and AFL by agreeing to move the Browns to the AFC. He helped broker the contract for ABC's "Monday Night Football." And he spearheaded the first TV deals between the league and the networks that made the NFL's popularity skyrocket.

"There wasn't anything innovative or new to the game that he wasn't a part of," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager and executive vice president.

Said Modell: "Television was my game. And that was the game that made the league famous. Â One thing 'Monday Night Football' did: More women were attracted to the game. I'm very proud of that."

With all that on his resume, it's hard to believe that Art Modell still isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It's still a touchy subject with a lot of people. As beloved as he is in Baltimore, that's how reviled he is in Cleveland for packing up the revered Brownies and moving them to Baltimore when Cleveland city fathers wouldn't replace dilapidated Municipal Stadium with a newer facility.

"I'll never be able to erase the anger in Cleveland," he said quietly. "And I owe that to the  politicians who betrayed me."

So even though he was a league visionary, even though his Browns won the NFL championship in 1964, even though his Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000, even though he hired Newsome to be the first African-American general manager in the NFL, Modell is still being penalized by a few Hall of Fame voters for relocating the Browns to Baltimore.

It doesn't seem fair, even though Modell tries remain above the fray.

"It's not my call," Modell said of the possibility of making the Hall soon. "If it [happens], I'll be happy. If it doesn't, I'll be up early for breakfast."

In the meantime, he's getting ready to attend his 49th straight training camp when the Ravens open camp in Westminster in late July.

And although he says he doesn't pay attention to NFL matters the way he used to, he doesn't think there will be a lockout by the owners after next season, as many fear.

"Too much is at stake for everybody  the owners, the networks, the players," he said. "Too much money. Cooler heads will prevail."

You get the feeling, though, that both the owners and the NFL players union could use a wise, old head such as Modell during the coming negotiations -- especially if things get heated.

"The worse the situation, the better Art's humor was," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens media guru, who has worked for Modell since 1981.

Which is when both men tell you a story that illustrates Bryne's point. They call it "The Ben Dreith Story."

One Sunday back in the early 1980s, Modell's Browns were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. As usually happened, the Steelers were whipping the Browns. Up in the visiting owner's box, Modell was steaming. When Browns cornerback Ron Bolton was ejected after a skirmish with Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann, Modell blew a gasket.

He got on the phone to Byrne and demanded that Byrne escort him to the referees' locker room.

"Art, that's against the rules," Byrne told him.

"Dammit, I wrote the rules!" Modell roared. "Now get over here and take me down there!"

By the time the two men made it to the referees' locker room, the game was over. Nevertheless, Modell banged on the door, demanding to speak to Dreith, the head official.

"You can't come in, Mr. Modell," Dreith replied from behind the door. "It's a $10,000 fine."

For a moment, Modell was silent.

Then he smiled at Byrne and said, "Ben, would you come out for $5,000?"

Dreith did, and Modell proceeded to ream him out. And sure enough, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle fined Modell just $5,000 for the infraction.

Even then, people listened to Art Modell.

At 85, they should probably still be listening to him today.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd on Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.

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