Art Modell, former Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns owner, dies at 87

September 06, 2012|By Mike Klingaman, Jon Morgan and Ken Murray | The Baltimore Sun

Art Modell may have returned football to Baltimore, but in the eyes of the silver-haired owner, the Ravens were clearly a team of the people.

Eleven years ago, amid a swirl of confetti following the Ravens' Super Bowl victory in Tampa, a tearful Mr. Modell hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft and declared, “To the people in Baltimore City, to the people in Baltimore County and to the state of Maryland, this belongs to you.”

And following the team's triumphant return to their training complex in Owings Mills, Mr. Modell had team officials tote the seven-pound silver trophy up and down Bonita Avenue, allowing cheering fans to reach out and touch it.

“Art had this innate feeling that he should be embedded in the community,” said Ernie Accorsi, who worked eight years as general manager of the Cleveland Browns under Modell. “He completely became a Baltimorean.”

Mr. Modell, the Ravens' principal owner from their inception in 1996 until 2004, died Thursday morning of natural causes at age 87 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, itself a beneficiary of his philanthropy. Mr. Modell had chaired a $100 million fund drive to build a new cardiovascular tower on Orleans Street for the hospital's Heart Institute.

Two years ago, Baltimore's Lyric Opera House became the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric, in honor of a $3.5 million gift from the Modells. They also donated generously to the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

“This was an amazing man, and not only to the [football] industry,” said John Moag, former head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, who led the negotiations that brought the Browns to town to become the Ravens. “What he did for his community in Cleveland, and then repeated here, is truly beyond measure.”

But football is the legacy for which Mr. Modell will be best remembered in Baltimore, which lost the Colts in 1984. However, in Cleveland, Mr. Modell is often referred to as that town's Bob Irsay, who moved the Colts franchise under the cover of darkness and a snowstorm to Indianapolis. With Mr. Modell's Browns moving here in after the 1995 season, Baltimore had football again.

“Art returned our Sundays to us,” Mr. Moag said. “And he demanded that his team integrate in the community and ‘give back' — a tradition that [current owner Steve] Bisciotti and the hundreds of players who've passed through here have continued as well.”

Mr. Modell had endured health problems for many years. In 1983 he had a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. In early 1996, he suffered a near-fatal blood infection while at his vacation home in Florida. In 2002, he endured both a mild heart attack and a mild stroke.

“My brother, John Modell, and I were with him when he finally rejoined the absolute love of his life, my mother Pat Modell, who passed away last October,” former Ravens president David Modell said in a statement.

“‘Poppy' was a special man who was loved by his sons, his daughter-in-law Michel, and his six grandchildren. Moreover, he was adored by the entire Baltimore community for his kindness and generosity. And, he loved Baltimore. He made an important and indelible contribution to the lives of his children, grandchildren and his entire community. We will miss him.”

Several members of the Ravens organization, including Mr. Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne and linebacker Ray Lewis visited him at Hopkins on Wednesday.

“He was my friend, my mentor. We will miss him so much. How lucky are all of us to have had Art in Baltimore? How fortunate I am to have had him teach me about the NFL,” Mr. Bisciotti said. “His generosity, his love, his humor, his intelligence, his friendship — we were all blessed by this great man. We will strive to live up to his standard.”

Mr. Modell was a visionary in the NFL's boom years. Yet, even as the league he helped create grew into a billion-dollar industry, he was forced to relocate Cleveland's legendary Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season to avoid bankruptcy and losing the team.

Mr. Modell did not leave Ohio with happy heart, Mr. Moag said.

“I'll never forget the sadness on his face as we did the deal,” he said. “The pain of leaving Cleveland was immeasurable.

“When I first approached Art about coming to Baltimore, he refused to talk to me. Only when all possibility of a new stadium in Cleveland fell apart was he willing to talk. I promised him that he'd love Baltimore, and that the city would love him.”

Beset with lingering financial issues here, Mr. Modell sold minority interest in the Ravens to Bisciotti in 1999 and then yielded controlling interest in 2004.

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