All these years I have been lobbying for Art Modell to be elected to the NFL Hall of Fame before it's too late for him to experience the honor he deserved...
It is now too late. Modell died of "natural causes" at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on September 6 at the age of 87.
"Sadly, I can confirm that my father died peacefully of natural causes at four this morning," former Ravens president David Modell said in a statement. "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."
"'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 current owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne, and linebacker Ray Lewis visited him at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Wednesday.
"He was my friend, my mentor", said Bisciotti. "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. 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."
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.
For that he is still hated by many in Cleveland.
If you go to ClevelandBrowns.com (the official NFL site for the Browns) you will find many very bitter and nasty posts from Browns fans. Most go along the lines of this unaltered post from a guy named "tribe37"---
"Am glad that Modell will always be remembered for moving the team [the Browns] and that he will never make the NFL Hall of Fame..."
And that was one of the nicer ones...
The fact is, Modell never really wanted to leave Cleveland... and only made the decision when the City of Cleveland failed to come up with a financing plan for a new stadium that would save the franchise.
"Art returned our Sundays to us," said John Moag, former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, who spearheaded the negotiations that brought the Browns to Baltimore. "And he demanded that his team integrate in the community and 'give back' -- a tradition that Bisciotti and the hundreds of players who've passed through here have continued, as well."
Modell did not leave Ohio with happy heart, 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 in Baltimore, Modell sold minority interest in the Ravens to Bisciotti in 1999 and then yielded controlling interest in 2004.
“He was a very excellent owner, a highly-respected owner,” said Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, one of Modell's closest friends in the league.“He should be remembered certainly with respect, almost with reverence I would say, because of the contributions he made to the league through the many years.”
What earmarked Modell's stewardship both in Cleveland and Baltimore was his sense of civic involvement. He was a major fundraiser in Ohio, both for charities and political causes. He continued that philanthropical work in Baltimore, where he chaired a $100 million fund drive to build a new cardiovascular tower on Orleans Street for the Heart Institute at Johns Hopkins.
“The one thing that predominates wherever he is, is community,“ said Ernie Accorsi, who worked eight years as general manager of the Browns under Modell.
“He was involved in charities and symphonies. He dives into every walk of life. He was very active in the Republican party [in Cleveland]. He's a tremendously giving person. Art even let Cleveland keep the Browns' name, and he didn't even ask for money. That's absolute class."
People tend to forget that Modell was a self-made man who had inherited nothing after his father's business collapsed during the Great Depression of 1929 and the '30's... Modell was a high-school dropout who worked at Bethlehem Steel as a teen... He joined the Army Air Corps in WWII, and after the war used his education benefits to enroll in a television production and broadcasting class. From there he got into the ground floor of the brand new TV advertising industry. By 1960 he had built enough success and connections on Madison Avenue that he was able to structure a deal to purchase the Cleveland Browns for $3.93 million. Art Modell became an NFL Owner...he was 35 years old.
It would prove to be the best investment of his life. The NFL's youthful commissioner, Pete Rozelle, had been on the job for just a year and soon was drawing on Modell's knowledge of television. The two became close friends and Modell became chairman of the NFL's television committee, a post he would hold for 31 years.
You know the rest of the story. Ravens fans revere Modell as the guy who saved pro football in Baltimore. Cleveland fans are still just confused.