Known primarily for moving the old Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996, longtime NFL owner Art Modell actually had a much stronger hand in what happened in the league for decades than that one footnote would indicate. Modell, whose health had been declining in recent years, passed away on Thursday morning with family around him at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Patricia Modell, his wife of 42 years, died in 2011.
Modell purchased the Browns in 1961 and caused controversy soon after by firing Paul Brown, the man for whom the team was named, in January 1963. After promoting assistant Blanton Collier to the head coach position, Modell watched the Browns win the NFL championship over the Baltimore Colts in 1964. Modell served as NFL president from 1967 through 1969, was instrumental in the first collective bargaining agreement with NFL players in 1968, and helped create what eventually became "Monday Night Football" in 1970.
But it was the move of the Browns to Baltimore in the mid-1990s for which Modell was best-known. After talks broke off between the Browns and the city of Cleveland, Modell decided to take his franchise to Baltimore, where it became the Ravens. Modell's transitioned franchise won Super Bowl XXXV 34-7 over the New York Giants at the end of the 2000 season.
"It's unfortunate -- that last little asterisk about moving from Cleveland," Fox Sports NFL analyst and former Ravens head coach Brian Billick told ESPN Radio on Thursday morning. "I was born in Ohio, so I know the mentality there. I hope people can get past that and recognize that this was a tremendous man. I've never been a part of any organization that made you feel more like family. And Art Modell did that. I don't care what your predisposition is; you couldn't spend five minutes with this man and just not fall in love with him. He was quick with a smile and always had a joke. He was really genuinely more concerned about you and how you were doing, than how he was doing.
"I obviously owe a great debt to him for making me a head coach in the National Football League, and our prayers go out to David and John Modell, his sons. He was such an icon, and I truly hope that people will begin to fully realize the impact he had on the NFL, and what a great man he was."
Ray Lewis, unquestionably the most dominant and defining player in the history of the Ravens franchise, had this to say:
"When you think about Art Modell, you think about a great man, a leader, a father and a servant. Every minute of his life, he cared more about everyone around him than himself. Anytime I saw him, he would always make me smile. He always had a joke to lighten your mood or some sort of wisdom to impart to make you a better man. I genuinely loved Art as a man, and he showed me what to strive for in life. When you truly see the impact he had on everyone he touched, it humbles you. When I found out he wasn't doing well, I knew immediately I had to see him. When I was with him yesterday, I prayed with him and shared with him things that a son would say to a father. Even though he has left us, he is going to a place that one day we all want to be. I am truly blessed to have had Art in my life. He was a humble servant, and one of the best men I have ever known."
Modell was a pariah in Cleveland, but his move sparked a rush of new stadiums around the NFL, based on the threat of franchise relocation. It was, in retrospect, a galvanic moment for the profitability of NFL franchises.
Modell transferred ownership of the Ravens to current owner Steve Bisciotti by selling minority shares that same year, and Bisciotti finalized the full purchase of the team in 2004. However, Modell maintained a presence by retaining a 1 percent share, and had been listed in Ravens media guides as a minority owner.
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