“The thing that jumps out at you is the affection that everyone had for Art and what it meant to him after 40 years in the business,” former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Obviously you had your feelings about what it meant to you personally, but your first thoughts really went to him. His appreciation of it was so heartfelt and so real.”
The Ravens have returned to the Super Bowl without Modell, who died in September at age 87. But his imprint will be on much of what happens this weekend in New Orleans.
On Saturday, voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame will consider a group of finalists that includes both Modell and the first player drafted by the franchise in 1996, after it moved from Cleveland to Baltimore: left tackle Jonathan Ogden. On Sunday, the second player selected by the Ravens in the opening round of that ’96 draft, linebacker Ray Lewis, will play in what he has said will be his final NFL game.
“We’re extremely excited, like the rest of Baltimore, focusing on this confluence of events of historical significance,” Modell’s son David, a former team president of the Ravens, said by telephone this week. “I mean, the owner of the team being considered for the Hall of Fame at the same time as the first draft pick he made, while the other first-round pick from that year is trying to win the Super Bowl? It’s kind of crazy.”
But Modell’s inclusion among the four to seven Hall of Fame inductees who will be chosen Saturday, is far from certain. Lingering bitterness about Modell’s decision to move his team from Cleveland to Baltimore remains. Even with a new Browns franchise in Cleveland, many in that region have refused to forgive Modell.
A social media poll conducted by Cleveland-based Hall of Fame voter Tony Grossi showed, he wrote this week, that 81.8 percent of the 3,400 respondents were against Modell’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
“Supporters of Modell have persistently charged my opposition to him is the result of ‘a personal vendetta,’” Grossi wrote Monday on the Web site of ESPN Cleveland and Cleveland radio station WKNR. “There is no vendetta. This poll shows that the people most affected by Modell’s move — generations of fans of the Browns — want me to represent their case to the Hall of Fame committee.
“Doing anything less would be irresponsible.”
One reader wrote in the comments section of that story, “If they add a traitor wing to the [H]all I would gladly vote him in.” Another wrote: “The solution is easy. Art gets in when Irsay gets in,” referring to Robert Irsay, who moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984.
Longtime NFL titan
Modell’s influence in shaping the NFL after he purchased the Cleveland Browns in 1961 for $4 million is undeniable. He was chairman of the league’s broadcast committee for 31 years and helped orchestrate the launch of “Monday Night Football.” He aided in the establishment of NFL Films. He was on the labor committee that negotiated the sport’s first collective bargaining agreement with players. He was among those who oversaw the merger of the NFL and AFL. He served as the league president in the late 1960s.
“To me, [Modell’s election to the Hall of Fame] is a slam dunk,” Billick said this week by phone. “Obviously I’m biased. But when you look at the owners who are in the Hall of Fame, you talk about their longevity and their success and their impact on the league. Art was on the cutting edge of all of that, making this league what it is today.”
Billick called it “regrettable” that sentiment over the team’s move from Cleveland could keep Modell from being enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
“The Hall is lessened if he isn’t in there,” Billick said. “He gave his entire life, basically, to this league. . . . There are certain people with certain agendas to pound away at that. It’s so difficult to get in and when you have a few individuals who take that approach, it’s hard to prevail.”
Current Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said: “I’m not asking Cleveland to understand. I’m not even asking Cleveland to forgive. I just know that Cleveland’s rabid fans should not be the reason that they keep him out.”
David Modell said he believes his father belongs in the Hall of Fame. But his father didn’t focus on the issue, he said.
“He clearly would have enjoyed that honor,” David Modell said. “But he used his sense of humor around us when these situations arose. He was a big boy and he understood all the ramifications. He hardly talked about it at all. I don’t believe Art Modell spent a single day with the Super Bowl trophy that he earned in 2000. He wouldn’t have dwelled on the hoopla. But he would have enjoyed it, and then he would have moved along. My father was from the Greatest Generation. That always shaped his life. You dealt with things and then you moved on.”
David Modell said he’s almost certain that his father didn’t know where in the house his Super Bowl ring was stored. But the Ravens’ Super Bowl win over the New York Giants on Jan. 28, 2001 in Tampa meant plenty to his father, he said.
So, too, did his relationship with Lewis. Art Modell was a staunch supporter of Lewis’s when the linebacker was charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men in Atlanta in January 2000. Lewis ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice charges and murder charges were dropped. Two of his acquaintances were acquitted.
“Art believed in Ray,” David Modell said this week. “He was committed to his belief. He stood up for him, as a father would stand up for a son. Their relationship definitely had a father-son dynamic to it.”
When his father was hospitalized before his death, David Modell said, he called a few Ravens officials, including Bisciotti and General Manager Ozzie Newsome. They arrived at the hospital soon after and said that Coach John Harbaugh and some players might be there as well.
“A little while later, John Harbaugh showed up with Ray, Haloti Ngata, a few other guys,” David Modell said. “Ray knelt at my father’s bedside and prayed with him, as a son would with a father. That was the crux of their relationship. Art stood up for Ray at a dark period. Art was at the forefront of that, and Ray appreciated that and what it meant.”
Lewis said last week at the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills, Md: “From the day I walked in this building, I could never ask for a better father in my life to play that role. Just the things that that man did, for not just me but for many thousands of players and organizations and the city of Baltimore, and just to bring football back here to the city of Baltimore, he had a vision and he followed the vision. There is no Baltimore Ravens without Art Modell. So his legacy will always live on.”
Art Modell, who retained a small ownership stake after Bisciotti took over as the team’s primary owner in 2004, would not have been particularly surprised about the Ravens’ latest Super Bowl run, his son said.
“I think,” David Modell said, “he had a great deal of confidence in this group.”
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