“In my mind we're going to remember him as a great guy, a fellow with the greatest sense of humor, and a good friend who did a lot for the NFL. I saw him stand up for what he thought was best for the league.”
“The one thing that predominates, wherever he is, is community,” said Mr. Accorsi, who was the Colts' general manager in 1982-83.
“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.”
Mr. Modell's death brings to an end a remarkable life at the center of America's golden age of sports. He was one of a handful of influential NFL team owners who arranged the league's blissful marriage with television, and watched as football overtook baseball as the nation's most popular sport.
And the congenial Mr. Modell, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive, pioneering television producer and certified sports fanatic, was at the center of the action throughout the NFL's climb.
Growing up in Brooklyn
The son of an electronics retailer, Mr. Modell grew up in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. His early youth was a time of relative luxury for him and his two older sisters, with chauffeurs and vacations on the New Jersey shore. He became an avid sports fan following baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers and football's Giants.
But his father lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression that followed. The elder Mr. Modell declared bankruptcy and became a traveling wine salesman. He died while on a business trip in 1939, when his son was 14.
The family was left penniless and Mr. Modell was forced to drop out of high school and get a job. He lied about his age to get a job as a 45-cent-an hour electrician's helper at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s New York shipyard.
Mr. Modell often said the early death of his father, with whom he was very close, and the family's sudden loss of status left him with a drive to make his own fortune. “I wanted to make something of myself. I had no inheritance, nothing to fall back on,” he said in one interview.
He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, precursor of the Air Force, during World War II, assigned to ground maintenance. An accomplished baseball player, he was eventually re-assigned to a physical education wing, traveling the country leading the fitness training required of GIs.
After the war he returned to New York. Intrigued by the nascent television industry, he used his army education benefits to enroll in classes on broadcasting.
“There were only 5,000 TV sets in New York, and I thought if I could get an education in TV, that I could build on it because I thought TV would be a big thing one day,” Mr. Modell once recalled.
He was right. He and another student soon formed a production company. Their first big project: Market Melodies, a critically unacclaimed show featuring recipes and household tips that was beamed into television sets Mr. Modell bought and persuaded a large grocery store chain to mount inside its stores.
From TV production, Mr. Modell moved into advertising. In 1960, while working at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he got a call from an acquaintance saying the Cleveland Browns were for sale. A deal had been put together to sell the team to CBS president William Paley, but the network executive backed out because his company was then negotiating the first national broadcast deal with the NFL and he worried about a conflict of interest.
Mr. Modell, realizing the potential value that could accrue from a combining of television and football, accepted the $3.93 million asking price. He assembled an investment group and bank loans to raise the money — he put up very little of his own funds — and moved to Cleveland as the new team owner in 1961. He was 35.
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 Mr. Modell's knowledge of television. The two became close friends, and Mr. Modell became chairman of the NFL's television committee, a post he would hold for 31 years.
Mr. Modell's Browns also enjoyed success. In 1964 the team, with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, upset the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, quarterbacked by Johnny Unitas, to win the NFL championship in the age before the Super Bowl. It helped Mr. Modell rebuild confidence in his adopted hometown, which was still smarting from his surprising decision in 1962 to fire the team's legendary coach and namesake, Paul Brown.