The new Ravens owner was sitting on stage at the Inner Harbor, and looking quite uncomfortable. On Nov. 6, 1995, Art Modell announced that he was moving the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, and while local politicians couldn't hide their enthusiasm, Modell appeared embarrassed.
Only seconds after the news conference ended, Modell was ushered off the stage like the president of the United States, completely surrounded by security. But he left his limousine window open for a few seconds, so I approached to introduce myself, only to have him roll the window up in my face.
There couldn't have been a more inauspicious start. Little did I realize then that this was the beginning of a long relationship with a man who embodied the National Football League, and had two other great passions in his family, and his team.
Art Modell and I weren't great friends. We never went out to dinner and our families didn't share time together. We were just two people who shared a deep, mutual respect. Long after Steve Bisciotti became the majority owner of the Ravens in April of 2004, we stayed in contact up until his death Thursday morning. The NFL has lost one of its greatest statesmen.
It's impossible to talk about the history of the league without mentioning the contributions of Modell. His legacy is as great as some of the NFL's other storied men, like Wellington Mara and George Halas. Modell transcended the game from the days of Blanton Collier and Jim Brown to the times of Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden.
He won NFL championships in 1964 and 2000, but Modell loved his family more than football. He adored his wife Pat, who died last October. He may have been the owner, but we all knew who was the boss. He spent countless hours talking about his grandchildren, and actually confessed to me once how miserable his life had become when one of his sons got divorced years ago. Modell was criticized for being greedy when he moved the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, but he knew that was the only way he could set up his family financially before he died.
Family and football, though, often went hand and hand. Modell took losses personally.
'This is an embarrassment to myself, Pat, and the entire Modell family,' Modell would say after lopsided losses. At first, we used to joke about the statement only to learn later that he was serious.
Modell's teams were an extension of his family. He had a special affection for former Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, and cried when he fired him. I'll never forget how Modell broke down when I told him that middle linebacker Ray Lewis had been arrested at an Atlanta airport because of an alleged involvement in a double murder. Critics said Modell fought for Lewis because he was the team's star player, but they were so very wrong.
Modell always gave his players a second chance. Ask Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, or Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown. When players asked him for personal favors he delivered, like the time a member of Michael McCrary's family needed special medical attention, and Modell sent out a chartered jet and made sure that person was seen by some of the nation's top doctors.
His Inner Circle program, developed in Cleveland, was an in-house organization that helped his players overcome financial problems as well as alcohol and drug addictions. Modell liked being tight with the players, and he formed bonds with guys like Lewis, Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson.
That was his strength, but also his weakness. He often bailed players out of trouble, or lent them money, and that cost him millions of dollars during his years with the league. Once I got into a major fight with Modell because I wrote a column criticizing him for letting defensive tackle Larry Webster back on the team after he failed the league's substance and alcohol abuse test for the fourth time.
When Modell pointed his finger at you and called you 'young man,' it was no longer an argument, but a monologue.
'Listen here young man,' he said. 'I never give up on my players, and I'll never give up on people. That's the way I have always been and I will remain that way. Do you understand me, young man?', he asked as he hung up the phone.
Former Cleveland coach Bill Belichick, now with the Patriots, once told me that you could harshly criticize Modell one day, and the next day he would be your best friend.
He was right. The next morning, Modell walked into the media room, shook my hand and kissed me on the cheek.
He was happy, just as long as he was in the world of pro football. He was a throwback owner who had no other businesses except pro football. He frequently attended practices despite the bitter cold or sizzling heat. When he became too old to walk, he was driven around in a golf cart.
The players liked seeing Modell on the sidelines. The Ravens wanted to win the Super Bowl in 2000 just as much for the 'old man' as they did for themselves. They loved Modell because they knew he had a big heart, and in it there was a special place for them and the league. As the ultimate league guy, he never publicly complained about not getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame even though he belonged there.
His record is impeccable. He helped launch Monday Night Football. Along with late league commissioner Pete Rozelle, they worked closely together in establishing NFL Films. Modell was chairman of the Owners Labor Committee in 1968 when it successfully negotiated the NFL's first collective bargaining agreement.
Modell's record is unmatched when it came to hiring minorities in the front office, and the NFL certainly wouldn't be the No. 1 sports league in the world today if it weren't for Modell negotiating TV contracts from 1962 through 1993.
He'll get into the Hall of Fame, but it's a shame that it will be posthumously. But for people like myself, a more fitting tribute is the huge portrait of Modell at the entrance in the Ravens training facility in Owings Mills. Modell is dressed in a charcoal colored doubled-breasted suit, and both his hands are in his famous camel overcoat. Modell looks distinguished and honorable, and seems to welcome any football fan to his world, one that consisted of three passions: his family, the NFL and his team.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun