At age 9, Modell walked a couple of miles to save on car fare and squeezedout a quarter to sit behind the bench of the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers, where hewas mesmerized by his first real hero. Nicknamed "Father," Lumpkin was ahard-nosed blocker from the 1930s who always played without a helmet, exposinghis bald head.
"After all those hits to the head, I think he became an NFL owner," jokedModell, delivering the punch line with that memorable chuckle.
The legacy of Modell, who will be attending his 43rd and last NFL trainingcamp as an owner next week, will be defined by his relentless will and wit.Part competitor and part comedian, he is one of the last blue-collar types ina white-collar business.
Modell, 78, is set in his old-school ways in which the team is a livelihoodrather than high-priced amusement, and players are more like sons thanemployees. When he got married, he honeymooned at a preseason game.
When former players needed money, he opened his wallet. And when they died,he paid for their funerals.
The NFL is Modell's life, and he is just as much a fabric of it.
Modell doesn't just know about Vince Lombardi. He worked alongside thelegendary coach to complete the league's first collective bargainingagreement.
He doesn't just reap the profits from the partnership of the league andtelevision. It was Modell and late commissioner Pete Rozelle who negotiatedthe first contracts that are now the standard and what separate the NFL fromother sports.
Countless other policies were touched by the influence of Modellunbeknownst to many. When the owners weren't thrilled with an issue he wastrying to pass at the league meetings, Rozelle would call for a break, bankingon Modell to crack up the room with a story and ease the tensions.
"Art Modell is a legend of our game," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said,"and one of life's unforgettable characters for all of us who have beenfortunate to know him."
For Modell, getting into the league was tough, and leaving it will betougher.
Minority owner Steve Bisciotti plans to exercise his option and buy theremaining 51 percent from Modell for $325 million at the end of this season,which brings the total price to $600 million. The Anne Arundel businessmanwants Modell to stick around as an adviser and has an office for Modell acouple of doors down from his own in the team's headquarters that are underconstruction.
Modell plans to stay involved, though he admits it won't be the same.
He was 35 and living with his mother in Brooklyn when he tapped out hislife savings - "I had money left for lunch afterward" - to buy the ClevelandBrowns for a then-record $4.295 million in 1961. Selling the franchise makes atremendous profit, but he feels like he will lose a piece of himself in theprocess.
"I've had a love affair with the NFL for 43 years," Modell said. "This isthe end of an episode in my life. It's hard for me to pull away. I will,though."
Hard worker from start
Winning a Super Bowl five seasons after the most controversial franchiseshift in NFL history doesn't surprise those close to Modell. More than asurvivor, he thrives on conquering crisis, dating back to his teenage years.
After the death of his father, a 15-year-old Modell dropped out of highschool to support his mother and two sisters. His first full-time job was asan electrician's helper, cleaning hulls of ships in a Brooklyn shipyard.
"I think that's a big part of who he is," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens'vice president of public relations and a confidant of Modell for more than 20years. "He appreciates the common person. He appreciates hard work. And he'shighly, highly competitive, yet he has this incredible compassion for beingone tough guy."
By the age of 18, he began two years of service in the Air Force and thenenrolled in television school under the G.I. Bill. He produced MarketMelodies, one of the first regular television shows in the nation, but hefound his calling in the NFL.
One of his fondest memories is walking onto the field at Yankee Stadium forthe first time as an owner. He looked up at the seat - Section 16, Box 44a -where he avidly watched Giants games.
At that moment, he realized being an owner doesn't stop you from being afan.
"Everything was a dream," Modell said.
A bond with players
Saying loyalty and Modell in the same breath would draw growls fromCleveland's Dawg Pound. But there's no disputing that this hands-on owneroperates with a personal touch.
When former Browns Don Fleming and Ernie Davis died, Modell pitched in tocover funeral costs. When another Brown, Eddie Johnson, suffered with cancer,Modell quietly sent a $15,000 check to help handle medical bills.
And when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was charged with murder, it was Modellwho flew down to Atlanta to be a character witness at his bail hearing.
"The whole football team is like a family," said Modell's wife, Pat.
Art Modell is there for more than the bad times. He has taken severalplayers under his wing and allowed them to move off the field and into theorganization.
The Ravens' general manager (Ozzie Newsome), assistant pro personneldirector (Vince Newsome), director of player development (Earnest Byner) andspecial teams assistant (Bennie Thompson) all played for Modell.
"I look at Art as a type of father because of the commitment that he's madeto me and the support that he's given me throughout my career," Byner said.
The starting point for all Modell's relationships is on the practice field.
After a player signs, he usually receives his first handshake from the owner.
Unlike many of his peers, Modell is a fixture at practice. Despitesuffering a heart attack and a stroke in the past 15 months, it's nearlyautomatic that he'll be sitting in his golf cart on the sideline whether it's100 degrees or snowing.
"Art talked with me every day," tight end Shannon Sharpe said during histime with the Ravens. "He knew everything about what was going on in my life.He showed real concern. But it wasn't just me. He knew the practice squadplayers' names. He treated them the same."
No regrets about move
The dramatic losses by the Browns in the AFC championship games - from JohnElway's drive to Byner's fumble - stung Modell. However, the most painfulchapter of his life remains his move from Cleveland, which cuts deeper thanany defeat.
An unbearable stadium situation prompted Modell to uproot the belovedBrowns to Baltimore in 1996 and rename his franchise the Ravens. Although heleft the Browns' colors and tradition, the once well-respected member of theCleveland community became a villain in his adopted hometown of 35 years.
"Yeah, it hurt," Modell said. "They [the politicians] lied to me. They soldme out. They took for granted that Art Modell would never move the team.
"I have no regrets about moving. I'm sorry I hurt people in the process."
Modell has yet to set foot back in Cleveland, which city politicians say ishis fault and not theirs.
Michael R. White, Cleveland's mayor at the time said, "The only person whodrove Art Modell out of Cleveland is Art Modell in a great big moving van."
Giants owner Wellington Mara supported Modell, a longtime friend, in hismove, saying any reasonable person would agree he got a bad deal in Cleveland.
"The trouble is they directed the wrath at the victim rather than thespoiler who drove him out of town," Mara said. "In all fairness, he leftbehind more than the city of Cleveland gave him the whole time he was there."
Elusive Hall of Fame
Nothing would make Modell happier than to return to the Cleveland area,specifically the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
"It would be nice to get into the Hall, but I have no control over theprocess," Modell said. "I know [Raiders owner] Al Davis is in and he moved theteam twice. Doesn't that say something to you?"
In January 2002, Modell was among 15 finalists for the first time but waspassed over after being one of the most heated topics of debate. Although hefailed to repeat as a finalist six months ago, he is expected to return as anominee this year.
"I believe that in the near future his entire record should be recognizedas entitling him to be in the Hall of Fame in Canton," Tagliabue said.
Among Modell's major accomplishments were his working as chairman of theleague's television committee for 31 years, his lobbying other owners in the1960s to share television revenues and his willingness to move the Browns tothe AFC when the AFL-NFL merger took place.
He's also been a leader on diversity by promoting minorities to keypositions in his front office and elevated Newsome to be the first blackgeneral manager in NFL history earlier this year.
"I think people who were close to the operation of the league appreciatewhat he has done," Mara said. "It has been clouded by the bad taste fromCleveland."
Intensity and humor
For all of Modell's charisma, he can't find anyone to sit with him duringgames.
"I was advised not to do it by the people who had the job before me," OzzieNewsome said.
Two decades ago in Pittsburgh, Modell became so incensed about one of hisplayers being ejected and poor officiating that he banged on the door outsidethe officials' room after the game. Referee Ben Dreith answered, "Art, youknow you can't come in here or it will cost you $10,000."
Modell hesitated for a moment and said, "Will you come out for $5,000?"
Sure enough, Dreith came out and Modell was fined by the NFL office.
These days, Modell is quieter, but that doesn't mean he has mellowed. Hiswife sits in front of him in the owners' box and the rule is no talking.
"Why do you think he has had a couple of heart attacks?" his wife said. "Itwas football."
His competitive nature is only rivaled by his comedy. He sees himself as acombination of Lombardi and Jack Benny.
"The tougher the situation," Newsome said, "the better his humor."
And it looked pretty bleak last year at this time. After his team wentthrough its historic salary cap dismantling, Modell suffered a heart attackand a mild stroke in a three-month span that left him with blurred eyesight.
After watching his rag-tag players for the first time at training camp,Modell joked, "Right now, [my vision] might be a blessing."
Seeking Super finish
Humor is said to be a great medicine, but winning the Super Bowl is thebest cure-all.
"As soon as we won that game against the Giants in Tampa, somebodymentioned `The Fumble' and `The Drive.' I said, `What fumble and what drive?'" Modell said. "You never forget those lows, but the high in Tampa wiped outeverything else."
Modell is once again setting his sights high this season.
The Ravens return 21 of 22 starters from last season's 7-9 team. Plus, theyhave added two first-round draft picks (linebacker Terrell Suggs andquarterback Kyle Boller) along with free-agent offensive tackle Orlando Brown,receivers Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson and cornerback Corey Fuller.
"I don't know how much progress our competitors have made in the divisionor in the conference," Modell said, "but this Ravens team is better than theone I had in Tampa that won the Super Bowl."
The players acknowledge that Modell's final season places special meaningon the year.
"I hope we give him something that he'll remember," said kicker MattStover, who is playing his 13th season for Modell, the longest of any currentRaven.
For a man who lives by his will and wit, it would only be fitting for theRavens to send him out smiling.
"It's been a good run, I kid you not. It would be wonderful to cap it offon a high note," said Modell, flashing a wink. "I have a feeling. You can'ttake that away from me."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun