Thousands came to pay their last respects Saturday to the man who brought pro football back to Baltimore, nodding solemnly at the coffin on the 50-yard line of a stadium that might not be there if it weren't for Art Modell.
Mourners thanked him for 17 years of purple Fridays and Ray Lewis dancing out of the tunnel, for the Lombardi Trophy that gleamed next to his flag-draped casket in recognition of the Ravens' 2000 World Championship. They thanked him, most of all, for restoring a piece of the city's soul.
"I never thought football was ever going to come back to Baltimore," said John Ryan of Aberdeen, a one-time Colts fan who arrived to snag the first place in line at 6 a.m. "He brought it back here as a gentleman."
An estimated 3,000 people made their way through M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday to bask in memories of the former Ravens owner, who died Thursday at age 87, and to offer condolences to his family. The line of purple-clad mourners never sagged, and Modell's sons, David and John, greeted every person with a handshake or a hug.
"Hey, you shared your lives with us," David Modell said, thanking one fan. "He loved you guys so much," he said to another.
Frank Sinatra crooned, "I did it my way," over the stadium loudspeakers as images flashed on the giant video boards — Modell in his signature camel-hair coat on the sidelines with Lewis; Modell grinning on a golf cart with coach John Harbaugh at Ravens practice; Modell hugging his wife and boys with the field as a backdrop.
After he shook the last hand at 1:27 p.m., David Modell beamed at the mass show of affection for his dad.
"Wow," he said, grasping for words. "I have had some incredible days in this building. But how does one describe what happened here today? It's unbelievable how much love this community had for my father."
Modell was a child of Brooklyn who established his name in Cleveland. But when he made the wrenching decision to move his NFL franchise to Baltimore in 1995, he threw himself into his new community, becoming a major patron of the city's arts and hospitals.
In recognition of that commitment, Baltimoreans spoke of him as one of their own on Saturday.
"I thought he was first of all, a good man," said Delmar Harrod of Baltimore. "He cared for his family, he cared for his team, he cared for the city. So I just had to show my respect for that kind of man."
"I just have so much respect for what he's done in the community," added Margarita Salah of Perry Hall. "He was not just about taking."
"That's right," Harrod said. "He didn't mind giving."
At age 14, Matthew Twillman of Olney can't remember a world without Baltimore football. Twillman nonetheless felt compelled to make a tribute shirt with "Art Modell RIP" scrawled across the chest in purple marker.
"It was just the right thing to do to be here," said his father, Brian Twillman, who ached when the Colts left town in 1984. "We've been here with the Ravens ever since they came, and we love them. I know it wasn't easy for him to leave Cleveland, but we're so grateful."
Many fans seemed almost humbled that they were allowed an intimate moment with the Modells, that the Lombardi trophy was right there for them to caress, much as Modell caressed it in the moments after Super Bowl XXXV.
"It was awfully nice of his family to have this for the public," Ryan said.
The Ravens and the family agreed on the silent memorial as a fitting tribute for Modell. He will also be honored with a moment of silence before Monday evening's Ravens season opener and with memorial decals on the team's helmets. The family will hold a funeral service at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Tuesday morning, followed by a private luncheon and interment.
Saturday's memorial was meant to be more informal, with healthy doses of the football color Modell loved.
Wes Henson — better known as superfan Captain Dee-Fense — might have been the first person ever to attend such a service in purple camouflage pants. His sculpted right biceps was wrapped in a purple band and his shoulders were ringed with purple studs.
"What's up, handsome?" David Modell greeted him as the captain made his way through the line.
Henson has been inducted into several national fan halls of fame. "But I never would have gotten to do this without him," he said of Modell. "What would I be doing with my Sundays? I tell you, whenever I talked to him, I got the impression I was talking to a regular guy, not the owner of a $1 billion football team."
Towering over even Captain Dee-Fense was Jonathan Ogden, Modell's first draft pick in Baltimore. He laughed with family members as images flashed on the video screens, showing a baby-faced Ogden sitting next to Modell.
"The first thing that struck me about Art Modell was that it wasn't all about football with him," recalled the great left tackle. "It was about you as an individual, what was going on in your life, what he could do to help you."
Ogden said he attended the memorial so everyone would know how much he loved Modell as a man. Asked how he will remember the owner as the years go by, Ogden seized on the image of Modell riding around Ravens practice in his golf cart.
"He was always out there," Ogden said. "But it was never about the game plan. It was always like, 'Jon, how you doing? How's your mother? How's your brother?' That's what I'll miss, just going over there and saying, 'Hey boss, how you doing?'"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun