Art Modell and a birthday party to remember

A couple of years ago, a few days before Art Modell turned 85, the Ravens surprised him with a beautiful cake at lunch in the cafeteria of the Castle in Owings Mills.

You haven't lived until you've heard Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh and dozens of big, tough football players and coaches and Ravens staffers sing "Happy Birthday." It wasn't Pavarotti, it wasn't "America's Got Talent," but it was from the heart, all right.


Modell, the Ravens' owner emeritus at the time, was in a terrific mood. He sat in his wheelchair, dressed in a sharp-looking blue shirt and dark slacks, and he was gracious and witty with everyone who stopped by to talk and offer congratulations.

"My health is reasonably good," he told me. "I'm grateful for that because I went through an awful lot. Two heart attacks. Two strokes. But I came though."

He laughed softly and added: "I'm grateful to the High Commissioner for that. And I don't mean Roger Goodell."

Memories of that wonderful afternoon came flooding back with the news of Modell's death Thursday at 87.

The Ravens couldn't have asked for a better owner, that's for sure. He brought football back to Baltimore in 1996 and helped heal the horrible civic wound Bob Irsay caused when he moved the Colts to Indianapolis all those years earlier.

But during that birthday celebration, men like Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens'' general manager, and Kevin Byrne, the team's long-time media relations guru, were eager to talk about what a visionary Modell was, what a giant he was in NFL circles, how much he had done for the league in its formative years.

"There wasn't anything innovative or new to the game that he wasn't a part of," Newsome told me.

Modell, Newsome and Byrne pointed out, had headed the owners' labor committtee that negotiated the NFL's first collective bargaining agreement with the players.

He had been a key figure in the merger of the AFL and NFL, too, because he agreed to move the Browns to the AFC. And he was the driving force behind the first TV deals the league struck with the networks, deals that turbo-charged the NFL's popularity and eventually made it the most popular sport in the country.

When I said good-bye to Modell at that birthday party, so many well-wishers had stopped by his table that his slice of cake sat virtually untouched.

"Nice talking to you again,"" he said. "Take care of yourself."

I've thought of that wonderful party on and off over the past couple of years. Now on this gray, gloomy day in Baltimore, with Art Modell gone, it's a nice memory to have.