Keeping ties to team suits Modell just fine

Keeping ties to team suits Modell just fine
Former Ravens owner Art Modell said of the organization: "It's part of my existence. ... It's been my life." (Sun photo by Kim Hairston)
Art Modell doesn't make road trips anymore. He no longer endures marathon work weeks, either. As for major decisions around the Ravens, let's just say it's a choice between baked chicken and prime rib at the team's cafeteria.

Modell's reign as majority owner might have ended in 2004 with the sale of the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti, but his attachment to the team and its lifestyle did not.

On any given Wednesday or Thursday, he can be seen motoring around the team's Owings Mills practice facility in a golf cart - often with his wife, Pat - lunching with friends or chatting up former employees.

It's a less demanding routine that suits his unofficial position as owner emeritus with the Ravens. His 1 percent interest in the team is a lifeline that keeps him coming back for more.

"It's part of my existence," he said recently. "You can't take this ballclub out of me. It's been my life."

Once one of the league's most powerful owners, Modell is revered in Baltimore for bringing back the NFL. At the same time, he is reviled in Cleveland for moving the Browns' franchise.

These days, he navigates the Ravens' cavernous training facility in a wheelchair because his balance isn't quite what it used to be before a 2002 stroke. At 81, he shows the wear from 46 eventful - and sometimes turbulent - years in the NFL.

"The worst thing is not being able to get around himself," Pat said. "He's such a strong, sensitive man. It makes it very difficult. He has fits of depression."

Despite a spate of health issues the past few years, Modell still has a sharp mind and strong spirit. His presence permeates the team's complex, starting in the main lobby, where a life-size oil painting of a stoic Modell in a camel-hair coat greets visitors.

The painting and a second-floor office with a balcony overlooking the Ravens' practice fields are courtesy of Bisciotti, who purchased minority interest in the team in 2000 and took control in 2004.

"Art and I were partners for four years and I thought it was just a nice way to honor him," Bisciotti said of the portrait done by California artist Joe Liang. "He was leaving me in charge of something that he loved dearly for 40 years."

Except that Modell really hasn't left.

In addition to his practice excursions, he attends home games. Afterward, in his private suite, Modell reviews the day's events with coach Brian Billick.

During the week, he'll call general manager Ozzie Newsome two or three times, as well as old friends in the league, such as Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

At his home in Cockeysville (he and Pat have another in Vero Beach, Fla.), Modell enjoys visits from his four grandchildren, watches news shows and the Weather Channel with devotion, and gets daily exercise with the help of a therapist.

And when the question of retirement comes up during a 45-minute interview, Modell virtually bristles.

"I'm not retired," he said. "I'm not putting in the 80 hours a week I used to; those days are over. [But] I'm mentally active and I talk to my own people."

His "own people" include sons David, the former Ravens president, and John, who run Modell Ventures, a film production business. Modell said he also has controlling interest in Sportexe, a company that supplies artificial football surfaces (M&T Bank Stadium has a Sportexe surface).

Modell's stewardship in Baltimore has been distinguished by his participation in the community. He is a champion of charitable causes.

He currently chairs a $100 million fund drive that will help build a new cardiovascular tower on Orleans Street for the Heart Institute at Johns Hopkins. Sam Miller, executive assistant to Modell, said Art and Pat have contributed $10 million to the project themselves.

Miller said they also have made donations to Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Walters Art Galley, Baltimore Museum of Art, House of Ruth, Hospice of Baltimore, Ed Block Courage House at St. Vincent's and the recent restoration of the Basilica.

Cleveland's loss was Baltimore's charitable bonanza.

"Cleveland owes this gal, more than anybody else, tons and tons of gratitude for what she did for that city," Modell said, indignation rising, about his wife of 39 years. "And she's doing it now for Baltimore. I'm very proud of her."

Philanthropy has always been a hallmark of Modell's teams, said Ravens senior vice president Kevin Byrne.

"I think that's why it was more of a shock to Cleveland to lose the franchise than some of the other cities that have lost franchises," he said. "We continue that here and I think we've done it well."

Ten years after moving the Browns to Baltimore, and eight years after Cleveland got an expansion team, Modell remains persona non grata in Ohio. Even now, he is unable to set the controversy behind him.

"It's over for me," he said. "Just ask the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer if it's over."

Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Browns who was director of pro personnel during their last year in Cleveland, remembers the financial spiral that led to the team's departure.

"I think his desire to win affected him in Cleveland," said Newsome, who became the NFL's first African-American general manager under Modell in 2002 and has since resisted overtures to leave Baltimore. "His not getting to a Super Bowl affected his running the franchise because that's what he wanted to do. He invested a lot of capital into the players to win a Super Bowl.

"I don't think anybody can describe how tough it was for him to have to leave Cleveland. I saw a man that was torn, but I saw a man that had no choice."

Bisciotti winces at the thought that Modell's contributions and leadership in the league may be overshadowed by the decision to relocate.

"I worry about that very much and I think that's why it's so important that he gets in the Hall of Fame," Bisciotti said.

"They ought to be thinking about picking him up and sending him to Canton [Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame] right now. To me, it's mind boggling that a couple of sportswriters that are angry that he moved their beloved Browns out of Cleveland could rally the other sportswriters into penalizing Art."

These days, the best therapy Modell can get comes at the Ravens' practice facility, where he carries on as he always has.

"He loves the game, he loves the people involved in the game," Byrne said. "It's why he got involved in the first place. He's a happy, happy person at practice."