Modell stands first in league for heart, generosity, spirit

OUR FIRST MEETING didn't go well. On Feb. 9, 1996, only minutes after he announced that his Cleveland Browns were moving to Baltimore, Art Modell was whisked away by bodyguards to a limousine about 100 feet from the stage.

As I approached the car to introduce myself as the team's new beat writer, Modell rolled up the window and the driver pulled off. It wasn't exactly a great beginning.

But it's been different in the past eight years. I've never been out with Modell socially. I've never been to his house. I don't even know any of his best friends well. But through hundreds of late-night phone calls and countless hours of interviews, I know of a compassionate man who has a passion for football and a wonderful sense of humor.

We had all heard the rumors about Modell when he moved here. We heard he was a poor businessman and a carpetbagger. We heard of his extravagant lifestyle and how he cut the heart out of a city. One former Browns coach told me that Modell hated blacks, which was hilarious because everyone knows Modell has three sons: David, John and Ozzie Newsome, the last being the Ravens' general manager, the first African-American to hold such a high post in the NFL.

Baltimoreans understand the malice Cleveland fans have toward Modell. We all experienced similar disdain for the late Robert Irsay when he moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1983. But be careful about what you hear around the league because it's so cutthroat, and everyone has an agenda.

But the words I remember most came from former Cleveland coach Bill Belichick, who was fired by Modell once the league approved the move.

"Art has made his mistakes, but the guy can't hate people," Belichick said at the end of our conversation back in 1996. "You can write nasty stuff about him, his family and he'll get mad for hours, but he'll treat you like his best friend the next day. The guy does have a big heart."

Before a personality transplant back in 2000 prior to his becoming coach of the New England Patriots, Belichick was regarded as cynical and mean-spirited. He could have trashed Modell, maybe rightfully so, but instead gave out praise.

And he was right.

Modell, 78, has always been soft. He helped raise $35 million as president of the Cleveland Clinic during a seven-year period. You name a board of directors, and Modell was on it in Cleveland. In Baltimore, he has helped raise more than $600,000 for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland, and the Arthritis Foundation. He has contributed to the House of Ruth for homeless youth and battered women, and the St. Vincent Home for Abused Children.

And then there is the Modell who works behind the scenes.

Few people know that he paid the travel expenses of rookie running back Ernie Davis to fly around the country in 1962 to visit doctors in an attempt to find a cure for leukemia. When former Browns linebacker Eddie Johnson died of cancer last January, Modell had paid for all his medical treatments and the funeral. When former defensive end Michael McCrary had family medical problems this past summer, it was Modell who arranged for some of the country's best doctors to meet with them, a move that overwhelmed the McCrary family.

Modell has been a main sponsor of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown's Amer-I-Can, which helps gang members and former prisoners. He created the Inner Circle in Cleveland, one of the first franchises to offer a drug-and-alcohol-abuse center to Browns players.

He always thought people deserved a second chance, which led to some of his financial problems. Modell gave three chances to former Ravens running back Bam Morris to straighten up, and another three to former defensive tackle Larry Webster.

Once, after I told him Webster didn't deserve another opportunity, Modell became angry. He proceeded to yell at me for about five minutes. The next day, he greeted me with a hug and an apology. His decision had not wavered.

That was vintage Modell.

He often showed emotion. He cried on the night I told him Ray Lewis had been arrested in Atlanta. He wept openly in the hallway only seconds after he fired former coach Ted Marchibroda, a man he adored.

The players knew there was something about Modell that set him apart from other owners. Despite two heart attacks and a stroke in recent years, Modell still attended most practices sitting in his golf cart, regardless of the weather. Ask Lewis about Modell, and he shakes his head in awe. He wants to win another championship this season just for Modell. If there is such a thing as a players' owner, Modell is one.

Modell has a similar passion for the NFL. It was Modell who chaired the league's television committee and negotiated the TV contracts for three decades, which has led to millions of dollars for the league in revenue. It was Modell who was involved in the start of Monday Night Football. He was chairman of the Owners Labor Committee (1968), which successfully negotiated the league's first collective bargaining agreement, and served on the NFL-AFL Merger Committee, breaking the impasses for realignment of the two leagues by moving the Browns to the AFC.

Modell belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even some of the anger in Cleveland has started to subside. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ira Miller wrote, "You can't write the history of pro football without [John] Elway and [Barry] Sanders, and you can't write it without Modell, either."

It's impossible.

But today may mark the end of Modell's 43 years as owner of this franchise. He has left the franchise in great shape with eight Pro Bowl players, a quarterback of the future and plenty of cap room to make a serious Super Bowl run in the next two to three years.

Modell would prefer to go out without much fuss, but the organization won't let him. Around the Ravens' complex, there isn't a soul who will say a bad word about Modell.

They all speak of him with great reverence.

It has been earned. In 1996, Modell gave Baltimore the football again. He gave this city a three-hour escape from reality on Sundays during the fall and winter months. He helped put Baltimore back where it belongs, in the same league with the Green Bays, New Yorks and Dallases, other cities that have a storied past in the NFL.

Often though, Modell has been just as anonymous as some of the players behind those helmets and face masks.

But underneath was an engaging, gentle man who was just as compassionate for others as he was passionate about the game.