Some of Ray Lewis' best memories with Art Modell came after the former Ravens' owner would pull him in close, and whisper in his ear. Sometimes, it was just to offer Lewis a piece of advice, wish him luck or ask about his family. Other times, Modell, known for his sharp sense of humor and quick wit, simply had a joke that he wanted to share.
On Wednesday evening, Lewis visited a gravely ill Modell at Johns Hopkins Hospital and returned the favor. As teammates Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Ravens coach John Harbaugh surrounded Modell, Lewis bent down and delivered one final message to a man the linebacker considered a father figure.
"I will always keep that between me and him because it is a son talking to a father. That's the way I looked at it from the moment I started whispering in his ear because that's what he always used to do to me," said Lewis, choking up several times. "It's hard to keep talking about someone who loved you that much. It's like you have to keep a man like that lifted up because when you see that time closing, that you know physically that you will never see him again. That part of it, you let it take care of itself. Everything that I said in his ear, he knew came from my heart. I loved the man dearly."
Similar sentiments were expressed Thursday by general manager Ozzie Newsome, Reed and so many other current and former Ravens along with others from the NFL community who had worked with Modell over the years.
Modell died Thursday at 4 a.m. from natural causes, his son, David, said in a statement. He was 87 years old. There will be a public viewing for Modell from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"When you think back as I have over the past 24 hours of the impact of Art, I can't express it in words," said Newsome, wiping away a tear as he spoke. Modell hired Newsome as the first minority general manager in the NFL. "But based on all the texts, all the emails and all the phone calls I've gotten from people, the impact not only that he had on my life, he had a major impact on their life, too. He was a great, great man. "
The mood at the Under Armour Performance Center on Thursday as the Ravens prepared for their season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night was a somber one. The flags out front were at half-staff , while inside, there are reminders of the beloved former owner everywhere.
An oil painting of Modell hangs over the fireplace just inside the main entrance at the insistence of current owner Steve Bisciotti, who completed the purchase of the Ravens from Modell in April 2004.
"He was my friend, my mentor," Bisciotti said in a statement released by the team. "How lucky are all of us to have had Art in Baltimore? … We will strive to live up to his standard."
To the bottom right of the painting is the Lombardi Trophy which the Ravens won in 2001 , giving Modell his second NFL championship. In the hallway leading to the team's indoor practice facility is a picture of Modell hoisting the championship trophy.
"I think one of the greatest moments, of course, was actually bringing him the Lombardi Trophy," Lewis said. "I told him that if we win it, then he is going to have to try to do my dance. We got on stage, and I did it and he did the dance. I think it capped off exactly the way it was supposed to end … Now, we were able to bring him what his true dream was, the Lombardi Trophy."
Lewis called Modell a "leader … to many men" and cited the sacrifices that he had made for the league, for the organization and for him. Modell was one of Lewis' staunchest supporters during the linebacker's legal problems in Atlanta in 2000.
"The only reason I'm in Baltimore is because of him. The only reason the Ravens have a team is because of him. The only reason a lot of sacrifices have happened throughout this league is because of him," Lewis said. "Any time that you can leave a legacy like that, we shouldn't mourn [though] we do. We should be celebrating him because he was one of the most awesome men I have ever met in my life."
Modell bought the Cleveland Browns for $4 million in 1961 and moved them here three decades later, a decision that left him beloved in Baltimore but reviled in Cleveland. Asked if he understands why Modell is so vilified in Cleveland, Lewis said, "There were too many people that loved him to ever think about the people that don't like him. So be it."
Modell was still occasionally around the team and watched practices from a golf cart, but his visits became less frequent as he dealt with health problems.
Harbaugh remembered his first meeting with Modell came after he was hired as Ravens' coach in 2008. He grew up in Northeast Ohio and Harbaugh's parents went to a Browns' game on their honeymoon, thanks to tickets Modell provided for local high school coaches.
"He gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek," Harbaugh said. "A kiss on the cheek from Art Modell. What could be better than that?"
Former Browns and Ravens kicker Matt Stover learned what Modell was all about after he missed a kick early in his career in Cleveland.
"I missed a field goal and was down on myself, and Art called me on the sideline phone," Stover recalled. "He told me, 'Just hit the next one, kid.' I'm not sure how many other owners would have done that."
The Ravens will wear decals on their helmets with Modell's initials: ABM. Harbaugh called it "providential irony" that the team will open its season on Monday considering Modell was so instrumental to the start of Monday Night Football. Several other players talked about dedicating the Ravens' season to Modell.
But probably the greatest tribute to Modell came Wednesday when family members, friends and his former players showed up to the hospital to talk to him one final time. Ravens senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne, who knew Modell as well as anybody in the organization, called the scene "powerful."
"We were a part of him, we were a part of the family. That was the reason he lived — football," Reed said. "For us to be in there, I'm sure he knew. His eyes were open looking up at us and all of us were around him … talking to him and praying with him. It was great just being there to see him off."