Art Modell died without gaining induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, presumably because one perceived misdeed overshadowed his numerous contributions to the NFL.
During his 43 years as a team owner, Modell served as president of the league, helped create the first collective bargaining agreement with the players and was instrumental in creating a bond with television that propelled the NFL into prominence.
He also moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996. Although the Browns started up an expansion team in 1999, received a new stadium and retained their colors and history — a concession by Modell — the city of Cleveland and many Hall of Fame voters never forgave him for taking away the Browns, a move that came after a series of secret meetings with officials from Baltimore.
Thus, despite becoming a Hall of Fame finalist in 2001 and a semifinalist in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011, Modell died Thursday without a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was the second player drafted by Baltimore in its inaugural draft in 1996. Lewis grew to love Modell and was at his bedside on Wednesday. Lewis' voice cracked with emotion on Thursday when he talked about Modell, and the 17-year veteran bemoaned the fact that Modell never gained entry into the Hall.
"Most Hall of Famers left a legacy of impact," Lewis said. "If nothing else, Art left a legacy of pure impact. That, to me, is what a true Hall of Famer is — someone who leaves their footprints on something."
With Modell leading the way, the NFL began playing on Monday night. The Browns faced the New York Jets in that first game, and Monday Night Football remains one of the longest-running, prime-time series in television history.
"My good fortune is that I met Art when I was a 20-year-old intern for Roone Arledge, and he was creating the first Monday night game," said Dick Ebersol, former president of NBC. "I am so saddened with one thing: Art did not get to experience an induction into the Hall of Fame. The leaders in Cleveland, when he moved to Baltimore, put Art in an untenable situation and left him with the hard choice of moving. That scarred some people on Art. I hope in death Art is placed where he should be — in Canton in the Hall of Fame."
NFL executive Joe Browne echoed that sentiment.
"Art Modell was a most influential member of commissioner (Pete) Rozelle's 'Kitchen Cabinet' for many years, along with Dan Rooney and the late Tex Schramm. Ironically, Art is the only member of that group who is not enshrined in Canton," Browne said. "Hopefully, the Hall of Fame media selectors will rectify that oversight in the near future — not as an emotional reaction to Art's death, but as a rightful reflection of his longtime contributions to the NFL."
Similarly, New York Giants president and CEO John Mara said, "Art Modell was one of the greatest owners in the history of the NFL. He contributed in so many ways to the success of this league, and he deserves a place in Canton."
Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson opposed the move of the Browns in 1996, but the relocation didn't tarnish the friendship he formed with Modell many years earlier.
"Art and I were good friends, and while we remained competitive in respect to our teams, we shared many laughs over the years," Wilson said. "He was an influential figure in our league and was respected tremendously within the NFL ownership group."