BALTIMORE – One of the most influential owners in the history of the NFL, Art Modell helped mold the foundation of the league.
The innovative Modell, whose reputation was forever tainted when he moved his franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore, died early Thursday. He was 87.
David Modell said he and his brother, John, were at their father's side when he "died peacefully of natural causes."
Art Modell was among the most important figures in the NFL as owner of the Cleveland Browns, who became the Ravens after he took the team to Baltimore in 1996 — a move that hounded him the rest of his life.
"It's a shame that one decision hurt how some people think of him, because he did so much good," said Doug Dieken, an offensive lineman who's 14-year run in Cleveland was the longest in Browns' history.
The Ravens won their lone Super Bowl in January 2001, less than a year after Modell sold a minority interest of the team to Steve Bisciotti. In April 2004, Bisciotti completed purchase of the franchise but left Modell a 1 percent share.
During his four decades as an NFL owner, Modell helped negotiate the league's lucrative contracts with television networks, served as president of the NFL from 1967 to 1969, and chaired the negotiations for the first the collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968.
He also was the driving force behind the 1970 contract between the NFL and ABC to televise games on Monday night.
At one time one of Cleveland's biggest civic leaders, Modell became a pariah in Ohio after he moved the team.
"I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move," he said in 1999. "The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me."
The move was also believed to be the main reason why Modell never made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was one of 15 finalists in 2001 and a semifinalist seven times between 2004 and 2011.
"He worked alongside Lamar Hunt, Tex Schramm, Well Mara and Art Rooney, and all of those men are in the Hall of Fame," former Browns guard John Wooten said. "He worked with them in all of those meetings. He was there. It is indeed a shame that he is not in the Hall of Fame."
Few people did more to help the NFL become what it is today.
"Art Modell's leadership was an important part of the NFL's success during the league's explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the NFL."
Goodell also appreciated Modell's sharp wit.
"Art's skills as an owner and league contributor were matched only by his great sense of humor," he tweeted. "Any conversation with Art included laughs."
Modell's Browns were among the best teams of the 1960s, led during his first few years as owner by legendary running back Jim Brown. Cleveland won the NFL championship in 1964 — Modell's only title with the Browns — and played in the title game in 1965, 1968 and 1969.
Modell said he lost millions of dollars operating the Browns in Cleveland and cited the state of Maryland's financial package, including construction of a $200 million stadium, as his reasons for going to Baltimore. The Ravens replaced the Baltimore Colts, who moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
"This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me," Modell said at the time of the move. "I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice."
Ironically, the cost of the move to Baltimore left him financially strapped and left him no choice but to put in motion the chain of events that enabled Bisciotti to assume majority ownership of the franchise.
Bisciotti has since poured millions into the team, financing construction of a lavish practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. As a tribute to Modell, Bisciotti insisted that a huge oil painting of Modell be hung above the fireplace at the entrance to the complex.
"He was my friend, my mentor. We will miss him so much," Bisciotti said. "... How fortunate I am to have had him teach me about the NFL."
Modell wasn't the kind of owner who operated his team from an office. He mingled with the players and often watched every minute of practice.
"Art talked with me every day when I played in Baltimore," former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "He knew everything about what was going on in my life. He showed real concern. But, it wasn't just me. He knew the practice squad players' names. He treated them the same. He was out at practice when it was 100 degrees and when the December snows came. I loved playing for him."
Born June 23, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Modell dropped out of high school at age 15 and worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard cleaning out the hulls of ships to help out his financially strapped family after the death of his father.
He completed high school in night class, joined the Air Force in 1943, and then enrolled in a television school after World War II. He used that education to produce one of the first regular daytime television programs before moving into the advertising business in 1954.
A group of friends led by Modell purchased the Browns in 1961 for $4 million — a figure he called "totally excessive."
"You get few chances like this," he said at the time. "To take advantage of the opportunity, you must have money and friends with more."
Aside from his work with the Browns, Modell became a leader in the Cleveland community. He served on the board of directors of a number of large companies, including the Ohio Bell Telephone Co., the Higbee Co. and the 20th Century-Fox Film Corp.
Modell and his wife, Patricia, continued their charitable ways in Baltimore, donating millions of dollars to The Seed School of Maryland, a boarding school in Maryland for disadvantaged youths; Johns Hopkins Hospital; and the Kennedy Krieger Institute. The couple also gave $3.5 million to the Lyric, which was renamed the Patricia & Art Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric.
Patricia, his wife of 42 years, passed away in 2011.
"'Poppy' was a special man who was loved by his sons, his daughter-in-law Michel, and his six grandchildren," David Modell said. "Moreover, he was adored by the entire Baltimore community for his kindness and generosity. And, he loved Baltimore."
Art Modell hoped one day the people of Cleveland would remember him for what he accomplished there. Long after the move, Modell pointed out that Cleveland ultimately got the new stadium he coveted, and that the expansion version of the Browns could draw on the history he helped create.
"I think that part of my legacy is I left the colors, the name and the records in Cleveland," Modell said. "The fans in Cleveland were loyal and supportive. They lived and died with me every Sunday for 35 years."