BALTIMORE – The NFL became America's game under a collection of shrewd businessmen that included some of the biggest names in league history: Pete Rozelle, Vince Lombardi, Dan Rooney and arguably the most influential of all — Art Modell.
Modell's insight thrust the struggling league into the public eye and onto the country's television screens on Sundays and Monday night.
Modell, who helped transform the NFL into America's pre-eminent sport, died Thursday. He was 87.
"His legacy is spectacular," St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "When things like this happen, it takes you back historically to where you ... actually have a sense of appreciation for what he did and where we would be without him."
Modell spent 43 years as an NFL owner, overseeing the Browns from 1961 until he moved the team to Baltimore in 1996. Modell served as league president from 1967-69, helped finalize the first collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968 and was the point man for the NFL's lucrative contracts with television networks.
"The game of football lost one of its all-time greats," Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. said. "Art's contributions to the NFL during his five decades in the game are immeasurable. I believe that Art did as much as any owner to help make the NFL what it is today. Art was a pioneer, a visionary and a selfless owner who always saw the big picture and did the right thing.
"Our game would not be what it is today if it weren't for Art Modell."
Long before his Baltimore Ravens won the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2001, Modell teamed with Lombardi, Rozelle and others to lay the foundation for the league's success.
"Art Modell was a most influential member of Commissioner Rozelle's 'Kitchen Cabinet' for many years, along with Dan Rooney and the late Tex Schramm," said Joe Browne, the longest-tenured player in the league's front office. "Ironically, Art is the only member of that group who is not enshrined in Canton. 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."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised Modell's work within the league as it was gaining momentum a half century ago.
"Art Modell's leadership was an important part of the NFL's success during the league's explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond," Goodell said in a statement. "Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the NFL."
Modell's reputation took a hit from which it would never recover when he pulled the Browns out of town following a round of secret negotiations with Baltimore city officials. The move was made not because of poor attendance in Cleveland, but because Baltimore provided him with a better business opportunity.
His perceived abandonment of Cleveland is the main reason why Modell died without gaining entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984, Baltimore went 12 years pining for another team. After the Browns left, Cleveland got an expansion team, a new stadium and retained its team colors and history, thanks in no small part of Modell.
But from the day he left to the day he died, Modell never got much love from Cleveland.
"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."
Browns fans became even angrier after Modell won his only Super Bowl.
"If Art could have given the trophy to Cleveland, I believe he would have," former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano said.
After that Super Bowl win, Modell did a little jig as part of an agreement with linebacker Ray Lewis, the second player selected by the Ravens in their inaugural draft in 1996. Lewis considers that moment to be among his most memorable over his 17-year relationship with a man he considered to be an owner in name only.
"Us on that stage, I told him that if we win it, he's going to have to try to do my dance," Lewis recalled Thursday, his voice cracking with emotion during a somber day at the team complex in Owings Mills. "We got on stage and he did the dance. It capped off exactly the way it was supposed to end. We were able to bring him what his true dream was, the Lombardi Trophy."
Brian Billick, coach of that Super Bowl team, said of Modell: "It was a joy to come to work for him. He accomplished so much as an owner: championships, playoffs, the TV contracts, the leadership in the NFL. They are all great and deserving of the Hall of Fame. Those who worked with Art will all say the same thing. He was a Hall of Fame person."
Modell's Browns were among the best teams of the 1960s, led for a time by Hall of Fame 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 leaving Ohio.
"This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me," Modell said at the time of the Browns 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."
Some NFL owners have several other sources of income. Modell had his football team. Period. And although the move to Baltimore helped keep him afloat for a while, he ultimately had to broker a deal that made Steve Bisciotti a minority owner. Part of the arrangement was that Bisciotti could assume majority ownership, and that's what happened in April 2004.
Bisciotti has since poured millions into the team, financing construction of a lavish practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. As a tribute, Bisciotti insisted that a huge oil painting of Modell be hung above the fireplace at the entrance to the complex.
Modell had an open invitation to come to camp, and although his health was failing in recent years, he occasionally dropped by to watch practice, toting around the field in a golf cart.
Lewis never failed to come by and say hello, and their relationship was so tight that they spent a few emotional moments together Wednesday in the hospital.
"The things that I shared in his ear, I will also keep that between me and him because it's like a son and a father," Lewis said. "I loved the man dearly."