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Modell remembered as father figure, leader by Ravens organization

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Modell brought a lot to Baltimore, including some important hardware. (AP)  
Modell brought a lot to Baltimore, including some important hardware. (AP)  

OWINGS MILLS, MD -- The first call came at around 7 Wednesday morning, when Art Modell's son, David, phoned Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and senior vice president Kevin Byrne at home to tell them this would likely be his dad's last day on earth. By that afternoon a large contingent of Ravens players and employees were by Art Modell's bedside at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, paying their respects to a former owner who had become a father figure to some of them.

Modell, who passed away in his sleep at the age of 87, may be forever vilified in Cleveland for moving the Browns to Baltimore, but around here he was held in the highest regard, both in life and now in death. He brought football back to this region after the NFL twice snubbed Baltimore in expansion, won a Super Bowl and helped evolve a model franchise, all while becoming a pillar of charity and philanthropy in the community.

While no one here was comfortable with the way the Ravens arrived in 1996, and many fans were conflicted or ambivalent early on given how Baltimore's Colts were once shipped off to Indianapolis in the middle of a snowstorm, in the years since this has gone from a baseball town to a football hotbed, with the Ravens' reach extending into areas once purely the domain of the Washington Redskins. This is Ravens Country, and it began with Modell.

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There are literally monuments to him in the city, from glistening M&T Bank Stadium and the Patricia and Art Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric Opera House downtown, to the additions that bear his name at Johns Hopkins, to the huge portrait of Modell and his late wife Patricia that owner Steve Bisciotti insisted hang in the team's pristine practice facility, which Biscotti built after taking over full control of the team in 2004.

Modell leaves behind a complicated legacy, due to the circumstances of the Browns departure, but as the Ravens prepared for their Monday night opener with the Bengals at Thursday's practice, these players, coaches and executives, and this area, was celebrating his life and the gifts he gave to Baltimore. This season is now dedicated to him.

"He was a giant of football," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh of the pioneering owner so influential in NFL tenets like revenue sharing and Monday Night Football. "But he was just a good, encouraging, wonderful soul, who made you feel better about who you were every time you were around him ... I'm just grateful for the opportunity to have known him."

So it came as no surprise that when word of Modell's condition began circulating Wednesday morning, everything else was dropped. Byrne and Newsome rushed first to the hospital, and then informed Biscotti. At first there was some trepidation -- Bisciotti declined to keep Modell's son David as team president when he assumed control of the Ravens, though always went to lengths to ensure the Modells felt a part of the team -- but was assured by David Modell he could stay as long as he liked. Bisciotti stayed until around 6 pm, sandwiched around a doctor's appointment, until Modell's son, John, had arrived from Los Angeles.

"He was my friend, my mentor," Bisciotti said in a statement. "We will miss him so much. How lucky are we to have had Art in Baltimore? How fortunate I am to have had him teach me about the NFL."

After getting a sense of Modell's condition -- he was fading in and out of conversations but quite focused at times - Byrne, who has been with this organization over 30 years, phoned Harbaugh. "You might want to come down here," he said. Harbaugh took off in his practice clothes along with Ray Lewis -- the last remaining Raven from their Super Bowl team. They ran into Ed Reed along the way, who wanted to come. So too did Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and rehabbing star Terrell Suggs.

You see, even after Modell's "retirement" and the sale of the team, he was a fixture at practices as his health permitted. You could find him in his wheelchair having lunch with some rookie in the team's cafeteria. "Art made a great effort to get out to practice to see what was going on," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I'll be forever grateful for the time I spent with him." He would be in his suite at games, cheering as ever, and remained a resource, after a lifetime that spanned from the NFL morphing from a niche sport into a global behemoth, for anyone in the organization.

So as these men gathered at his bedside, they told Modell exactly how they felt about him. They loved him. Deeply. Many felt they owed his careers to him. They told him how he changed the geography of Baltimore, helped raised the profile and economy of the city, gave it a boost of confidence with the return of the NFL.

Lewis became quite emotional. He hunched down so he could whisper in Modell's ear by his bedside, the same way the owner so often talked directly to him, and poured out his heart. "It was a son talking to a father," Lewis said, welling up as he recounted his last hours with the owner who drafted him. Harbaugh told Modell how hard his team was going to fight for him this season, and their eyes met, Modell's piercing blues now intent. "Those eyes were going right at me like, 'You'd better,'" Harbaugh said.

"If you know anything about him," Lewis said, "if you know anything about what he did in this league and what he meant to this organization, why wouldn't you go play for him? Because he is watching. This season we definitely dedicate to him."

It's amazing how many key employees remain from when Modell brought the team to Maryland, a move that Modell, a high school dropout turned businessman, anguished over, knowing it would put a pox on him forever, bracing for the death threats, knowing Baltimore might be slow to embrace a storied relocated franchise after their own bitter past. Today, Lewis and others thanked Modell for doing so, for without those actions they would never have these ties to Baltimore today, and expressed their dismay he was not already enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

"Here, there were too many people who loved him to ever think about the people who didn't like him," Lewis said.

Byrne masterly oversaw the public relations nightmare that comes with a franchise relocation, and is a fixture with the team still. General manager Ozzie Newsome is himself a living legacy to Modell, who was always at the forefront of bringing gender equality into the front office and coaching ranks. "He was the most caring, compassionate person I've ever known," Newsome said.

Scouts Vince Newsome and George Kokinis and salary cap maven Pat Moriarity made the move with Modell to Baltimore and there are trainers and employees in publications who did the same -– nearly 10 in all, a fairly staggering circumstance 16 years later in a league with widespread transition.

Some will knock Modell's business acumen, his inability to make it work in Cleveland (a complicated and laborious economic topic that's fodder for debate on another day), but his ability to assemble and assimilate talent is beyond reproach. Consider that in his latter years with the Browns, Modell hired Bill Belichick as coach and Mike Lombardi to lead personnel, and brought in future luminaries like Newsome, Jim Schwartz (Lions coach), Nick Saban (Alabama coach), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa coach), Scott Pioli (Chiefs GM), Mike Tannenbaum (Jets GM), Phil Savage (former Browns GM, now head of the Senior Bowl) and Kokinis (former Browns GM), to name a few.

"Art was always very generous," Lombardi told me. "Generous as a human being, and generous in that he would try to hire talented people and then let them do what they do best. Generous in the way he would let you try to build an organization."

In Baltimore, Savage and Kokinis left the team for general manager jobs; assistant coaches like Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Mike Smith (Falcons), Rex Ryan (Jets), Jack Del Rio (Jaguars), Mike Nolan (49ers), Mike Singletary (49ers) and most recently, Chuck Pagano (Colts) became head coaches elsewhere. And yet still the Ravens have thrived, with only a few lean years, as others were promoted. Modell's model continues to work.

"He was a servant leader," as Harbaugh, a Cleveland native whose parents spent their honeymoon at a Browns game on free tickets Modell gave to local high school coaches, put it.

It's something Bisciotti has long marveled at, the ability to identify future leaders. Even in his choice of successor, Modell left a gift to his adopted second city. Finding an owner as young, resourceful, dedicated and dynamic as Bisciotti to hand the franchise to was in itself a civic treasure for Baltimore.

So now Baltimore turns its collective heart to Modell.

The talk radio airwaves were filled with stories from regular people who had extraordinary interactions with Modell at a hospital or an art gallery or a park. The House of Ruth, and St. Vincent's, charities to help battered women and children and those less fortunate, where Modell gave so freely of his time and money, feel his void already.

The Ravens have an extra day to mourn and remember him this weekend, playing on Monday (the innovation Modell ushered in, with his Browns playing the first ever game in that time slot). "An amazing twist, I would say, of providential irony," Harbaugh called the scheduling. The team plans to honor him with a helmet decal, and there will be extensive pre-game festivities before the 7 p.m. kickoff.

David and John Modell will take part in the celebration, but don't plan to stay for the game. Instead, Modell's suite will sit dark while the Ravens play the Bengals, Ray Lewis will gyrate and motivate his teammates before the game by recalling his love for the fallen owner, and Baltimore will begin another football season, a simple prospect now, but one which back in the mid-1990s seemed utterly impossible.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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