“It’s been tough. A long day. I will rest later,” Art Modell said at his home Monday night. Art and his family welcomed friends in an evening reception following the funeral of Pat Breslin Modelll — Art’s wife of 42 years who passed away at the age of 80 after battling a lengthy illness. Art sat in his wheelchair, offering a smile and conjuring a trademark quip for each visitor who came to offer condolences. Classic Art: always armed with his quick sense of humor. When someone says to him, “What a beautiful home!” he immediately responds: “It better be, for what I paid for it.” Then the Art Modell laugh, that self-satisfied chuckle. Art always laughs at his own jokes, something that his wife said always made her laugh, even if she’d heard the same joke 20 times before. One of Art’s greatest gifts and strengths is his ability to laugh. In 2003, we sat side-by-side in a golf cart at the Ravens old training facility and he talked about his early swash-buckling days as owner of the Cleveland Browns. He bought the team in 1961 after borrowing more than $2 million to put toward the $4 million franchise price. He laughed that he didn’t have enough money to buy lunch after he bought the team. As we spoke, Art laughed about his innovative ideas to bring fans to games (he scheduled the Cleveland Symphony to play between games of a football doubleheader and rain between games caused the stage to get stuck on the field). He laughed about his need to constantly borrow money to keep his team afloat and how bankers ran away when they saw him coming. Art eventually laughed all the way to the bank when he sold the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti for more than $600 million.
Art Modell doesn’t laugh when he speaks of the trauma of moving his team from Cleveland. Among those friends who came to his home after Pat’s funeral was former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. Kosar is the Brown that Cleveland loves while Modell is the one they hate- yet there they were together as friends when the former owner needed to be surrounded with comfort. There was a heavy security presence at the Modell home that night because, sadly, there are still occasional threats on Art’s life. That’s a sobering footnote on what is already a sad night while a family mourns the loss of its matriarch. But it’s a reality Art has learned to live with. Through it all, he could always find another subject that would lead to one of his jokes, and a laugh.
When I’m with Art Modell, I can’t help but feel that I’m in the presence of rich history bordering on NFL royalty. Not that he’s boastful or kingly- quite the opposite. Art is sincere and self-effacing, yet he exudes that daring, pioneering persona of the early days of the league. He’s on par with Hall of Famer Al Davis who died last week. I asked Art about the late Oakland Raiders owner and Modell told me that he appreciated all that Davis did, but wished Al never had sued the NFL as he did multiple times. Those early owners formed a brotherhood and Davis broke ranks. Art Modell is a loyal man. It breaks his heart that his loyalty to Cleveland was not reciprocated, but the details of that divorce fill books and endless arguments and have no place in the discussion on this day. I asked Art if he feels a certain sense of pride when he sits in front of the television on an NFL Sunday- knowing how much he helped build the popular spectacle that it is. He nods his head in affirmation, then adds, “Especially on Monday nights.” Of course, Modell was instrumental in launching the concept of Monday Night Football. And there we were at his house, on a Monday night before the Jets played host to the Dolphins. On any other Monday night, Art would relax and watch the game. This wasn’t the night for that.
Football is his life and will continue to be. Art tells me he’ll be at Ravens practices even more now. Those close to him tell me that when he’s with the team at the facility Art is most vibrant. He has lunch with coach John Harbaugh and loves to interact with the players. The experience keeps him engaged, keeps him feeling young, keeps him laughing. Something for Art to look forward to, because as he said it’s been a long, tough day.
Posted By: Mark Viviano