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Byrne Identity: David Modell Froze Heads And Deserves Credit For A Lot Of What Raven Fans Enjoy

Posted Jan 20, 2017

Ravens Senior VP of Public Relations Kevin Byrne details the emotional hospital visit that he and Head Coach John Harbaugh made to David Modell a few days before his death.


David Modell used to freeze the head of then-Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher.

Literally.

The week of the Steelers game, he would cut out the head shots of Cowher and key players like Hines Ward, Kordell Stewart, Troy Polamalu and Joey Porter from the Steelers media guide.

When we played the Bengals, he’d have heads of Marvin Lewis and some of their stars.

He would take these photos, place them in dixie cups or ice trays, fill them with water and put them in the freezer.

He did this to help the Ravens win. It was one of his superstitions. Freeze the heads, and the Ravens win.

Yes, we’re all a little nuts in this business, even team presidents like David Modell, who passed away last Friday after a hard-fought battle with cancer.

During our Super Bowl run in 2012, when David was not officially with the Ravens, he would come every Thursday to watch practice. Early that season, David wished John Harbaugh luck with a handshake and hug. That took place in the weight room. We won that Sunday. The following Thursday, David explained to Harbs that they needed to shake and hug again, not outside where they were having the discussion, but in the weight room. Harbs laughed, followed David, and they repeated this every Thursday through the Super Bowl victory in New Orleans.

Visiting David

Coach Harbaugh and I talked about that on our way to see David a week ago Wednesday. His dynamic wife, Michel, called and said it was time for last goodbyes.

Whew. A lot of you have been through this process, saying goodbye to a close friend or relative. It’s not easy. And, David was 55, too young, and he and Michel’s two-year old twins, Fee and Bertie, were just down the hall when we arrived.

We were told by David’s brother, John, who stayed with him through his last days, that the younger Modell would be in and out of consciousness. David perked up when he saw Harbs at his bedside. Our goal was to make him smile a few times, and we were able to do that.

Coach Harbaugh talked about the hug-handshake-in-the-weight-room sequence. John Modell told my favorite “brothers’ story.” When the two were youngsters, they attended a banquet with their father, Art, with the highest of Naval officials at an NFL owners’ function. The two boys were seated among the Admirals, near the head of the Navy. When David went to the bathroom, John placed David’s dessert, an ice cream parfait, on his seat. When he returned, David sat in it, looked at his brother with a vengeance, grabbed John’s parfait and poured it over his brother’s head.

“The room became silent,” John recalled. “‘Pop Art,’ who was having a discussion and had not seen our actions, was mortified. He grabbed us, made us apologize and took us out of the room. He told our mom [Patricia] that night that he wanted to disown us.”

David smiled through his fog.

I talked about arriving back at our old training facility on Owings Mills Blvd. on our return after winning Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. I reminded David that there were about 1,000 fans waiting for us in an area that had no room for that type of crowd. People were out in the street, in our driveway and throughout the parking lot. “Remember, David, you grabbed the trophy, turned to Coach [Brian] Billick and said, ‘Let’s go see the fans and let them touch the trophy.’”

He smiled at that, even chuckled a little.

He faded then, and John explained that David was off all life support, and the doctors at Johns Hopkins were fighting David’s pain with various medications.

While he rested, the three of us talked about how we received two trophies for each of our Super Bowl victories. David’s goal was to get “100,000” sets of finger prints on the one they handed to Art at Raymond James Stadium – and then never polish what he nicknamed “Silver Betty.” He achieved that goal of sharing that trophy with you, the fans. “It looks a little grimy,” Michel cheerfully related later, smiling at David’s insistence to never clean it.

Fight To The End

Coach Harbaugh sat on a chair, on the left side of David’s bed. John Modell stood on the right, and I hovered near his feet. Harbs kept his hand on David’s arm and said, “I love you, David.” Soon after, David’s head literally popped up, eyes wide open, looked at the head coach and me and proclaimed almost indignantly, “What are you doing here?”

Man, it made me feel guilty. “Hey, we’re just stopping by. We’ll come see you when you get home, too.” He knew why we were there, but he wasn’t ready to give up the fight. “Thanks for coming,” he said. Harbs bent forward and kissed his cheek, I shook his right hand. We hugged brother John and left the room with tears in our eyes.

Michel called less than 48 hours later and said, “David passed 15 minutes ago.” Whew. I let Harbs, who was in his office, know right away. I was told Ozzie Newsome, who was headed to see David that afternoon, was on a treadmill in the weight room. As I approached Oz, one of David’s closest friends, he knew. He stopped the treadmill. “It’s over?” Yes, Ozzie, David just died. Once I saw this strong man begin to well up and cry, I turned and walked away.

The funeral mass on Tuesday at the Baltimore Basilica, presented by Archbishop William E. Lori, was fitting and respectful. The touching salutes by John, Michel and oldest son Arthur were spectacular, bringing all to a combination of smiles and tears. How strong this trio was as they shared memories of David Modell.

In the pews sat players like Ray Lewis, who cried as he left the church, Tony Siragusa, Rob Burnett, Michael McCrary and Matt Stover. They all said the same thing: “David made us feel like family.” New York Giants Owner John Mara, a longtime friend of David’s, was there, as was Ernie Accorsi, the former Colts and Browns GM who helped mentor David through the years. Oz and Harbs sat together, seated right behind Steve and Reneé Bisciotti. Colts’ Hall of Famer Lenny Moore was there. “David always made me feel welcomed at the Ravens,” he said walking out of the church.

During the mass, my thoughts wandered to the early days of the Ravens, back in the first months of 1996. We didn’t have a name, team colors – didn’t even have an updated diagram of Memorial Stadium. We didn’t have very many staff yet, and David hired key executives like Roy Sommerhof and Baker Koppelman, still with us today. The days were long; the details were many. The offices at 200 St. Paul St. became like homes for us. We literally put the business of the franchise together in weeks.

It was chaotic, but fun. David directed that way. He made sure that everything we did kept the fans as a priority, and he wanted their input. He said the fans would pick the team name, and you did. He said we would create a college-like atmosphere at our home games, and we still have that. So much more. His fingerprints are all over “Silver Betty.” They are also all over this great franchise. He is an integral part of the foundation of the Baltimore Ravens.

Thank you, David. 

We miss you,

Kevin

P.S. David would be pissed if I didn’t end this epistle with a laugh. David became the first director of marketing in the history of the NFL. He had terrific ideas for engaging fans, especially on gamedays, and in training camp. In 1986, we worked at the Cleveland Browns, who were just becoming known as the “Dogs.” Cleveland Stadium was being called the “Dawg Pound” by local media and the likes of Chris Berman. David had this idea. He went to a local kennel and had recordings made of barking dogs. He wanted to play this every time our defense took the field. The finished product was impressive. It was loud, sounded vicious, and he promised: “Can’t you see our players and the fans barking? It will be intimidating, and the fans will love it.” I asked the right question. “What does Art think of it?” “He’ll love it,” David predicted.

Art did not. First time our defense took the field for our next game, the cacophony of barking blared over the loud speakers. My seat in the press box had a “hotline” directly to Art Modell. We weren’t five seconds into the barking when the phone lit up. “Yes Art?” “What the hell is going on? What’s with the barking? Get that off!” Art demanded. I got on a headset, which was connected to David, who, by the way, was standing in a booth just a few feet from the senior Modell. “Art said to ‘kill' the barking dogs.” David replied: “I’ll handle it.” Next time the defense went out, the barking returned, the phone line lit up, and not only did Art tell me to “get those #$%* dogs out of the stadium,” he wanted to know whose idea it was. Back to the headset, “Thought you were going to handle this with Art?” David laughed, “I will, but I like that he’s calling you.”

That was the last we heard of the barking dogs. And, you know what – my guess is that if we stuck with it, the fans would have chimed in and had a lot of fun with it.

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