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Byrne Identity: We Loved Art Modell

Posted Sep 7, 2012

Kevin Byrne details some of the final moments of Art Modell’s life.

We Loved Art Modell

The caller ID said David Modell. It was just before 7 on Wednesday morning.

“This can’t be good,” I told my wife Sally.

“The doctors say Art probably won’t make it through the day. Do you want to come say goodbye? I’m inviting Ozzie, too,” David said.

Art Modell, founder of the Ravens, was on his back with most of his face covered by a ventilator mask. Ozzie sat on his right side holding his hand. Michel, David’s wife, held his other hand and talked gently into Art’s left ear.

“His eyes opened. He recognizes your voice,” Michel said to me.

I had to catch my balance. This is the man who hired me in 1981 and embraced my family in a way that we never expected. He knew our four children’s names, knew what they were doing and sincerely cared about us.

We weren’t alone in that regard.

“You can talk to him. We think he’s hearing everything. He’s moving his lips a little, trying to communicate,” David encouraged.

I got close to Art’s left ear, holding his arm and hand in mine. I told him I loved him and that I could never thank him enough for what he had done for me and my family. I asked who was going to keep me laughing if he left and then I told him that he had to stay for Monday’s game. His eyes seemed to light up.

As soon as John Harbaugh heard, he said: “I’m coming down there.” For four years we had all watched John say goodbye to Art with a kiss on the cheek and the phrase, “I love you.”

Steve Bisciotti arrived. He held Art’s right hand, talked to him and cried.

Harbs didn’t come alone. In practice clothes, John came around the hospital corridor followed by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. Tears swelled in David Modell’s eyes. “He loves all of you,” David said.

Coach Harbaugh kissed Art and began talking. Art’s eyes opened wide. “I told him how much I loved him. How much the players loved him. I assured him that he would see the best of us Monday night.”

Ray stepped up, put his head on Art’s chest and then moved closer to Art’s left ear. Ray spoke to the former Ravens owner for over four minutes and then knelt on the tile floor and prayed silently for a few more minutes. Haloti, who has already seen the death of his parents, was next, followed by Ed and then Sizzle – all grabbing part of Art and talking in his ear.

Powerful men talking to a dying hero … and friend.

After Harbs and the players left, I returned to the room and found Ozzie massaging Art’s left hand. (I’ve known Ozzie since 1981 when he was early into his Hall of Fame NFL career. I have never – never – heard Oz talk about his athletic prowess.) After encouraging Art to hang in there and reminding him how much everybody loves him, Oz moved closer to Art’s face and said: “I want you to feel what good hands feel like.” That brought a smile to my face. “I was just trying to make him smile,” Oz explained.

Ozzie and I left early in the afternoon, and Steve stayed. “Steve went to a doctor’s appointment and came back after that,” David said. “He told me he would stay until my brother arrived. What a good man,” the younger Modell offered. (John Modell, Art’s younger son, arrived from California around 6 p.m.)

Art And Steve

The two Ravens owners clearly liked each other, and Steve, like many of us this week, said that he loved Art Modell. They made each other laugh, enjoyed their friendship, and Steve clearly viewed Art as a mentor.

Yesterday morning, after we learned Art Modell had died at 4 a.m., I mentioned to Steve how much his hospital visits meant to the younger Modells. Steve said: “I didn’t want to say goodbye to Art. I wanted to be in his presence.”

“Did you say goodbye?” I asked Steve. “Yes.”

“Would you be willing to share what you said when you said goodbye?” The owner hesitated and said: “I guess I’m okay, but this is not about me, it’s about Art.”

When Steve Bisciotti, who served a four-year apprenticeship under Art Modell as the Ravens minority owner from 2000 through 2003, said his goodbye to his friend and NFL mentor, he said: “Don’t go – I don’t know if I can do this without you.”

One “Art” Story

I’ve been asked to tell Art Modell stories this week. There are lots. Here’s one, and I hope no one is offended by this.

One of Art’s head coaches in Cleveland was Sam Rutigliano, an excellent coach with a gift for clever words. After a significant loss, Sam told the media: “There are 800 million Chinese who didn’t even know we played today. We’ll get over this.”

It was the second time Sam had used that phrase after a tough loss over a four-year period.

The next day, after Art read the story and saw the quote, he called me. He was not happy, but he always had his humor. Sternly, Art said: “You tell your head coach that there may be 800 million Chinese who don’t care that we lost yesterday, but there is one Jew in Cleveland who cares a lot.”

Smile when you think of Art.

Let’s beat the Bengals. Talk with you next week.


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