When I say it was laughably easy to get the wrong impression of Art Modell, I mean that literally.
Modell, the pro football pioneer and former Ravens owner who passed away early Thursday, was a determinedly lighthearted guy in person, always cracking a joke, able to find the humor in almost any situation. Even when he was being sued by the city of Cleveland after moving the Browns in 1995, his courtroom testimony resembled a nightclub comedy act.
His desire to make an audience laugh (and it could be an audience of one or one thousand) was almost as relentless as his desire to win on Sundays. His stable of puns, pans, one-liners and tales seemed almost unlimited.
“His skills as an owner and league contributor were matched only by his great sense of humor,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday. “Any conversation with Art included laughs.”
But inside that lighthearted shell laid a tough guy with more guts than just about anyone who ever walked the NFL’s cold corridors.
There is a debate about how much money Modell had to his name when he bought the Browns in 1961, but it wasn’t much – a bare fraction of the $4 million he paid. It isn’t a stretch to say he joined a millionaire’s club with coins in his pockets.
But while the Brooklyn, New York native was a high school dropout who entered pro football spending money he didn’t have, he leveraged his massive zero-sum gamble into a long and splendid life at the top.
He was a kindly figure in his final years, a devoted grandfather and philanthropist, but make no mistake, he had lived large and on the edge, on daring economics, and while he did it laughing, always laughing, he stood on that edge and made some of the gutsiest calls you’ll ever see.
In January 1963, two years into his tenure as a team owner, he fired Paul Brown, the greatest coach in pro football history to that point and the man who had literally named Modell’s team. Fans howled and Brown plotted revenge, but Modell’s Browns won the NFL title under a new coach a year later.
Years later, he signed off on his front office’s decision to cut Bernie Kosar, an immensely popular native son of Cleveland and the Browns’ signature player, just days after Modell had said he wanted to sign the quarterback to a long-term deal.
But of course, the gutsiest call he ever made was pulling the Browns out of Cleveland and bringing them to Baltimore, a move that left him forever revered in one city and loathed in another.
There’s no use going back and debating the controversial circumstances, but the point is Modell knew he would be ferociously vilified and possibly denied his place in the Hall of Fame, but he did it anyway. Ever the gambler, he calculated the percentages and pulled the lever. For better or worse, he had the guts to do whatever he deemed necessary.
He also had the guts to break barriers on racial and gender equity years ahead of his time. The league benefited mightily from his being seated at its table with his vision and bold business sense. His idea that pro football belonged on TV was, needless to say, crucial to the league’s growth. He negotiated network contracts, the merger with the AFL, the first collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union. Few insiders were more integral to the building of today’s multi-billion-dollar industry.
“I’m not sure if you’re my age or younger if you quite know the impact he’s had,” Ravens quarterback
That’s surely true; few of today’s players are avid historians. The Ravens mostly just saw Modell as an elder statesman who watched practice from a golf cart and offered encouraging words and jokes. As inevitably happens, his life and accomplishments became shrouded in the misty past.
But today’s Ravens would be well-served to find out more about the man who brought pro football back to Baltimore, a man who loved nothing more than leaving a crowd laughing, but whose humor obscured his sheer nerve and unabashed chutzpah, the likes of which the NFL may never see again.