A few decades ago, when the Ravens were new in town and I was writing columns about them in The Baltimore Sun, I went to David Modell all the time for insight.
He was funny. He was smart. He made my columns better.
We almost had a running conversation going, and even when I criticized him or the team in print, he would hunt me down in the practice facility and continue it, offering his thoughts, always with a twinkle in his eye.
He was a few years younger than me. His father owned the team. He had taken on a big role in the front office. I had met my share of owners' sons with similar stories, guys who had grown up and become involved in their father's team's affairs. Some were entitled, others over their heads. David was neither. He was organized, determined and charming, and he wound up having a huge impact.
His death Friday, at the way-too-soon age of 56, robs the Ravens of a chunk of their original foundation.
He came along at a brutal time, when most of the sports world was furious with his father for pulling the Browns out of Cleveland. Plenty of people were openly rooting for the move to fail.
To rise out of such a dark place, while under such intense scrutiny, the Modell family had to get things right, pick a winning team nickname and attractive colors, put together a credible organization, start making local business connections. David was smack in the middle of it all, and ever so slowly, the Ravens began to make their way.
When they moved on from their first coach, Ted Marchibroda, after the 1998 season, David ran the search committee charged with finding a replacement. He drew up a profile of his ideal candidate, a remarkable document that referenced leadership skills, football knowledge, management skills, the ability to communicate and personal characteristics.
Some big names were available, but the Ravens' job was no plum. Keeping his ideal in mind, David and the committee eventually picked lesser-known Brian Billick, the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator. It was a seminal moment in Ravens history, actually probably THE seminal moment.
Before Billick, the franchise was just scuffling along, accepting of its low standing after a controversial displacement. Billick came in with eyes aflame, talking so fast you needed a tape recorder to get it all straight, confidently pledging good times ahead. Suddenly, the rest of the sports world sat up and began to see the Ravens differently, and more importantly, the Ravens began to see themselves differently.
Two years later, they won the Super Bowl.
David Modell hit a home run for the ages with the hiring of Billick.
His father made him the team president by then, but he didn't lose his sense of humor just because he had a lofty title. One day I was standing in the locker room with my fellow Baltimore Sun columnist, Ken Rosenthal, who now covers baseball for Fox. David approached us to voice his displeasure over some recent opinions.
"You're just like two … two … impudent … mice," he stammered.
Ken and I started laughing; how could we not? Then he did, too. Honestly, it's my favorite David Modell memory. Football was his family's business, all-important and all-consuming and all that, but he had the right perspective. It should be fun, too. We should be able to laugh.
He stepped away from the team a few years later, recognizing it was time as Steve Bisciotti took command. I didn't see him much after that, but when we ran into each other at a party before the Ravens' second Super Bowl, we picked our conversation back up, almost as if we had never stopped.
The Ravens were well into a new, successful era by then, but like anyone who was around from the beginning, I understood that a straight line ran from David and his father to everything that came later. He appreciated that I remembered.
Hopefully, his contributions will continue to be remembered for as long as the Ravens suit up to play.