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Art Modell dies; longtime Browns, Ravens owner was 87

  • By NFL.com Wire Reports
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One of the most influential owners in the history of the NFL, Art Modell helped mold the foundation of the league.

The innovative Modell, whose reputation was forever tainted when he moved his franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore, died early Thursday. He was 87.

The team said Modell died of natural causes at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had been admitted Wednesday.

"Sadly, I can confirm that my father died peacefully of natural causes at four this morning," former Ravens president David Modell, Art Modell's son, said in a statement Thursday. "My brother John Modell and I were with him when he finally rejoined the absolute love of his life, my mother Pat Modell, who passed away last October.

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" 'Poppy' was a special man who was loved by his sons, his daughter-in-law Michel, and his six grandchildren. Moreover, he was adored by the entire Baltimore community for his kindness and generosity. And, he loved Baltimore. He made an important and indelible contribution to the lives of his children, grandchildren and his entire community. We will miss him."

Modell was among the most important figures in the NFL as owner of the Cleveland Browns, who became the Ravens after he took the team to Baltimore in 1996 -- a move that hounded him the rest of his life.

The Ravens won their lone Super Bowl in January 2001, less than a year after Modell sold a minority interest of the team to Steve Bisciotti. In April 2004, Bisciotti completed purchase of the franchise but left Modell a 1 percent share.

During his four decades as an NFL owner, Modell helped negotiate the league's lucrative contracts with television networks, served as president of the NFL from 1967 to 1969, and chaired the negotiations for the first the collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968.

He also was the driving force behind the 1970 contract between the NFL and ABC to televise games on Monday night.

At one time one of Cleveland's biggest civic leaders, Modell became a pariah in Ohio after he moved the team.

"I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move," he said in 1999. "The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me."

The move was also believed to be the main reason why Modell never made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was one of 15 finalists in 2001 and a semifinalist seven times between 2004 and 2011.

"I believe Art belongs in the Hall of Fame," former New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, now deceased, said in 2002. "I don't think I know a person who has done more for the league than Modell, especially through television."

Modell's Browns were among the best teams of the 1960s, led during his first few years as owner by legendary running back Jim Brown. Cleveland won the NFL championship in 1964 - Modell's only title with the Browns - and played in the title game in 1965, 1968 and 1969.

Modell said he lost millions of dollars operating the Browns in Cleveland and cited the state of Maryland's financial package, including construction of a $200 million stadium, as his reasons for going to Baltimore. The Ravens replaced the Baltimore Colts, who moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

"This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me," Modell said at the time of the move. "I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice."

Ironically, the cost of the move to Baltimore left him financially strapped and left him no choice but to put in motion the chain of events that enabled Bisciotti to assume majority ownership of the franchise.

Born June 23, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Arthur B. Modell dropped out of high school at age 15 and worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard cleaning out the hulls of ships to financially help out his family after the death of his father.

He completed high school in night class, joined the Air Force in 1943, and then enrolled in a television school after World War II. He used that education to produce one of the first regular daytime television programs before moving into the advertising business in 1954.

A group of friends led by Modell purchased the Browns in 1961 for $4 million -- a figure he called "totally excessive."

"You get few chances like this," he said at the time. "To take advantage of the opportunity, you must have money and friends with more."

Modell was beloved in Baltimore, and hoped one day the people of Cleveland would remember him for what he accomplished in the city. Long after the move, Modell pointed out that Cleveland ultimately got the new stadium he coveted, and that the expansion version of the Browns could draw on the history he helped create.

"I think that part of my legacy is I left the colors, the name and the records in Cleveland," Modell said. "The fans in Cleveland were loyal and supportive. They lived and died with me every Sunday for 35 years."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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