Decades before the tortuous franchise move and the triumph of a Super Bowl, Ravens owner Art Modell's emotional ties with football became rooted in Roy Lumpkin.
At age 9, Modell walked a couple of miles to save on car fare and squeezed
out a quarter to sit behind the bench of the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers, where he
was mesmerized by his first real hero. Nicknamed "Father," Lumpkin was a
hard-nosed blocker from the 1930s who always played without a helmet, exposing
his bald head.
The legacy of Modell, who will be attending his 43rd and last NFL training
camp as an owner next week, will be defined by his relentless will and wit.
Part competitor and part comedian, he is one of the last blue-collar types in
a white-collar business.
Modell, 78, is set in his old-school ways in which the team is a livelihood
rather than high-priced amusement, and players are more like sons than
employees. When he got married, he honeymooned at a preseason game.
When former players needed money, he opened his wallet. And when they died,
he paid for their funerals.
The NFL is Modell's life, and he is just as much a fabric of it.
Modell doesn't just know about Vince Lombardi. He worked alongside the
legendary coach to complete the league's first collective bargaining
He doesn't just reap the profits from the partnership of the league and
television. It was Modell and late commissioner Pete Rozelle who negotiated
the first contracts that are now the standard and what separate the NFL from
Countless other policies were touched by the influence of Modell
unbeknownst to many. When the owners weren't thrilled with an issue he was
trying to pass at the league meetings, Rozelle would call for a break, banking
on Modell to crack up the room with a story and ease the tensions.
"Art Modell is a legend of our game," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said,
"and one of life's unforgettable characters for all of us who have been
fortunate to know him."
For Modell, getting into the league was tough, and leaving it will be
Minority owner Steve Bisciotti plans to exercise his option and buy the
remaining 51 percent from Modell for $325 million at the end of this season,
which brings the total price to $600 million. The Anne Arundel businessman
wants Modell to stick around as an adviser and has an office for Modell a
couple of doors down from his own in the team's headquarters that are under
Modell plans to stay involved, though he admits it won't be the same.
He was 35 and living with his mother in Brooklyn when he tapped out his
life savings - "I had money left for lunch afterward" - to buy the Cleveland
Browns for a then-record $4.295 million in 1961. Selling the franchise makes a
tremendous profit, but he feels like he will lose a piece of himself in the
"I've had a love affair with the NFL for 43 years," Modell said. "This is
the end of an episode in my life. It's hard for me to pull away. I will,
Hard worker from start
Winning a Super Bowl five seasons after the most controversial franchise
shift in NFL history doesn't surprise those close to Modell. More than a
survivor, he thrives on conquering crisis, dating back to his teenage years.
After the death of his father, a 15-year-old Modell dropped out of high
school to support his mother and two sisters. His first full-time job was as
an electrician's helper, cleaning hulls of ships in a Brooklyn shipyard.