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Art Modell

The hero-villain of the NFL

Photo: Alex Fine, License: N/A

Alex Fine

Art Modell


Art Modell’s story could have been a testament to the American Dream. A Jewish kid from Brooklyn who, soon after his father died, dropped out of school at 15 and started working on ships at the docks to help keep his family afloat. At 18, during the height of World War II, he joined the Army Air Corps and later went back to school with the G.I. Bill. He’d go on to make his fortune as an ad man in the glory days of Madison Avenue and, in 1969, even married a TV starlet, Patricia Breslin, who he remained devoted to until her passing in 2011.

On top of his seeming storybook ascendance, Modell was a colossal figure in the making of the modern National Football League. Modell purchased the Cleveland Browns in 1961 and guided the franchise to their 27-0 pummeling of Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship game. Off the field, Modell was president of the league from 1967-69, a time that not only saw the first Super Bowl, but also the first collective-bargaining agreement between owners and players. Modell was a key player in the 1970 NFL/AFL merger, moving his Browns to the new AFC to smooth the transition. He was also widely credited as the man behind the creation of Monday Night Football and was extremely influential in the leagues’ move to cable television in the 1980s.

Modell was a visionary and a central figure in many of the big decisions that pushed the NFL to its current perch as North America’s preeminent sports league. He would seem a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but those hopes were perhaps dashed in 1996 when he moved his Cleveland Browns franchise to Baltimore. At that moment, Modell would go from a self-made man and exemplar of the American Dream, to perhaps the most reviled person in Cleveland history. Despite the significant contributions Modell and his wife made to Cleveland charities, he was pilloried in the press, threatened on the streets, and accused of ripping the beating heart out of a down-on-its-luck city.

But the act that made Modell a villain on the banks of the Cuyahoga made him a hero on the shores of the Chesapeake. Cleveland’s loss of the Browns would give rise to the birth of the Baltimore Ravens, a franchise that in its 16-year history has tightly woven itself into the fabric of this city. And Modell and his wife embraced Baltimore. The charity work that was so much a part of their lives in Cleveland, they picked up again in Baltimore, becoming major contributors to the St. Vincent’s Center, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Lyric Opera House, which now bears their name; funding the creation of the SEED School of Maryland; and being named the 2009 Maryland Philanthropists of the Year. By all accounts, the Modells made a huge imprint on Baltimore. But in a city that will always lick the wounds inflicted when the Colts left, Modell was embraced, with a side of guilt. In Cleveland, even in death, Modell remains a villain. In Baltimore, he will always be a hero with a glass jaw.


Read More People Who Died

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