It's tough to dislike Modell (this week, at least)
By GARY SHELTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 22, 2001
When you talk about the great supervillains, you are talking about a certain flair.
You are talking about Hannibal Lecter's diction. You are talking about Darth Vader's fashion sense. You are talking about Dr. Evil's kitty.
You are talking about an aura, a sense of danger that emanates from them. You are talking about affectations and style. You are talking about razor teeth and laser eyes and rock-hard hearts.
You are talking about ... Art?
Good ole Uncle Art?
This is a supervillain? This doughy little old man in the overcoat? This shuffling old guy with tears in his eyes? This is the guy that parents in Cleveland threaten their unruly children with? This is the target that made Drew Carey the future mayor there?
This is Art Modell?
This is Modell the Merciless?
"Gee, Art," you tell him, "You don't look like a supervillain."
Modell cackles at the suggestion. He has sworn not to talk about Cleveland, or his beleaguered image there, or all of the barbs that have come his way in the five years since his Browns bolted the city. But when it gets down to it, Art just has to say something.
"I'll just say this," Modell said. "The passion and hate was fueled by the government officials and the media. That's all I'm going to say. That's it."
So, um, you don't watch the Drew Carey Show?
"It's behind me," Modell said, his voice rising. "It's passe. It's yesterday's news. I live in Baltimore. I own the Baltimore Ravens. I could care less what Drew Carey or any other smart a---- say in their funny lines. Their allegedly funny lines."
And there the old guy goes, taking the last shot and getting the last laugh, because in the NFL, owners always take the last shot and get the last laugh. Usually, the last dollar, too. Somewhere amid the chuckling, you discover the dichotomy of Modell, a savior in his new city and a swear word in his old one.
He moved the damn team. To a fan, deluded by the concept the team in front of him is "his team," that is the ultimate betrayal. And while we all know someone who died a little when the Browns left Cleveland in the rearview mirror, and while we all sympathize, it should be pointed out that Modell isn't exactly alone in the moving van. The list of owners who have relocated their teams grows longer (and, in the Super Bowl, more familiar). There is Al Davis and Georgia Frontiere and Bill Bidwill and Bud Adams and Bob Irsay and Modell, not to count all the owners who would have moved in a heartbeat had not their cities built them palaces.
So does that make Modell a bad man? A bad businessman? Evil incarnate? No, it makes him an NFL owner. If an alligator eats your puppy, does that make it evil, or is it simply a product of its nature? Remember, the operating line on an NFL owner is that he will cut off a hand in order to make a profit ... as long as it isn't his hand.
Still, you have to admit this: If you did not feel so bad about what Modell did, wouldn't you feel so good about him being at the Super Bowl?
He is 75, and his time is running out. In a couple of years, he no longer will be the majority stockholder of the Ravens. Cleveland has survived, with a new team and a new stadium. Remember, the folks in Dallas eventually forgave the Kansas City Chiefs for leaving.
For a week then, just a week, grant the guy a pardon. Let him enjoy the Super Bowl, the game that always seemed to escape his team in the final reel. Let him laugh.
Frankly, it doesn't seem to matter. Modell is going to enjoy it whether you turn loose of your grudge or not.
"This is as good as it gets," Modell said. "People keep trying to get me to put it into words, but I can't. I'm not sleeping at all. It's exhilarating."
Why wouldn't it be? For Modell to get here, he had to change conferences, he had to change cities, and he had to survive his own comedy.
"Moses?" Modell says when the conversation turns to biblical proportions. "What division did he play in? The Mideast."
Modell laughs at his own joke, then repeats it, like an old vaudevillian (hey, it beats supervillain).
"I hope you don't mind my humor," Modell said. "It kept me alive."
The year was 1983, and Modell had suffered a heart attack. His good friend, Giants owner Wellington Mara, was outside saying a rosary for him. Inside, Modell was also talking.
"I was telling myself all the jokes I knew," Modell said. "I got so I had them numbered. I'd just say '214.' Or '218.' "
Yep, you have to hand it to him. The guy knows how to tell a number.
Modell has known a few days that weren't so funny, too. Since winning the NFL championship in 1964, he has circled the Super Bowl but never landed. His Browns lost the NFC title in 1968 (to the Colts, then in Baltimore) and '69 (Minnesota). Then Modell shifted conferences, and his team lost the AFC title in '86, in '87, in '89.
Modell still snarls when you bring the games up. He is cursed by a good memory, down to the play calls involved.
"The Drive" in '86? "I was appalled," Modell says. "I knew John Elway was a great performer, but I was appalled we couldn't find a way to stop a 15-play drive. I remember the films showing the winning touchdown pass just a fraction of an inch over Big Daddy Hairston's outstretched hands."
"The Fumble" in '87? "Oh, God. I couldn't even see it. I was in that press box, and I might as well been at River Field with a radio. But I heard the crowd roar, and I knew it was something bad. They weren't roaring for us. It just wasn't meant to be."
Now, it is. Modell finally has his Super Bowl invitation.
Turns out, it doesn't bite. Not for a former high school dropout who fell in love with the game at age 9, watching the old Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, the football version) at Ebbets Field. Then he became a Giants fan.
In some ways, he still is. He still purchases 67 season tickets every year to the Giants. He and Mara -- in this game, Modell is still "The Kid" -- still talk several times a week. He'll talk to you about that all day.
What he doesn't want to talk about is Cleveland, a subject that tends to open old wounds, his and other people's. Still, it is a part of his story.
"I could not survive in Cleveland because of the circumstances," he said. "To have the economic means to compete is an essential."
You can still get a debate over whether someone who brings in as much money as an NFL owner should have to move. Still, Modell has apologized. He has said the city officials left him no choice. He has said that, when the new stadium is considered, Cleveland is better off without him.
For now, however, he just wants to think about the Super Bowl. Is that too much for an old man to ask?
"It's a time for celebration," he said. "It's not a time for regrets or anger. This comes along once in a blue moon. This is my blue moon."
Maybe he's right. So give the guy a week. Let him enjoy his game.
Besides, you can always vilify him next week.
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