Art Modell passed away this morning at the age of 87.
The year was 1995. I was sixteen years old.
The city of Baltimore was a one-team sports town with a healthy obsession with baseball and the Orioles, who had just moved into a groundbreaking stadium that changed the way stadiums were built. However, a hole existed in Baltimore. A hole that was created when Jim Irsay packed up the Colts in Mayflower trucks and moved them to Indianapolis in 1984 and had never been filled.
As much as I am shamed to admit it, I was a Steelers fan that fall of 1995. I can't exactly explain why I became a Steeler fan, but I doubt many Baltimore kids my age could explain why they were fans of any team in the NFL while Baltimore didn't have one to call their own. We were mercenary fans, rooting for teams for whatever generic reason: we liked the uniforms, we liked a certain player, or just wanted to root for a winner.
The CFL came to Baltimore and gave us some excitement as the Stallions appeared in two Grey Cup games during the two years they were in Baltimore, winning one of them before relocating to Montreal. But despite their success, the CFL was not the NFL.
And the NFL returned in the fall of 1995 when Art Modell announced the Browns were moving to Baltimore. I can still remember the night, eating dinner with my family in a crowded dining room in the Catonsville house where I grew up. We had the radio tuned to Nasty Nestor, before he became an egotistical maniac who went off the rails. Baltimore football was back.
My friends and I drove to the airport that night to welcome Modell and the Browns to Baltimore. We never got to officially see them arrive, but there were other people there at the airport, carrying signs, buzzing about the move. It was like being in the delivery room when the Ravens were born.
I always think back to 1954 when the Browns moved from St. Louis to Baltimore and became the Orioles. What was it like to witness that? I know now what it's like to witness the birth of a sports team.
The first few years were much like the first few years of raising a child, as I can only imagine. Equally frustrating and exciting to go through everything for the first time. The first game, the first loss, the first losing season, those ugly uniforms. But despite all the low points you were still proud. Watching losing football on Sundays was better than watching no football, or watching football that you had no rooting interest in.
Then suddenly, before anyone could really take notice, the Ravens were Super Bowl Champs. It all happened so fast it feels at times as if it didn't happen at all. But it did happen.
And Art Modell, who died this morning, made it all possible.
He filled that hole with a team that has gone on to become one of the best-run organizations in professional sports. They may not have the hardware to back up that claim, but the team is well run and plays hard and make you proud to be a Baltimore Ravens fan.
Even after the tragic loss to the Patriots in New England last January, I was still proud to be a Ravens fan, despite Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff. I can't even be mad at them. They tried.
Art Modell may never get elected to the Hall of Fame, and that's a shame, because he deserves to be in it for his work in helping form the NFL of today. The move from Cleveland will always be a blight on his legacy but not in Baltimore.
For us, it was the highlight of his legacy.
Thanks for everything, Art.