When Jonathan Ogden was drafted by the Ravens with the organization's first pick in 1996, the former UCLA offensive tackle said the first thing he was struck by was the team owner's habit of mingling with players to get to know them.
"He knew my mother's and father's names," Ogden said of Art Modell. "He was never just a team owner. He was more like a team granddad, so to speak."
That kind of sentiment was on display last night as the Ravens' minority owner was the guest of honor at the Sports Legends Museum's annual fall gala, titled "Thanks, Art! A Celebration of Art Modell," at Valley Mansion in Cockeysville.
Though Ogden's comments were prerecorded and broadcast to the nearly 900 people who attended the tribute, a number of sports figures made appearances to personally share their memories of the NFL pioneer.
Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome spoke of Modell's decision in 2002 to make Newsome the first African-American general manager in the NFL.
"Every decision I made, he supported me 100 percent," Newsome said. "Every decision I made, I got second-guessed. But that was the fun of it."
Coach Brian Billick told the story in which he conferred with Modell after a loss. During the meeting, Billick said Modell began his perspective by saying, "Now I'm not criticizing you."
"And I said, 'Art, you and I are the only ones in the room. If you're not getting after me, you're being too hard on yourself,' " Billick said as the room erupted into laughter.
"It was stunning to me when I got here and saw the quality, caliber and character of people in the organization, and it began at the top," Billick said. "That is something special."
New York Giants president/chief executive officer John Mara conceded that losing the Super Bowl to the Ravens in January 2001 hurt him and his late father, Wellington. "As painful as it was to lose a Super Bowl, I remember sitting with my father, who said, 'If I had to lose to someone, I'm glad it was Art,' " John Mara recalled.
Ravens majority owner Steve Bisciotti, Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore, former Colts quarterback and Ravens broadcaster Tom Matte and former Ravens players Michael McCrary, O.J. Brigance and Brad Jackson also were in attendance to pay tribute to the man who returned professional football to Baltimore in 1996.
Modell said before the event that he was honored by the turnout of sports figures.
"All part of the Modell family," he said. "I always ran the business as a family business. These people are an extension of my family of which I am very grateful."
Though Modell is revered in Baltimore, he is still reviled in Cleveland, and his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame has been blocked by several vocal opponents, including sportswriter Tony Grossi of The Plain Dealer.
Former Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett shared his feelings on the topic.
"I don't care how many tears are on Tony Grossi's face," Burnett said emphatically. "Mr. Modell deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."