OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Long before Ray Lewis became the future Hall of Fame linebacker who now holds an entire city in the palm of his hand, he was a wide-eyed 20-year-old having just been drafted by the novel Baltimore Ravens.
Lewis was joining a new team — officially speaking, anyway — in a new city, but the former University of Miami product remembered fondly the man who embraced him from the moment he was selected as the 26th overall pick in the 1996 NFL draft. As Baltimore remembered the life of former Ravens owner Art Modell, who died of natural causes at age 87 early Thursday morning, even the iconic Lewis acknowledged he wouldn’t be where he is today without Modell’s leadership and vision.
Modell and the organization entrusted Lewis with leading the defense even though many questioned if the Hurricanes linebacker was big enough to man the middle of the unit. Like countless others before him, Lewis instantly became a family member to Modell, who maintained his personal touch of doing business in the lucrative empire the NFL was becoming.
Aside from football, Modell meant so much more to the linebacker who’s spent his entire 17-year career with the Ravens.
“He respected you as a man, but me, he just grabbed me as a son from Day One and he never let me go,” Lewis said. “Everything, it didn’t matter what it was, whenever he saw me, he would always tell me how much he loved me and always tell me how much I meant to him.”
Though it didn’t take long for Lewis to become the face of the infant franchise with his intimidating play and charisma on the field, Modell was initially the most recognizable figure associated with the new Ravens, if for no reason other than the manner in which he was demonized nationally for moving his franchise from football-crazy Cleveland.
Lewis offered little in response to a question about Modell’s detractors, reminding everyone that the bond he now shares with the city of Baltimore wouldn’t have been possible if not for the difficult decision Modell made to uproot his franchise from the place he had called home for over 30 years.
As the linebacker approaches the rare status held only by the likes of Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken, it’s strange to think about a Baltimore without the Ravens and No. 52 after the way they’ve captivated the city over the last 17 years.
“How would you be here if he wouldn’t have made the stand to build a franchise in Cleveland and then to say, ‘It’s time to do something else?’” Lewis said. “He made that change, and for him to make that change to come to Baltimore, to pick up his franchise and come to Baltimore, then that’s the only way Baltimore and Ray Lewis connected.”
Though their lives took vastly different paths, Modell and Lewis enjoyed the same pinnacle of their respective careers as the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28, 2001.
For many, the iconic image of that night was the image of the Super Bowl MVP Lewis embracing the aging owner, who was finally enjoying a title after 40 years in the NFL. The juxtaposition of Lewis, coming off the most trying time in his life that included double-murder chargers stemming from the events of a year earlier in Atlanta, and Modell, the man still vilified by many after breaking the hearts of the fans in Cleveland, in that single embrace was fascinating to witness as each man could now take satisfaction in what they’d accomplished and push their critics to the side.
It was Modell who remained by Lewis’ side in the aftermath of what had transpired a year earlier, and Lewis helped repay that debt by being the best defensive player on the planet and leading one of the greatest defenses of all time to Super Bowl glory.
Lewis said his fondest memory of Modell was telling the Ravens owner he would need to do the linebacker’s famous dance after the Ravens won the Super Bowl, a request Modell humorously fulfilled as Baltimore celebrated its first NFL championship in 30 years.
“I think it capped off exactly the way it was supposed to end,” Lewis said. “Somebody had put in all of that work and now we were able to bring him what his true dream was, [which] was the Lombardi Trophy.”
As news came that Modell’s condition was worsening at Johns Hopkins Hospital Wednesday evening, coach John Harbaugh invited Lewis to join him in bidding farewell to the owner. Teammates Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata tagged along as Lewis spoke words of encouragement and prayer to Modell in his final hours.
Though it didn’t take place in the public forum of their bear-hug embrace in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXXV, hearing an emotional Lewis describe his goodbye to a man he admired so deeply — a man to which Baltimore football fans owe a great deal — was a lump-in-the-throat moment in an exhausting day for the organization.
It would be the last of the many talks they enjoyed over the years with shared lunches, phone conversations, and warm embraces whenever they crossed paths.
“The things that I shared with him in his ear, I will always keep that between me and him because it is a son talking to a father,” said Lewis as his voice trembled. “That’s the way I looked at it from the moment I started whispering in his ear because that’s what he always used to do to me.”
With Lewis nearing the end of his career, you wonder if he’ll be able to reach the pinnacle of his profession yet again. As if the linebacker didn’t need any extra motivation as he prepares to take the field for another season at age 37, the memory of Modell will be on his mind as he tries to help lead the Ravens back to a Super Bowl.
It wouldn’t top the first one or the warm embrace he enjoyed after it was over with the man he — and countless others — viewed as more than just the owner of the team, but it would be fitting as the Ravens memorialize the man responsible for their existence in Baltimore.
“He’ll always be watching, and he’ll definitely be missed,” Lewis said. “This season, we will definitely dedicate to him and give it everything we’ve got. Hopefully, we can sit another Lombardi Trophy beside him.”