Remembering Art Modell's charm

The courtroom became so tense in a battle over free agency in the NFL in the early 1990s that the judge called for a recess and told the team owners and players and their lawyers to take a break and cool off.

Moments later, as I stood in the corridor watching to see whether a fight might break out, an elegantly attired older gentleman with a twinkle in his eye walked up to me and, without a word of introduction, produced a series of the greatest wisecracks I had ever heard. Both of use were soon laughing hysterically and drawing nasty glances from Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner of the NFL, and Gene Upshaw, the leader of the players' union.

The little gentleman, I learned a few minutes later, was Art Modell, the owner of the then-Cleveland Browns and a man who was dangerously charming. He died early Thursday at age 87.

Unlike his fellow owners and the players, who viewed the dispute as something that would end the world as we knew it, Modell saw it in its proper context. I wish I could remember his specific observations of some 20 years ago, but I know that editorial guidelines would keep most from being published for the ESPN.com audience.

Only three years later, it was the same Modell, the little charmer, who betrayed his fans in Cleveland when he moved his team and their team to Baltimore. His move prompted massive retaliation from the Cleveland establishment and from the NFL.

The counterattack against Modell was a surprise only to Modell. In the course of 34 years of ownership in Cleveland, Modell had frequently promised that he would never move the team and had signed a contract and a lease that provided that he "would not do or suffer to be done anything which will cause [the Browns] to be transferred to any other city or location."

In the hearings on the city's lawsuit against Modell, he was his charming self even as he faced death threats and was forced to hire security for the first time. His commentary on the events, on the people involved, and on the women passing through the corridor took the tone of a headliner in a comedy club.

In addition to his charm and his humor, Modell was an owner who cared about his players. When Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was charged in a double murder in Atlanta after the Super Bowl in 2000, Lewis went to court with an attorney who was clearly in over his head.

When Modell realized that Lewis, his most important player, had hired the wrong lawyer, Modell hired Ed Garland, one of this country's greatest criminal defense lawyers, to help Lewis.

Despite significant evidence that showed that Lewis was involved in the killings, Garland dissected and destroyed the prosecution's case and forced Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to accept a plea of guilty to obstruction of justice, a humiliating defeat for Howard and his team.

Modell was present in the courtroom at critical moments during the prosecution, and he was clearly concerned about his player. He was subdued in our corridor conversations, except perhaps for his comments about the fashion sense of the women in Lewis' family.

Lewis was obviously the team's MVP, but I believe Modell would have done it for any player on his roster.

Modell will be remembered for a monstrous act of betrayal, but I will remember his charm and his humor. I will miss him.