OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There were just four days left until the season’s opening game when Kevin Byrne got the phone call from David Modell.
David’s father, Art Modell, had been gravely sick for several days and was at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In the time he had been there, Art’s condition only seemed to worsen.
“He said he didn’t believe Art would make it through the day,” recalled Byrne, the longtime media and community relations executive for the Ravens/Browns franchise.
Byrne had known Art Modell as a mentor and a friend for more than 30 years, known the humble man who never finished high school but went on to own the Cleveland Browns and in 1996 moved them to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens. Ozzie Newsome played all 12 seasons of his Hall of Fame career for Modell’s Browns before eventually becoming the Ravens first and only general manager.
When Byrne got the word from David Modell, he immediately called Newsome.
“Ozzie and I went right to the hospital,” Byrne said. “We were spending time there. Art was kind of out of it, but he was in the bed.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, meanwhile, told Byrne to keep him updated. Harbaugh had befriended Modell during his five years in Baltimore. He invited Modell to his home last spring to have dinner with his parents.
When Byrne called, Harbaugh said, “I’m going to get cleaned up and come down there.”
Byrne told him, “Just come in your coaching clothes.”
Not long after they hung up, Harbaugh sent a text saying he was bringing some of the players with him.
He told players in the locker room about Modell’s condition. Ray Lewis was the first person to stand up and say, “I want to go.” Then Ed Reed. Then Haloti Ngata. Then Terrell Suggs.
They all knew Modell. The five of them arrived at the hospital room with time fading on Modell.
Harbaugh approached Modell’s bedside and whispered in his ear. Lewis did the same, laying his head on Modell’s chest, then he knelt on the floor and prayed. They all said their final words before Modell passed.
His service was two days later. Newsome and Byrne were pallbearers. Lewis delivered the eulogy. From the pulpit, Lewis said, “The question that he leaves us today is, if you did nothing else in life, what will you fight for? What legacy will you leave?”
More deaths in the family
Adversity ultimately knocks on every team’s door. The cloud of “Bountygate” hung over the New Orleans Saints all season. Injuries decimated the Pittsburgh Steelers before the year even began. A murder-suicide on Dec. 1 rocked the Kansas City Chiefs hours before they took the field.
And in varying degrees, the Ravens have dealt with misfortune, controversy, and crises all year, and they have managed to carry the weight of it all to the AFC Championship against the same Patriots who beat them a year ago in the same round of the playoffs, starting a heartbreaking offseason.
During training camp, just weeks before Modell passed, Ravens defensive lineman Pernell McPhee lost his father. He took an excused week off from practice, but returned to block a field goal in the Ravens’ 48-17 preseason win over Jacksonville.
In September, just one night before the Ravens returned to New England for the first time since their 2011 season had ended in Foxborough, second-year receiver Torrey Smith learned that his 19-year-old brother Tevin Jones had died in a motorcycle accident.
When Harbaugh told him to go be with his family, he did. But as players sat in chapel service before the game, Smith walked in.
He told Harbaugh he was going to play, that his family wanted him to.
Harbaugh didn’t have to say anything.
Smith caught two touchdowns, and the Ravens won by a point.
Ravens players don’t downplay the power of their endurance.
“I think we’re definitely a resilient team,” Smith said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me individually. Obviously, I had my own personal loss that my team helped me get through. But that’s just how we are.
“You look at the games we’ve been in, the games when we came out on top, and even the games we lost, we never laid down for anyone. That’s just how we are and who we are as the Ravens.’’
Nothing has come easy this year.
In May, the Ravens learned that Suggs, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year and the player who had increasingly become the face of the franchise as Lewis approached the twilight of his career, had torn his Achilles’ tendon and would miss almost half the season.
Once the season started, injuries continued to eat at the defense. Lardarius Webb, who led the team in interceptions last season, tore his ACL. Ngata went down with an MCL injury. Lewis was placed on injured reserve with a torn triceps. Suggs returned in October, only to go down again with a torn biceps.
Eventually, everything seemed to become a hiccup. In November, the league threatened to suspend Reed because of a helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but after an appeal, it overturned the suspension and reduced the punishment to a $50,000 fine.
The Ravens lost their first three games in December, looking less and less like the team that was expected to be a Super Bowl contender.
But they pushed through.
“For us to overcome a lot of things, not only injuries but some family problems with Torrey’s family, everything that has happened with our team, I think we all just understand that we’re a family here, and we can lean on each other and depend on each other,” Ngata said.
“I think we are such a close team here now that we just always went against the naysayers [of] our team and have overcome a lot of difficulties.”
They all remember the somber tenor of that visitors’ locker room after last year’s loss to the Patriots. Some carry it more than others.
A dropped pass in the end zone, a missed field goal, eye-blink moments in a 60-minute game were the difference between going to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years and spending an offseason replaying a lost season in their minds.
On the road back to the AFC Championship, the Ravens seemed to hit every possible pothole.
“I think the things you go through, through the course of a season, really mold you as a football team, define you and help you learn and grow,” said tight end Dennis Pitta.
“We’ve been through a lot. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and through all that we’ve learned a lot and we feel better prepared now than we ever have in this position.”
They have started to believe that it’s fate, especially after needing a near-miracle to come back from a touchdown deficit with less than a minute left to beat the Broncos last week. Rice has called the Ravens a “team of destiny,” and his teammates have bought in.
“I think the thing that he is speaking about, when you do hear him speak about it, is how we kept fighting, how we kept keeping each other up, no matter who got hurt,” Lewis said. “That’s kind of the staple that we’ve had around here for a very, very long time.”
They’ve adopted an iron-sharpens-iron attitude toward adversity.
When the Ravens beat the Colts in the wild-card round, Harbaugh gave the team his message, then asked Lewis if he wanted to add anything. Lewis didn’t have to remind anyone in the locker room, but he did.
He told the team, “We have a lot of reasons to keep going.”