Alabama Born and Bred
To know Newsome is to know that he is exceedingly private. Some Ravens employees have worked alongside him for years yet have never been to his house, nor do they know where he lives.
That privacy extends to information about his childhood. Newsome was born in 1956 in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and was raised in nearby Leighton in the northwest part of the state, not far from the Tennessee border. It was a time of segregation, and one of the few Newsome confided in over the years was David Modell, who viewed Newsome as an older brother. Modell would prod Newsome for details about his childhood, and he finally relented and told tales of drinking from Colored-only fountains, and having to go in the back door of the theater and up to the balcony to watch movies.
“It enraged me and enrages me to this day,” Modell says. “Unbelievable that someone treated my big brother that way. I know what kind of man he is. To think he was treated a certain way because of the color of his skin is enraging.”
In what would be a theme throughout his life, Newsome dealt with the era’s institutional bigotry with an even temper. He learned at a very early age to turn the other the other cheek. “He would simply say, ‘Times change,’” Modell recounts. “But this is a part of the story that should not be missed.”
Newsome, who would become the NFL’s first African-American general manager, reportedly broke color barriers in Little League and middle school, venturing into spaces previously reserved only for whites. His father, Ozzie “Fats” Newsome Sr., and mother, Ethel, were strong influences. Ozzie Sr. had a restaurant called “Fats’ Café,” where Ozzie and his four brothers learned hard work—when not picking cotton—and how to deal with people from all walks of life. Ethel was a domestic worker and ran the household. Those who know both Ozzie and his mother said he has her personality and patience.
“She’s responsible for the type of guy Ozzie is,” says Steelers assistant head coach/defensive line John Mitchell. The first African-American player at Alabama, Mitchell recruited Newsome for Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. “She was reserved. Taught all those kids to be very amenable, speak only when you’re spoken to. Ozzie was very quiet.”
But as a three-sport star and All-State in football and basketball at Colbert County High, Newsome screamed of something greater. He was recruited by every school in the SEC and seemed headed to Auburn with his high school quarterback. Bryant finally was able to win a commitment from Newsome, but he took no chances when rumors circulated that Newsome was wavering. Bryant dispatched Mitchell on the four-hour drive to Leighton.
“Coach Bryant gave me specific instructions to not let Ozzie out of my sight,” Mitchell says.
So for the rest of the day, Mitchell sat in the back of all of Newsome’s classes, took him home and picked him up after his basketball game to drive him home again. Mitchell was still in the Newsome’s modest home around midnight, when Ethel finally told him, “Coach, it’s time for you to go.”
“Mrs. Newsome, Coach Bryant said not to let Ozzie out of my sight,” Mitchell pleaded.
That night Mitchell slept on the couch in the Newsome house. On Ethel’s later visits to Tuscaloosa, she would rib him about the sofa until one day she said, “Coach, we finally go rid of your bed.” They had sold the sofa.
Alabama and Bryant became ingrained in Newsome. He rarely dropped a pass and earned a nickname from Bryant. “He called him Wiz,” Mitchell said. “He had to be very special for that.”
Newsome, a split end in a wishbone offense, caught 102 passes for 2,070 yards in his four-year career, setting school and conference records. He was twice all-conference, and as a senior was an All-American and a co-captain. Bryant, who’d played with future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Don Hutson at Alabama, called Newsome the best end in school history—including Hutson. That would make him an Alabama legend forever. Newsome’s love of Bryant, who sent annual handwritten notes to all his former pupils in the NFL signed, “Keep your class,” has never wavered.
Two years ago, Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave Newsome a notebook full of Bryant’s lecture notes that had been passed to Harbaugh’s father, Jack, a longtime college coach. Like a lot of things, it became hidden in the morass that is Newsome’s office. A few weeks ago Harbaugh played interior decorator, pointing out where bookcases and a new closet could go.
“I don’t know if I can keep coming back in here if we don’t straighten this place up a little bit,” Harbaugh told Ozzie. They turned up the Bryant notebook, and Newsome looked at it adoringly.
“Ozzie just cherished that,” Harbaugh said. “He views everything through that Crimson-colored lens.”