Fitting the pieces
The Ravens made several critical personnel decisions in the 2000 offseason that not only showed Newsome’s eye for talent and his ability to identify the inner drive of a champion, but also reflected his personal touch with players. Some personnel directors never venture into the locker room or interact much with players. Better to not get too close, so personal feelings don’t get in the way of business. Newsome, in contrast, views interaction with his players as a pillar of his job, so much so that he never scouts on the road—he’s always in the building and at practice.
Before the draft, the Ravens hosted Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis on a visit. Newsome asked him one simple question: “What sets you apart from all the other running backs?”
“I can be as good as or better than any back in the AFC,” Lewis said.
On draft day Newsome called Lewis when the Ravens were about to select him with that fifth pick from the Falcons, and reminded him of their conversation.
“I just felt like he really took a chance on me,” says Lewis, who was only 20 at the time. “I only played 25 games in college. Hurt most of my sophomore season, left as a junior. When I first came in, my main goals were to please Ozzie and show that he chose a great player as that first pick.”
Two months earlier, free-agent tight end Shannon Sharpe jumped on Modell’s plane and flew to Baltimore with the owner for a visit. Modell left the league’s best tight end with an all-time great at the position. “Don’t mess this up,” Modell told Newsome. “I want him signed.”
Newsome was straightforward with Sharpe, who’d been a four-time All-Pro and a Super Bowl champion with the Broncos. “I just need you to be you. I want you to be you,” Newsome told Sharpe. “Don’t change anything from what you did in Denver. That’s the player we need. We need your leadership in the locker room, we need your ability to make big plays on the football field, and we want our young guys to see what it takes to be a champion. I don’t want you to change anything. I brought you here for who you are. So don’t get here and think you have to be somebody else.”
Sharpe, recalling the conversation, says, “That was all I needed to hear.”
With Lewis supplanting Priest Holmes in the backfield, Sharpe attacking defenses like Newsome used to, and a mostly home-grown defense shutting down opponents, the Ravens were finally flying under Newsome.
The Show At Last
Newsome enjoyed immense personal success as a player, but team success was fleeting and heartbreaking. While at Alabama, the Crimson Tide when 42-6 in his four years and won three Southeastern Conference championship, but never a national championship. The Browns were … well, they were the Brownies, always finding new ways to come up short, from Red Right 88 to The Drive and The Fumble. The Ravens, too, were 24-39 in Newsome’s first four seasons in Baltimore, before breaking through with a 12-4 mark in 2000 and beating the Broncos and Titans to reach the conference title game. The’ defense was dominant, as Baltimore beat Oakland 16-3. Newsome was finally going to the Super Bowl.
The moment was not lost on Eric DeCosta, who had gone from working at a card table outside Newsome’s office that first year in Baltimore, to Midwest area scout. DeCosta, now the Ravens’ assistant GM, is short on height but long on feistiness, like a lot of kids from his working-class hometown of Taunton, Mass. And like virtually everyone in the Ravens organization, he has an undying loyalty to Newsome—so much so that in recent years he has turned down several chances to run his own team.
As the clock wound down on the Ravens’ first-ever conference championship, DeCosta and Newsome headed for the elevators to get to the field and celebrate an accomplishment years in the making. “All Ozzie wanted to do was get down to that field,” DeCosta said.
In the Oakland Coliseum, which was old then and is ancient now, a mass of people waiting was waiting to get to the locker rooms. As is customary, an elevator was being held for the coaches. Most of the coaches had already descended, but there were two Raiders assistants in an otherwise empty elevator. Newsome started to get on the elevator with the coaches when one of them looked up and said, “Hey, coaches only.” The security personnel also told Newsome he couldn’t get on. It the backdoor of the theater all over again.
With the moment Newsome had been waiting his whole football life for slipping away, DeCosta flew into a rage. “I was furious,” DeCosta said. “I couldn’t believe it. For them to do that to him at that time, it was almost humiliating.”
Then DeCosta felt Newsome’s enormous hand landing softly on his shoulder. Newsome looked at DeCosta and said, “Eric, Eric, … it’s OK. It’s OK, Eric. We’re going to show! We’re going to the show!” So the two waited, and didn’t reach the field until most of the players were in the locker room.
“But he didn’t care,” DeCosta says, “and that’s Ozzie. He really has an incredible ability to stay calm and even-keeled in every circumstance. I really admire that about him, because I don’t have that quality. It’s a gift he has to keep things in perspective. He just doesn’t get flustered.”
As the confetti rained down at Raymond James Stadium after the Ravens became NFL champions for the first time with 34-7 victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, Newsome celebrated as much as he is capable. “Thank you for giving me what I was not able to get as a player,” he told Sharpe during a hug.
“Thank you for believing in me and believing that I could still play this game,” the tight end said in return.
At the hotel after the Super Bowl, Jamal Lewis and Newsome saw each other and had a long embrace. One a champion as a rookie, the other’s lifelong quest fulfilled. “He came up to me and grabbed me and he said, ‘You’re my boy. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but you showed them,’” Lewis said. “From that point, we just had this bond.”
The pair remained close.When Lewis went to federal prison in 2005 on drug charges (stemming from an incident in 2000, just after he was drafted), Newsome walked the visiting yard with him, and Lewis was welcomed back to the team for the ’05 season after serving his sentence. As Lewis battles post-career concussion issues, Newsome has offered whatever help he can. “I feel like I ended up with the right organization,” Lewis said. “I was 20 years old. I’m still the youngest player to play in a Super Bowl. I was young. If I hadn’t have gone to that situation, it might have been a totally different story. I joined and was surrounded by a great organization. Ozzie Newsome was the nucleus for that.”
At the combine in February 2008, Giants general manager Jerry Reese, fresh off a Super Bowl title in his first season as GM, was on the congratulation trail that every winner gets to enjoy. Everywhere you go, somebody’s stopping you to pat you on the back—and maybe catch your eye for a job down the line now that you’ve got the big JS—job security, that NFL rarity.
The lasting interaction, however, came when Newsome spotted Reese among a group in a crowded hallway. When the crowd parted, Reese saw Newsome and the elder executive flashed his big smile—with a message on the side.
“He was just smiling like, ‘I’m proud of you, but it’s not that easy,’” Reese said, laughing as he recounted the interaction. “He’s always been a big supporter of mine.”
In 2002, Newsome was named general manager of the Ravens, becoming the league’s first African-American GM. All those who followed—former Newsome lieutenant James Harris (Jaguars), Rod Graves (Cardinals), Reese, Rick Smith (Texans), Martin Mayhew (Lions), Reggie McKenzie (Raiders) and Doug Whaley (Bills)—have enjoyed Newsome’s guidance and respect him entirely.
“They will tell you that Ozzie has been a guy who will take a call and just talk,” says John Wooten, who worked under Newsome in Baltimore and is now the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in NFL front offices. “That’s what he just does, that’s the way he is. He’s not one of these guys that if you’re not in his circle, you’re not going to get anything from him. They have received great advice. He’s been a great mentor to those guys.”
The truth is, Newsome will give advice to whomever asks his council, no matter their skin color. “Really, Ozzie is an ambassador for the NFL, period,” says Reese, who presented Newsome with an award at the Fritz Pollard banquet in Indianapolis this year.
“I said, ‘I think about three Cs when I think about Ozzie: classy, consistency and championships,’” Reese says. “That’s what I think about. We’re all chasing Ozzie Newsome, man. He don’t talk about it, but go in his office, he’s got skins on the wall. He doesn’t have to talk about it. His resume says it all for him.”
His resume, and the people who know him.