Oz the Great and Powerful
Ozzie Newsome, Hall of Fame tight end and architect of the Ravens’ two Super Bowl champions, doesn’t talk much about himself, but listen to the men who know him and you’ll learn something of the esteem in which he’s held throughout the league
On Friday, April 19, 1996, the brain trust of the brand new Baltimore Ravens was sitting in the windowless draft room at the team’s training facility housed inside an old state police barracks in Owings Mills, Md. After the exodus from Cleveland that ripped the hearts out of Browns fans, there was plenty of work to do in building the new franchise. The group had been working non-stop, not only on the draft, but on trying to make their new space functional. It still wasn’t close to that. In the hallway outside, VHS tapes numbered 1 to 2000 were lined up on the floor against the wall up one side and then back down the other, because there were no storage units. People would roam the halls, yelling, “Where’s Virginia Tech vs. Virginia?” Television monitors were strewn all over the place. The stationery had a blank white helmet on it. The practice uniforms were black and white, drawing jokes about the Mean Machine from The Longest Yard. College secretaries, not knowing that the Ravens were a real NFL team, sent scouts on campus visits to the soccer offices.
“You talk about a wing and a prayer,” says Phil Savage, the team’s director of college scouting at the time.
But there they were, one day before the first draft in Ravens history, charting the course for a franchise. Present were owner Art Modell, his son David, team president Jim Bailey, chief financial officer Pat Moriarty and vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome.
Newsome, 40 at the time, was in charge, but he was greener than the Jolly Green Giant. After starring for four years at Alabama and then for 13 seasons as a tight end for the Browns, he was certainly at home around the game. But this was altogether different. Yes, he had studied tirelessly in the five years since his retirement, working at times as an assistant coach with Cleveland, and then in personnel under coach Bill Belichick with the Browns. But in Cleveland, Belichick, general manager Ernie Accorsi and later personnel chief Michael Lombardi did the heavy lifting. Everyone else was a glorified grunt, grinding tape and writing reports.
During his playing career, Newsome had become very close to Modell. Maybe the owner didn’t have many options or people he could trust after the controversial move out of Cleveland. Whatever the reason, he chose Newsome to direct the front office. “There’s a difference between managers who make purely intellectual decisions, and managers who manage intuitively from the gut,” said David Modell about his late father. “I think Art obviously had that sense of people, because say what you want about him, he was definitely a people person. He had a feeling about Ozzie.”
Powerful people in the NFL face critical decisions at some point in their careers. The inexperienced Newsome, armed with the fourth and 26th picks in the first round, was staring his seminal moment in the face, just a few months into the job. His choices in this draft could shape a franchise, or spin it further into the vortex of irrelevance.
Art Modell and coach Ted Marchibroda preferred to make a splash in the new market with an explosive running back—Lawrence Phillips from Nebraska. The Ravens desperately needed someone in the backfield. Seemed like a good marriage.
Newsome kept coming back to an offensive tackle from UCLA named Jonathan Ogden, even though the team already had a good offensive line and a solid left tackle in Tony Jones, who would go on to start two Super Bowls.
It was Newsome’s moment. One that his whole life had prepared him for, and set the stage for greatness.
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The story of Ozzie Newsome, better known in the state of Alabama and in the NFL as the Wizard of Oz, is difficult to tell neatly or traditionally. Newsome is a transcendent figure in football lore, who after rising above segregation in the South played for the great Bear Bryant at Alabama, achieved personal success as an NFL player but endured heartbreaking team failures, and then rose to become one of the most powerful and successful figures in personnel.
And you can’t tell Newsome’s story with his help. He declined an interview request for this story, just as he does most all other reporters who want to focus on him. What follows are the stories, anecdotes and quotes culled from interviews with 19 people who have known Newsome well over the course of his life.
All of them are pieces to the puzzle. Put them together and they serve as a portrait of the man who has helped lead the Ravens to two Super Bowl titles, five straight playoff appearances and nine in the past 13 years.