Ozzie Newsome on his journey from Alabama to NFL history
The league’s first black general manager prepares for his final draft with the Baltimore Ravens
On the eve of his final NFL draft as Baltimore Ravens general manager, Ozzie Newsome did something that would shock anyone who knows him. The reserved Newsome opened up about his journey.
While the trappings that Newsome’s success affords him now would be unrecognizable to the boy who worked cotton fields for extra money, he can’t help but notice that, in some ways, America is unchanged.
“I was one of a few that integrated the school in my hometown,” said Newsome, who will retire as GM after next season, “but 50 years later I can go to events and still be the only black person there.”
It’s a dispiriting reality. Yet Newsome’s optimistic disposition remains undefeated.
Ozzie Newsome Jr. was born in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1956 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks. He was 7 years old when four little girls were murdered in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, part of a string of racial violence that earned the city the nickname “Bombingham.” The violent attacks on peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma took place nine days before his ninth birthday.
In this highly charged climate, a young Newsome told his parents that he wanted to be bused to the predominantly white elementary school.
“I knew I was going to have to compete with them academically and athletically eventually,” Newsome said, “so I wanted to start.”
On his first day, as one of three black kids in class, Newsome said he felt no fears or nervousness. You could draw a line from that morning at Leighton Elementary School in northwest Alabama to his groundbreaking career in football. You could say the clarity he showed as a 12-year-old boy is part of what has made him one of the greatest general managers in NFL history.
The story is biopic fodder that anyone would want to watch. Everyone except the man himself. Suggest he was brave and he bristles: “It wasn’t the first time I was around white people.” Newsome pushed back anytime he was cast as exceptionally noble, brave or wise during the interview.
And he shut down any questions that might have led to him being viewed sympathetically. Asked whether he experienced mistreatment in the nearly all-white environment, Newsome said, “I couldn’t fight every day,” after trying to move off the topic. “I had to learn to bite my tongue,” he said, unwilling to discuss specifics.
“My parents had it much worse than I did. I was seeing progress,” Newsome said.
He was right, and in some cases he was the progress. Newsome and his brother were the only two black players on their Little League All-Star Team. Newsome remembers a regional tournament in Georgia when the team stayed at a camp near a lake. He recalls walking around the grounds and seeing many white families.
“After just one night, we switched to a different hotel,” Newsome said.
The first hotel’s management told Newsome’s coaches that Newsome and his brother were forbidden from staying on the grounds because guests had been complaining about their presence. The white coach moved the team to a different hotel without explanation. It wasn’t until adulthood that the coach told Newsome that the team moved because guests were made uncomfortable by his blackness. “Parents and coaches shielded us from that stuff,” he said.
But the coach who had the most influence on Newsome was the University of Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant. Newsome credits Bryant with teaching him to work to improve every day as a player, but more importantly as a man, for the sake of the people around him. Bryant was revered by Alabamians, so the impact of his teachings on his players was great. For Newsome, it seemed that even before that message had been offered, he had decided he wanted to receive it.
A high school All-American receiver, Newsome had narrowed his choices to Auburn or Alabama. The passing connection of Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan to receiver Terry Beasley was college football’s most impressive. After both players were chosen near the top of the NFL draft, Auburn looked to replace them. Newsome’s high school quarterback, a year older than Newsome, chose Auburn. Newsome was intrigued by the reunion and the potential of the duo becoming the new Sullivan to Beasley. But he came to see the decision as a choice between personal glory and team success. So he chose Alabama looking to win championships.
He made an instant impact at Alabama, becoming the team’s leading receiver as a freshman in 1974. They won all 11 regular-season games but lost in the Orange Bowl to Notre Dame, falling short of the national championship. For the next three seasons, Newsome didn’t miss a game, and his production increased. By the end of his senior season, he owned all the meaningful receiving records and earned All-American honors. In Newsome’s four seasons at Alabama, the Crimson Tide ended all but one season ranked in the top five, but never No. 1. Newsome left school without the ultimate team success he sought.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh believes that Newsome’s football philosophy is based on principles given to him by Bryant. Newsome said Bryant taught him much more. “He gave me the principles that shaped the rest of my life.”
In 1978, the Cleveland Browns selected Newsome with the 23rd pick of the NFL draft. Newsome was named Offensive Player of the Year for the Browns as a rookie despite changing positions to tight end. He cites Calvin Hill’s mentorship as the reason he adapted quickly to life in the NFL. Hill, the Yale-educated running back, was winding down his career in Cleveland just as Newsome arrived. Despite the 10-year gap in their ages, Newsome and Hill developed a bond that remains strong to this day. “We still talk a few times a week,” Newsome said.
Hill, who grew up in Baltimore, said, “We don’t talk much about the Ravens. We talk about family and college basketball, when Duke and the University of North Carolina play.” Oddly, they find themselves on opposite sides of college basketball’s most storied rivalry. Hill’s allegiance has been with Duke since his son, Grant, became a Blue Devils basketball star in the early 1990s. Newsome became partial to the Tar Heels after he had gotten to know former UNC head coach Dean Smith, who was a friend of Bear Bryant’s.
Hill said as a rookie, Newsome was “mature and a learner, which aided in his transition to the pros.” But Hill believes his influence on Newsome was more social than professional.
“He was raw, like I was as a rookie,” Hill said. “I talked to him about managing his money. I took him to the art museum, but I don’t think he liked that.”
“I was bored stiff,” Newsome said about that trip.
While recounting Newsome’s interaction with a French-speaking waiter, Hill laughed. “The waiter asked us what we were going to have, and Ozzie asked him to repeat himself — not because he didn’t understand but because he liked the way it sounded.”
Hill’s favorite memory of that first year with Newsome has to do with the rookie’s brand new Lincoln Continental.
“It didn’t work. He would drive us to practice and stay only in the right lane of the interstate because every 10 miles it would cut off,” Hill said.
Despite the unreliable vehicle, they were never late. Newsome was persistent and unflappable. Hill would joke with Newsome in the huddle, asking, “Do you ever sweat?” Almost nothing shook Newsome’s focused demeanor. Hill said there was only one time that he saw Newsome appear disturbed. “He introduced me to [his then-girlfriend] Gloria, now his wife. I hugged her. I guess that wasn’t what they did in Alabama. He looked like he wanted to kill me.”
Maybe Newsome’s small-town Southern ways didn’t fit perfectly in a big city, but his play sure did. Newsome’s professional career was a lot like his collegiate career. He quickly became one of the best players in the NFL, but he never won a Super Bowl. Newsome’s Browns lost in the AFC Championship Game three times.
After 13 seasons as the Browns’ tight end, Newsome worked as a coach and in player personnel for the team. Eventually, he committed himself fully to the personnel office. The team’s all-time leader in receiving yards toiled alongside younger, less accomplished staff members. A former player choosing the personnel path over coaching would have been surprising to everyone except the people at East Ohio Gas. Newsome worked in the gas company’s personnel department during the final few offseasons of his career.
“I was an on-campus recruiter,” Newsome said of his duties with the gas company. “It was a little bit like scouting in the NFL: You go to a college campus, you set up your interviews, you have 30 minutes to make a determination.”
Newsome rose fast once he transitioned from player to scout. By 1995, just his fifth season in the front office, he had become the Browns’ director of pro personnel under head coach Bill Belichick. The ’95 season would be Newsome’s last in Cleveland. Team owner Art Modell’s relationship with the city had deteriorated to the point of irreconcilability. Modell cut ties, and after a 5-11 season, he fired Belichick. Cleveland’s beloved franchise was moving to Baltimore, and Newsome was going too. Without an official general manager, Newsome took control of the player personnel side as vice president of player personnel. Under the chaos of building a brand-new franchise from inside of a former police barracks in a Baltimore suburb, Newsome prepared for his first NFL draft as the man with complete control of all player personnel decisions.
With two first-round picks, Newsome selected offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013, and linebacker Ray Lewis, Hall of Fame Class of 2018. That’s a pretty good way to start a franchise.
In 1997 and ’98, Newsome made two acquisitions that, though less heralded, were no less significant: He brought on James “Shack” Harris and John Wooten. Harris joined first, as director of pro personnel, almost 30 years after he became the first black regular starter at quarterback in NFL history. The Ravens added Wooten the following season as assistant director of pro personnel. Wooten, drafted by the Browns in 1959, blocked for Jim Brown on the field and defended Muhammad Ali off the field. Wooten helped to organize the historic 1967 Cleveland Summit, the iconic meeting of prominent black athletes in support of Ali. Both Harris and Wooten were among the first black people to work in NFL personnel after their playing careers.
“When you talk about the success of early Baltimore Ravens and that first Super Bowl that we won,” Newsome said, “Shaq and Woot had a lot to do with that.”
This unprecedented front office was compiling talent, but the team had just 16 wins in three seasons. So in 1999, head coach Ted Marchibroda was fired and Newsome was tasked with finding the replacement. That was the same year Newsome became a Pro Football Hall of Famer, the personal accomplishment that brings him the most joy. He sees being immortalized in Canton, Ohio, as validation of efforts made by family, mentors and teammates. “I am in the Hall because of sacrifices made for me, starting with my mother working all day and still getting me to practice as a kid.”
Newsome named then-Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick as Ravens head coach. In his second season, Billick delivered a Super Bowl championship to Baltimore. Billick remembers seeing Newsome standing on the sideline, grinning as the game clock counted down to the moment when Newsome could celebrate the realization of his decades-long quest for team success.
Newsome was named general manager of the Ravens in November 2002, 21 months after the team he had built won the Super Bowl. The title would have merely been formality — Newsome had been the de facto GM since ’96 — if not for the fact that it cemented Newsome’s place in NFL history. He became the first black general manager in the history of the league. That distinction didn’t fully sink in for Newsome until he was told by racial pioneer and former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson Jr. that now others could and would follow in his footsteps.
“It’s like everything,” Thompson said. “The first is not evaluated on just their ability; there is added pressure. Whether Ozzie wanted it or not, he took on a responsibility.”
A responsibility to alter perceptions and weaken centuries-old stereotypes, granting black men slightly better access to opportunities that were previously denied.
Seven teams had black GMs by the end of the 2016 season. But the league is down to just three today: Reggie McKenzie (Oakland Raiders), Chris Grier (Miami Dolphins) and Newsome. For a league with 70 percent black players, representation among GMs needs to increase. But unless some of next offseason’s openings are filled by black candidates, the league will drop to 6 percent black general managers.
When confronted with these stats, Newsome wonders, “Did I do enough?” He is often reminded of the impact his representation has on players and fans.
“When I go to the barbershop, they know I’m the GM of the Baltimore Ravens,” Newsome said, “and those people may never buy a ticket, but they are Baltimore Ravens fans.”
For the past couple of months, Newsome has been welcoming draft prospects into his office. “They are amazed to see me sitting in the big chair.”
Remembering a specific player, Newsome had to chuckle. “I was interviewing a kid yesterday and he said, ‘Take me through your history.’ I’ve been at this longer than some of these kids have been alive.”
He told the player that he started with the Ravens 22 years ago. The player responded, “Yeah, I’m just 20.” Even with the age gap, there is a familiarity. “When people see people of their color in positions like this, there’s a warmness,” Newsome said.
After moving on from Billick in 2008, Newsome tapped Eagles special teams coordinator John Harbaugh to coach the team. That choice was criticized, but again Newsome was proved right. Harbaugh brought the Ravens a second championship, defeating the Colin Kaepernick-quarterbacked San Francisco 49ers by three points in Super Bowl XLVII.
Kaepernick, whose place in the public consciousness long surpassed quarterback after he initiated a series of demonstrations during the national anthem, has been unable to re-enter the league. After a preseason injury to starting quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens toyed with the idea of signing the polarizing signal-caller but opted to sign David Olson, the former quarterback for the Kansas City Phantoms of the Champions Indoor Football league.
Newsome declined to discuss the specifics of the Kaepernick situation, citing the grievance filed by Kaepernick accusing NFL teams of colluding to keep him out of the league. But he did say about Kaepernick and other outspoken players, “When they take a political stance based on their views, I think it’s OK. I think they’re allowed to do that. I don’t think it has impacted their play on the field.”
Two minutes later, asked which athletes he admires, Newsome responded, “Calvin [Hill] was an activist, so it goes right to Calvin. I have a great amount of respect for Jim Brown and the stances that he’s taken. To me, it’s not just one, I think it’s several guys that have chosen to take their position and use it for the betterment of society.”
Newsome’s tenure with the Ravens spans the entire history of the franchise, two owners, three head coaches and hundreds of players. Under Newsome’s guidance, the Ravens have been one of the league’s most consistently competitive franchises. However, the Ravens haven’t had much to celebrate lately. They’ve gone 40-40 since their Super Bowl victory in 2013, missing the playoffs in four of the past five seasons. Baltimore fans and media have been critical of Newsome’s eye for playmaking receivers, and the team’s recent offensive production hasn’t done much to assuage those concerns.
According to a recent USA Today poll of NFL agents, Newsome is the league’s most respected decision-maker. But given his contributions as a player and to the progress of the league, the others on the list are not his only peers.
Despite (maybe as a result of) being a product of a tumultuous period in American history, Newsome emerged as an understated man, not without imperfections he would willingly expose sooner than boast. At the end of this upcoming season, Newsome will walk away from the game. He will probably fill that void with some combination of golf and family. But as for the void he will leave in the game, nobody can fill that.