A Lifetime of Sustained Excellence
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Ozzie Newsome—so consistent, you can set your watch to him.
Now 56, Newsome has spent the better part of a lifetime around football, touching lives and winning with class every step of the journey. His life began innocently enough in Leighton, Ala., tucked in the state’s Northwest corner, just east of the Mississippi border and south of Tennessee. A terrific all-around athlete from a very young age, Newsome first gravitated to baseball as a catcher before realizing that his record-setting talents on the gridiron would earn him a scholarship to play only 120 miles from his family in Tuscaloosa.
It was as a split end and tight end for Alabama that Newsome first began to lay the groundwork in 1974 for what would become a brilliantly versatile career in the NFL. At the Capstone, he sharpened his tools as a big-play pass-catcher, leader and student of the game. While in Tuscaloosa, Newsome found his first professional mentor, head coach Bear Bryant, who instilled in the star end many of the values and characteristics that he lives by today. Newsome would go on to catch 102 passes for 2,070 yards and 16 touchdowns in a Hall of Fame college career, while leading the Tide to three SEC titles. The team captain and an All-American by the time his eligibility was exhausted in 1977, Newsome was adequately prepared to take his game to Sundays.
In 1978, the Cleveland Browns selected Newsome No. 23 overall, kicking off a marriage between a player and an organization that’s yet to exit the honeymoon phase. While in Ohio, he didn’t just catch plenty of passes—a franchise-record 662 for 7,890 yards and 47 touchdowns—and play in three Pro Bowls. No, Newsome revolutionized a position, clearing the path for the next generation of tight ends, such as Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez, to elevate even higher.
“When Ozzie came into the league, tight ends were still basically blockers,” offered Sam Rutigliano, Newsome’s coach in Cleveland from 1978-84. “He set the tone for where the position is today, because of his ability to create mismatches with linebackers. Ozzie was a willing blocker, but he had amazing hands, and, like Michael Jordan, wanted the ball in crunch time. In more than six years, including practice and preseason, I don’t think I saw him drop more than a couple throws. That guy could catch a BB in the dark.”
Following 13 seasons as a Brown, Newsome’s consistency as one of the NFL’s premier pass-catching tight ends caught the attention of voters, who inducted him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. It was a long and distinguished career, both on and off the field for the soft-spoken humanitarian, who had also been honored in 1990 with the Byron “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year Award for community service, and the Ed Block Courage Award in 1986 for playing through pain. But now what?
After two decades of playing at a high level, Newsome planned on staying close to the game, preferably in a capacity that would allow him to employ his expertise as a talent evaluator. From an early age, he had a knack for spotting potential, both with player personnel and members of a coaching staff. His keen eye and upside in management prompted the Browns to offer a position as a special assignment scout in 1991. From there, Newsome did what he always did when an opportunity was presented—he put his head down, he soaked up knowledge like a sponge and he quietly began to climb the organizational ladder.
When team owner Art Modell relocated the franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, he invited Newsome to become a cornerstone of the Ravens as the Vice President of Player Personnel. It didn’t take long for the decision to pay substantial dividends. In that first year, Baltimore selected in the opening round OT Jonathan Ogden and LB Ray Lewis, the former already headed to Canton and the latter not far behind. That first draft with Newsome in charge was a harbinger of things to come for an organization that would go on to provide the blueprint for successfully building through the draft.
The evolution in Baltimore continued for the next few years, with the first big payoff coming in 2000. Spearheaded by one of the nastiest defenses in league history, the Ravens defeated the New York Giants, 34-7, to capture Super Bowl XXXV. For his role in assembling that championship squad, particularly a D that nuanced draft picks with shrewd free agent signings, like S Rod Woodson and DT Sam Adams, Newsome was named the NFL’s Executive of the Year. Two years later, the VP would accept a promotion of historical significance that transcended the world of football.
“Ozzie does his job without an ego,” said Brian Billick, the head coach of that world championship Ravens team. “We all knew that he was a great talent evaluator. But I especially respected the way he solicited information from scouts and then accurately processed all of that data. The way he’d look at a draft board and sort of digest it all on the fly reminded me of that ingenious Russell Crowe character, John Nash, from A Beautiful Mind.”
Prior to 2002, there had never been an African-American general manager in the NFL. In pioneering fashion, it was Newsome who broke the front office color barrier, earning a well-deserved promotion, and helping pave the way in the coming years for minority GMs, such as Rod Graves, Jerry Reese, Martin Mayhew, Rick Smith and Reggie McKenzie. Since becoming the general manager in Baltimore, the Ravens have been an extension of Newsome; they’re ultra-steady, built on solid fundamentals and principles and dominate in April despite often picking late in the draft’s opening round. Oh, and absolutely no one has done a better job of developing assistants, like Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Ken Whisenhunt, Jack Del Rio, Jim Schwartz, Hue Jackson and Mike Smith, and putting them in the head coaching pipeline.
Newsome and his staff have crafted a time-tested process for sustaining excellence, no small achievement during the salary cap era, and with the challenges of free agency. Baltimore is the only team in the NFL to have qualified for the playoffs in five consecutive years, with the exclamation point coming in January’s Super Bowl victory over San Francisco. For the architect, it meant that he’s had a starring role in titles that were 12 years apart. In other words, his two champs were completely different productions, sans any continuity on the coaching staff or on the roster, specifically at quarterback. Each Super Bowl ensemble had its own distinct, homegrown identity, with Newsome presiding as the patriarch and the lone constant in both runs.
“Ozzie’s accomplishments as a player at both the collegiate and professional levels are well documented, and he has continued his involvement in his post-playing days as one of the top GMs and executives in professional football,” said Maxwell Football Club president Ron Jaworski. “He certainly has had a tremendous impact on the game on many levels and is most deserving of recognition as the winner of the Reds Bagnell Award.”
Consistency isn’t always sexy and it rarely makes a big splash. It is, however, an essential characteristic of all winners. Ozzie Newsome has been consistently good on each rung of the football ladder, the rare premier athlete who can transfer his myriad talents from the locker room to the board room. A true football renaissance man, he’s a brilliant talent assessor, who can process massive amounts of data, yet also displays the confidence and humility to empower those around him. While Newsome can command a room when necessary, he’s actually most comfortable listening to others, soaking up their knowledge and gauging their presentation.
Newsome has been a quiet giant of football for nearly four decades, never wavering from the core beliefs of an even keel, a measured response and a disciplined dedication to hard work. The Bear would be proud. Men of Ozzie’s character and old-fashioned approach toward reaching life’s metaphorical end zone—well, they’re timeless.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.