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The Wizard of Oz: Newsome’s impact on a generation of football

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The former Tide tight end was a dominant force on the field, but he’s made even bigger waves from the NFL front office

NFL Class of 2013 Enshrinement Ceremony
Newsome’s first two pics, Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, both ended up in the Hall of Fame.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

When it was announced in February that longtime Baltimore Ravens general manager and Vice-President of Player Personnel Ozzie Newsome was planning to step down after the 2018 NFL season, Triton’s trumpet sounded on the end of a football era for the former Bama great and college and pro Hall of Famer. While Newsome admitted that he wasn’t leaving the game nor the Ravens organization entirely, his surrendering of the helm to assistant general manager Eric DeCosta possibly signaled that one of Bama’s most reliable pipelines to the NFL would be diminished.

After all, Newsome is a Bama man, through and through. A stalwart of legendary coach Paul Bryant’s championship-caliber squads of the early 1970s, Newsome was a dominant force for the Cleveland Browns in the 1980s. He made his presence known on the field before leaping to the front office as a scout, then took the reins as general manager in 2002, becoming the first African-American to hold that position in NFL history. As a front office executive with personnel decisions within his aegis, Newsome became the architect behind two Super Bowl Champion teams (2002 and 2013). During that period, he relied on the talent produced by schools like Miami and Alabama, as both programs provided him with the kind of hard-nosed defensive players that have become a trademark of the Baltimore lineage.

In fact, no other NFL general manager has drafted more former Crimson Tide players since 2010 than Newsome (seven total). Even before the Saban era, Newsome looked to Alabama in the Draft. The list of names is a veritable roll call of great Bama players from the last two decades: Terry Jones Jr. (2002), Jarret Johnson (2003), Le’Ron McClain (2007), Terrence Cody (2010), Courtney Upshaw (2012), C.J. Mosley (2015), Tim Williams (2017), Marlon Humphrey (2017), Anthony Averett (2018), and Bradley Bozeman (2018).

But Newsome’s legacy is bigger than his life-long affiliation with the University of Alabama and its players. Newsome was a force on the field and in the front office, and the rippling impact he’s made on both the college and pro ranks will not soon be forgotten.

As Newsome looks towards the sunset of his front office tenure with the Ravens, it’s appropriate to look back on a career well spent, as at every level, he has been the embodiment of the type of excellence instilled in him by Bryant in his playing days at the Capstone.

Early Years

Born on March 13, 1956 to Ozzie and Ethel Newsome in Muscle Shoals, AL, the future tight end was the middle child of five siblings. He wasn’t initially interested in the gridiron as a kid, rather preferring the methodical strategy of baseball, and he was a successful solid player in his own right. In fact, he and his younger brother Thomas were selected as All-Stars on a youth baseball team that won both state and regional titles.

He first played organized football in the eighth grade, and because of his sheer athleticism and good size, he became a fixture on the Colbert County High School squad. Newsome was an offensive weapon for CCHS in 1971 (his sophomore year) as the team went 10-0 in the regular season before losing in the first round of the playoffs. The following year, Newsome’s Colbert County High had a 13-0 season and won Alabama’s 3A state title. It was after that season that the Alabama great began to shift his focus from baseball to football after the then-wide receiver and defensive back had drawn the attention of college recruiters.

Though he decided that his path would follow the gridiron, he excelled in all sports. He was the starting forward on the CCHS basketball team that won the 3A state title, and he played catcher and first base on a baseball team that lost in the 3A-4A championship game.

Considered an Auburn lean for much of his recruitment because his high school quarterback Phil Gargis had committed to the Tigers, that changed when Newsome reportedly received a visit from Alabama assistant coach John Mitchell (the first African-American to play for Alabama). Mitchell pulled him into the fold, and Newsome ultimately signed with Alabama.

At Alabama

Newsome’s time at Alabama was illustrious, as he was a primetime player during a golden age of Alabama football. Initially, Newsome alternated between tight end and split end in Bryant’s iteration of the Wishbone, though his reps at tight end began to take precedence as he proved his mettle. He started all four years in college (which was rare for a player to do in the Bryant era), and #82 saw Alabama earn a record of 42-6 over his four-year career. He finished his time at Alabama with 102 receptions for 2070 yards, 16 touchdowns, and an average of 20.3 yards per catch (an SEC record at the time that stood for more than 20 years).

Newsome was a consensus All-American in 1977, a two-time All-SEC selection (1976-1977), and was the SEC Lineman of the Year in 1977. He was retroactively named Alabama’s Player of the Decade for the 1970s, so great were his contributions to Crimson Tide lore. Newsome was a part of Alabama teams that won three SEC titles and played for two national championships.

Coach Bryant thought so highly of his heard-nosed, explosively talented tight end that he said the following about Newsome: “…the greatest end in Alabama history, and that includes Don Hutson…a total team player, a fine blocker, an outstanding leader, a great receiver with concentration, speed, and hands…”

Pro Player

That skill set described by Bryant translated directly to the attributes NFL scouts sought in a tight end. Newsome was a coveted draft pick, and his skill set was a valuable commodity for teams in the market for a receiving tight end in the 1978 NFL Draft.

Though many sought to sign him, Newsome was ultimately selected with the 23rd pick by the Cleveland Browns. Though he didn’t necessarily know it at the time, Ohio would be where he’d spend much of the next two decades of his life. The agile tight end was a huge hit in Cleveland, as he was named the Browns’ Offensive Player of the Year as a rookie, marking the first time in 25 years that a first-year player had received that honor.

He was a valuable addition to the Cleveland lineup, as he earned Pro Bowl honors in 1981, 1984, and 1985. In one of those seasons (1984), Newsome set a franchise record for yards in a game (191 yards), a mark which stood unassailed for 29 years. He was named first-team All-Pro twice (1979 and 1984), and second-team All-Pro four times (1980, 1981, 1983, 1985). In 1986, he won the Ed Block Courage Award for playing through injuries, and he won the Byron White NFL Man of the Year Award in 1990 for his spirit of volunteerism and community service. He was also named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1980s. Over the span of his career, he made 662 receptions for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns. The first two marks are franchise records that still stand, and Newsome remains fifth all-time in touchdowns for the Browns.

Not only was Newsome explosive and talented, but he was consistent as a pro. He played in 198 consecutive games without missing a start, a mark which is unheard of in the modern era of the game outside of a few ironman accomplishments. He also caught at least one pass in 150 consecutive games, which at the time of his retirement, marked the second-longest such streak in NFL history. He was ranked as the fourth-leading receiver all-time in the NFL when he walked away from the game and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in 1999.

Newsome retired as a player following the 1990 season, but he never strayed far from the game he had spent most of his life playing.

NFL Executive

Immediately after hanging up his cleats, Newsome remained in the orbit of the NFL by joining the Browns as a scout, a role in which he thrived. He had an acute eye for talent, and as a former player, he was also well-familiar with the mindset and work ethic required for forge a talented player into a full-blown star in The League.

He stuck with the Browns until owner Art Modell announced his intention to move the team to Baltimore and change the name to the Ravens. Newsome made the move with the organization, and once again served a front office capacity with the Crows beginning in 1996. As a Ravens personnel specialist, Newsome can be at least partially credited in building one of the most ferocious NFL defenses of all time, the 2001 Ravens D. The team featured defensive legends like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Hiloti Ngata, Chris McAlister, and Terrell Suggs. In fact, Newsome’s first two picks, Lewis and offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, both went on to become first-ballot Hall of Fame inductees. Building the Ravens in much the same mold that the Alabama teams of his college era were constructed, the Ravens made a name for themselves as a physical, tenacious defensive football team that could win with a ground-based, vanilla offense. That Ravens squad went on to win Super Bowl XXXV in February of 2002, and the accomplishment would get Newsome his first Super Bowl ring as a pro.

In November of 2002, Newsome was promoted to general manager for the Ravens, making him the first African-American to hold that role in NFL history. He also set about building another Super Bowl champion team, an effort which culminated in February 2013 as the Ravens beat the 49’ers 34-31 to win yet another title.

The consistency and success the organization has enjoyed on the field under Newsome’s direction can only be rivaled by a few other teams in the NFL (New England and Pittsburgh, to name two of them). During his time as general manager and vice president of player personnel, Newsome acquired 38 Pro Bowlers and 17 All-Pros. The men in purple made the playoffs in 10 of his 22 seasons with the organization’s front office. Baltimore has the fourth-most playoff wins and second-highest playoff win percentage in the NFL (.652).

Though Newsome is slowing down, there’s no indication that he’d done with the game to which he’s dedicated so much of his life’s work. At the time the transition announcement in February, Ravens owner Steve Bisciutti said that Newsome would remain with the organization’s front office and would be “the highest-paid scout” in the league.

Many had speculated that at some future time, Newsome’s path may lead him back to Alabama in some capacity or another, maybe as an athletic director or administrator. In the meantime, Newsome appears to be content to remain with the Ravens organization in a reduced role while his right-hand and friend DeCosta carries on the vision of one of the most influential on- and off-field football figures of the last half century.

To see Ozzie work his wizardry as a Brown (and a nice little vignette about the Bear’s influence over him, visit this link. And finally, if you’d like to see highlights from the Super Bowl winning squads he constructed, click here and here. In this clip, Newsome discusses one of the most important picks of his career.