Brains, brawn keep Jonathan Ogden man among boys

The "sale" tag caught his eye. A rib-eye steak at that low price? Jonathan Ogden scooped up the package and angled for the supermarket checkout line.

The clerks saw him coming: with his tousled hair and frumpy clothes, Ogden looked less like a multimillionaire football player than he did like a bum.

Flustered, perhaps, by his unkempt appearance, the cashier overcharged Ogden for the steak. As the Ravens lineman argued the price, another customer sized him up and dug into her purse.


"Here," the woman said, handing Ogden a 10-spot. "I'll buy that for you."

She didn't recognize Ogden, 32, one of the NFL's richest stars. But then the 6-foot-9, 345-pound Pro Bowl offensive tackle is something of an anomaly: an extraordinary man with somewhat ordinary tastes.


The Ravens might have given him a seven-year, $48 million contract in 2004, but those close to Ogden say he gets as big a kick out of saving a buck as he does pancaking a defensive end.

As training camp begins next week in Ogden's 12th and possibly final season, teammates say the affable giant with the seven-figure paycheck and flea-market mind-set is as much a legend off the field as on it.

To wit:

Other Ravens marvel at his intellect. With a stack of books in his locker, Ogden's size 8 3/4 head is often buried in a Laurell K. Hamilton vampire thriller or a John Grisham whodunit.

"There are always a half-dozen hardbacks around him," said Ravens center Mike Flynn, his best friend on the team. "But knowing J.O., they are from a used bookstore."

His threadbare attire draws smirks and stares. Despite his millions, Ogden will wear the same T-shirt to practice three days in a row.

"Why not?" he said. "I take it off when I get there, so I really only wear it for five hours a day.

"It's not like I stink."

Ogden's lifestyle may be the dullest by NFL standards. As a bachelor, he said, "I used to come home, sit on the sofa and watch TV."

Marriage tweaked that routine:

"Now I come home, kiss my wife, play with the baby, sit on the sofa and watch TV."

His thriftiness has reached mythic proportions.

"When J.O. and I go to the movies, I have to pay for his popcorn," Flynn said. "He'll say, `I only have a $100 bill, and I don't want to break it.' "

Ogden resides in Nevada, in part because the state has no income tax.

"I do like that fact," he said.

Three years ago, Ogden acquiesced and bought his first upscale car - a used Mercedes.

"I saved $50,000 there," he said proudly. "I don't want to spend $200,000 on a Bentley, like some guys, or a couple of thousand dollars on a suit. Heck, I can get five suits for that price.

"I'm frugal, not cheap."

Ogden has long been keen on sniffing out bargains, say those who know him.

"Frugal is too generous a description of Jonathan. He's like a giant Jack Benny," said Art Venegas, who coached Ogden in track and field at UCLA.

Ogden's response?

"I know I have a lot of money, but football won't last forever - and a dollar is still a dollar."

And Ogden will always be Ogden, friends say. Unpretentious. Self-effacing. But with a flair for finance.

"If America's economy operated on Jonathan's terms, we'd all be OK," Venegas said. "He doesn't like a lot of debt."

"He has never changed his personality, or his shirts," said Wally Williams, a former Ravens offensive lineman. "A Rolex watch? An earring in his ear? That's not his style. With J.O., what you see is what you get.

"Here's this big guy with a crazy stare and hair that hasn't been combed since the [1996] pro draft. But there's no detail in his life for which he doesn't have a game plan built for success."

Not a big start

Jonathan Phillip Ogden was no Bunyan-sized baby, weighing in at 8 pounds, 14 ounces.

"They tell stories about me having to carry him around in a wheelbarrow," mother Cassandra Ogden said. "He has always been bigger than the clothes for his age, but, you know, he was just a normal-sized large child."

Notoriety came early, to Ogden's dismay. At Stevens Elementary in Washington, D.C., he won a second-grade spelling bee, shyly answering every question with his back turned toward the audience.

"People would look at him and say, `Is he in the right grade?'" then-principal Juanita Braddock said. "Jonathan stood out because he was tall and smart."

Too big for youth football, Ogden played pickup games with a friend, Lee Hall, in the backyard of his family's home in Northwest Washington. At 12, he fancied himself a quarterback and mimicked Joe Montana. On rainy days, they moved inside to roughhouse.

"Me and Lee would get on our knees, throw a Nerf ball around and toss our little brothers to the floor like ragdolls," he said.

At 13, Ogden's parents divorced. Their two sons moved in with their dad "because we're African-American and boys need their father," Cassandra Ogden said.

In seventh grade, Ogden enrolled at St. Albans, a private boys school in D.C. where he mingled with kids named Marriott and Rockefeller. There, by all accounts, he grew in size and stature. Classmates and teachers called him "Oggie," marveled at his football prowess and praised his mannerly demeanor.

"What a gentleman he was!" said Donna Allanson, whose husband, Dick, was the school's football coach. "I can still see Jonathan helping to make cucumber sandwiches for a tea I was giving. There he was [at 6-8], standing in a kitchen with a 7-foot ceiling, trimming the crusts off those little sandwiches and cutting them into rounds.

"He was so sweet."

Ogden's dexterity was remarkable for someone his size, said Tom Soles, who taught art at St. Albans.

"He could be so precise and delicate with his hands, which were the biggest I've ever seen," Soles said. "A lot of big guys have problems with their motor skills. Not Jonathan.

"He loved making pottery, spinning a lump of clay on a potter's wheel and manipulating it into form. Most kids would use 10 pounds of clay, but Jonathan is the only guy I know who had the sheer strength to center 50 pounds of clay on that wheel and spin it into a symmetrical pot."

One of Ogden's pots still sits in the headmaster's office at St. Albans. Likewise, the white art smock he wore - specially made for his 60-inch chest - hung for years on a wall in Soles' classroom.

"Kids would look at it with their mouths open and say, `Is that Jonathan Ogden's smock?'" said Soles. "It was bigger than those worn by guys working in meat lockers."

Big in sports, school

Football came easily to Ogden once he found his niche. In eighth grade, he tried out for place-kicker. That experiment failed, said teammate Scott Allanson, his holder.

"His big foot hit the ball. It also broke my hand," said Allanson, the coach's son.

Ogden remained a lineman.

"He was a gentle giant," Dick Allanson said. All three of the Ogden menfolk weighed 300 pounds or more. On rainy game days, the coach said, it was amusing to see Ogden's father, Shirrel, and brother, Marques, huddled under a massive, patio-sized umbrella, rooting St. Albans on.

Ogden thrived on the field and in class. As a senior in 1991, he was named All-Met Offensive Player of the Year by The Washington Post. He earned a 3.0 grade point average and a respectable 1,180 (of 1,600) on his SAT.

In the high school yearbook, The Albanian, Ogden listed his likes and dislikes. The good: free periods, friends, family and food. The bad: loud rock music, losing, college recruiters and being "pompous."


"Jonathan has always surrounded himself with good people," said Jeremy Akers, who has known him for 20 years. "He doesn't keep fake friends just to feed his ego."


"Oggie" was not above a few hijinks at school. During track workouts, he and Akers routinely went off behind an old equipment shed to practice the shot and discus.

"Nobody could see us there," Akers said, "so Jonathan and I decided to sneak in a barbecue grill so we could eat hamburgers while the other guys practiced."

Ogden developed a playful streak in high school, Soles said:

"He would come up behind you, put his big hand on your head and wrap those fingers around your eyes and ears like you were a football. And if he was really rambunctious, he'd give you a bear hug from behind and lift you like a feather."

Ogden hasn't changed, Soles said. Several years ago, the teacher was ambushed at a St. Albans homecoming game by the Ravens offensive tackle.

"I was standing with a bunch of students, and all of a sudden I saw their eyes get real big," Soles said. "Jonathan had snuck up behind me and was ready to grab my chest and lift me off the ground like a sack of grain."

The day he signed with UCLA, Ogden and three high school teammates - all linemen - celebrated at an all-you-can-eat pizza joint in Georgetown.

"They lost more than a few bucks on us," Akers said. "We just kept eating and talking about what lay ahead."

Between slices, Ogden surmised his future lay with the hometown Redskins.

"I'm going to be a Hog someday," he said.

On to college

At UCLA, he started at offensive tackle for four years, made first-team All-America and won the Outland Trophy as college football's top interior lineman. He also grew an Afro to save money on haircuts and rummaged through local bodegas in search of cheap grub.

"Even after he signed with the Ravens, he was still buying bread at 50 cents a loaf," said Valeyta Alt- house, a track teammate in college. "We were amazed that he could even find bread that cheap."

In the apartment they shared, Bruins safety Paul Guidry often walked in to find Ogden sprawled on the couch with his supper - two pieces of honey wheat bread mooshed together - and watching Jeopardy! as he ticked off the answers.

A spartan meal. Mental calisthenics.

" 'O' didn't think like a guy who was huge," Guidry said.

In college, Ogden loved playing cards so long as he won. Once, he lost $20 while playing spades in his apartment with several teammates. Incensed, Ogden blew up.

"I stood, flipped the table over and walked out," he said. "I was so perturbed. I hate losing. I despise it."

It showed. A history major, he earned a 3.3 GPA while excelling in two sports at UCLA. As a senior, he won the NCAA indoor shot put title in 1996.

"He's a legend in our [track] program," Venegas said. "You always question whether guys who do football and track will have motivation for two sports, but this kid hit the pinnacle in both."

Ogden's low-key nature endeared him to members of the team, Venegas said.

"He didn't come out there with a `watch me' type of attitude," the coach said. "Jonathan respected everyone down to the worst guy on the team."

Venegas rode Ogden mercilessly about his weight - 365 pounds as a freshman - and drove him to lose 75 pounds during that spring.

"I called him a slob, a pig, a giant oaf. I was in his face like a drill sergeant, and he took it," said the coach, who stands 5-9. "If I got on him too hard, he'd give me a funny look, like, 'You're stepping on my toes,' and I'd back off.

"I mean, at 6-foot-9, he could have squashed me like a bug."

Ogden's fitness paid off during one trip to a track meet, recalled John Godina, another UCLA shot putter.

"All of the throwers were squeezed into a van that was going about 5 mph in heavy traffic," Godina said. "We had stopped earlier for burritos, and soon it was obvious that someone had gotten a bad one."

In a flash, Ogden bolted from the moving vehicle. And there he stayed, keeping pace with the van, until the air cleared.

"I had to run for a couple of minutes," he said.

Playful nature

College teammates said Ogden could also be childish - in a playful sense. Imagine his joy when, during a track meet at Notre Dame, a snowstorm blanketed the campus.

"He initiated a snowball fight with all of these California kids who'd never seen the white stuff before," Godina said. "It was so funny seeing this big doofus running around like a little kid, throwing snow down people's backs."

Another time, after a meet in Wyoming, the Bruins stopped at a dude ranch to ride horses.

"When the wranglers saw Ogden, they freaked out," Venegas said. "They finally gave him the biggest horse they had - a nasty Budweiser-type Clydesdale."

Still, the animal struggled under Ogden's girth.

"I have a picture of him trying to get up a hill on that horse," Alt- house said. "That animal is struggling. Big J.O. couldn't afford to lean back."

As a Raven, Ogden may be older and richer, but the quirkiness remains.

"He's still a walking anecdote," said Flynn, his teammate.

For instance:

Ogden has yet to style his towering Afro.

"He leads the league in not combing his hair," said Orlando Brown, a former Raven. "Before away games, I used to tell J.O., 'Man, do you know how many people you're scaring, getting on the plane with hair like that?' "

He's hardly graceful on the dance floor.

"He looks like a big, wobbly grizzly bear," Williams said.

Nowadays, Ogden rarely boogies.

"I can definitely cut a rug," he said. "I just choose not to."

When the Ravens visited the White House in 2001 after their Super Bowl victory, Ogden greeted the president wearing blue jeans.

"Jonathan is very comfortable with himself," said Rick Hyde, his attorney. "He's not interested in impressing you or me."

By his count, Ogden read five novels and worked hundreds of crossword puzzles last season.

"He says he enjoys reading books. I don't understand that," said Edwin Mulitalo, a former Raven who played with Ogden for eight years. "As offensive linemen, we are one of [football's] smarter groups, but some of Jonathan's books are pretty big."

Big books. Big (size 16) feet. And a noggin so large that his high school football helmet had to be custom-made.

"He is more than just the big body you see," said Ogden's grandmother, Margie Sneed. "Within that big head, there are enormous good brains."

It's a rich gene pool. Ogden's late father, Shirrel, was a Washington investment banker; his mother, Cassandra, runs a nonprofit firm that helps low-income students segue into law school.


Varied interests

Ogden has a bevy of business interests, including a remodeling company in Baltimore and both a real estate development firm and a new kick-boxing gym in Las Vegas. He created the Jonathan Ogden Foundation, which helps schoolkids in both of those cities. Last spring, he teamed with his brother, Marques, to start the Ogden Brothers Welcome Home Foundation, a nonprofit to help Baltimore ex-convicts adjust to life on the outside.

A self-aggrandizing superstar, he is not.

"Jonathan knows the status - and the responsibility - that's attached to his name," Flynn said.

"Being a great sports figure doesn't make you better than other people," Ogden said. "It just makes you better known."

Part of that fame came from being a star on the Ravens' Super Bowl team during the 2000 season. In the week leading up to the championship in Tampa, Fla., Ogden gave his teammates another story to tell.

He promised to buy steak dinners for the rest of the offensive line, then reneged on the deal during the meal. The reason? They razzed Ogden for having sent his tough steak back to the kitchen.

"He thought he was getting too much [stuff] from the guys, so he skipped out of paying for supper," Mulitalo said.

To this day, Ogden defends the move.

"My steak was terrible, I was distraught and my teammates were giving me a lot of stuff," he said.

"I offer to buy dinner so seldom that they should know they can't give me no smack," he said. "Not if the money is coming out of my pocket."

Spending some, too

Ogden can be generous. Last year, he lent his high school football coach $200,000 to open a restaurant in Waterloo, Va.

"I couldn't have managed it otherwise," Allanson said.

The loan was a no-brainer, Ogden said.

"He [Allanson] has been the most influential man in my life besides my dad."

Nor is Ogden averse to opening his wallet when it comes to creature comforts and a few playthings. His $2.1 million house outside Las Vegas has five gas fireplaces, heated floors and an elevator, a luxury he feels obliged to defend.

"A few more years of football and I might need [the elevator]," he said.

"Besides, it can't hurt the resale value."

The house sits on the cusp of the 14th green of a golf course. Ogden loves golf. He and Kema, his wife of three years, were wed there beside the clubhouse. He owns 10 drivers, seven sets of irons and a golf cart with purple seats and a big 75 (his jersey number) painted on the side.

"I need more clubs," he said. "If I'm going to be bad at golf, it won't be because the equipment is bad but because I stink."

Said neighbor Phil Gordon, to whom Ogden loses regularly: "He's a fierce competitor, but not a great putter. I think it's because his head is so far from the ball."

Ogden might be better at poker, said Gordon, himself a professional poker player. Ogden has won as much as $5,000 in one sitting.

"You see him and think, `big oaf,' but you can lose a lot of money underestimating him," Gordon said. "At the table, he shows aggressiveness, patience, courage and resilience, the same qualities that serve him well in football.

"If he were a more normal size, he'd make a great stockbroker."

But he's not on Wall Street. For another year or two, Ogden - who turns 33 in nine days - will play football. Which is something that Jayden, his 2-year-old, is just starting to understand.

At home, when they watch football, Jayden will toddle up to the TV, point to the screen and say, "Daddy?"

"Yes, that's what I do, son."

But it's not who he is.

"People see Jonathan and think football is everything to him, but it never has been," said Akers, who played five years in the NFL. "It all comes down to family and the foundation that was laid for him.

"With [Ogden], life is more about being a person than a player."