Ozzie Newsome became the first black general manager in National Football League history yesterday, signing a new five-year contract with the Ravens.
Newsome already was the team's senior vice president of football operations, and he will continue running the franchise. But being the first Ravens general manager carries great symbolic weight, especially for one who grew up feeling both the sting of racism and the impact of the civil rights movement.
"From a historical standpoint, this is very significant," said Newsome, 46, who choked up at times during yesterday's news conference at the Ravens' Owings Mills complex.
"I think a lot of things have been about timing and where you are and when you are some place. In my life, growing up in the South and in the state of Alabama, there have been a lot of times where I was one of the first."
Even before yesterday's announcement, Newsome was the highest-ranking African-American official on an NFL team. Among other major sports, the National Basketball Association has four minority general managers and Major League Baseball has two.
During a time when the NFL's hiring and promoting of minorities has come under fire, Newsome's new title represents a major step forward. The league has two African-American head coaches among its 32 teams - the New York Jets' Herman Edwards and the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy.
"We have to do things like the Ravens organization is doing," Dungy said. "When we recognize someone doing a good job, promote them and put them in a capacity where they can grow. I think that's what the Ravens have done. That's what it's really going to take. There are Ozzie Newsomes out there a lot of different places, waiting for an opportunity."
A native of Muscle Shoals, Ala., Newsome was the only African-American in his sixth-grade class when schools were desegregated. At age 14, he was one of the first black youths to play Little League Baseball in Alabama.
Now, he has broken a color barrier in the NFL.
"There is some satisfaction in not allowing color to be an obstacle for me," he said. "My parents were never allowed that. Growing up, I always had things said to me, riding the bus and in the classroom. You learn to bite your tongue. You just went on."
Ever a pioneer, Newsome has set a standard that extends beyond race. On a career path rarely traveled in the NFL, he has gone from Hall of Fame tight end to one of the league's most respected executives.
As a player, he helped redefine the tight end position as a pass catcher, setting a record (since broken) with 662 career receptions from 1978 to 1990. As an administrator, he was the architect of the Ravens' Super Bowl championship team in the 2000 season and has surprisingly transformed a salary-cap-strapped team into a competitive one this season by digging up unknown talent.
"I am proud to do this for him, not because he asked me, but I think that he deserves it," Ravens owner Art Modell said. "He is, without a question in my opinion, the best, most proficient personnel man in the NFL."
Modell has formed a strong friendship with Newsome over the years, watching him grow as a player and an executive. He drafted Newsome in the first round 24 years ago and, in one of his first acts after moving the Cleveland Browns here in 1996, named him the team's vice president of player personnel.
"He has been another son to me, and I love him dearly," said Modell, grabbing Newsome's arm. "The new title and contract salutes what he does for the organization and should assure fans that the team is in good hands for the future."
Modell wasn't alone in making this decision. Newsome's new contract came with the strong approval of minority owner Steve Bisciotti, who will take over as majority owner of the Ravens in January 2004.
"If I were to lose him, it would have been a huge setback for me," Bisciotti said. "I'm hoping to keep him longer than five years. I hope this is his last job."
The change of Newsome's title doesn't change coach Brian Billick's future with the team. In fact, he endorsed the promotion when he signed a contract extension that runs through the 2005 season.
Although it has become in-vogue for NFL coaches to want to run the whole football operation, such as the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan or the Seattle Seahawks' Mike Holmgren, Billick said he is comfortable sharing the stage.
"What Ozzie Newsome and I have is rare, truly unique," Billick said. "If we are allowed to maintain this relationship for the rest of our career, at no point will you ever see me lobby or leave this organization for power or control somewhere else. I like this relationship. If I professionally end my career in this fashion and this relationship, I will consider myself very, very lucky.
"My oversized ego balances out with him having no ego. It's a perfect fit."
Considering Newsome's past, the new general manager said there is no added pressure with the present.
"I guess you could say that it will open some doors because I am a minority, I've had some success and been a part of a Super Bowl-winning team," Newsome said. "[But] I don't think I will be under the microscope more than usual. I've always looked at this job through the eyes of a player. You're always under the microscope. You just go out there and do the best that you can."
Sun staff writers Ken Murray and Mike Preston contributed to this article.
Other general manager (or the equivalent) positions held by minorities in major league sports:
Name Team Title
Major League Baseball
Omar Minaya Montreal Expos General manager
Ken Williams Chicago White Sox General manager
Elgin Baylor Los Angeles Clippers VP/basketball operations
Joe Dumars Detroit Pistons Pres./basketball operations
Billy King Philadelphia 76ers General manager
Wes Unseld Washington Wizards General manager