Ozzie Newsome Jr. of the Baltimore Ravens is a man of contradictions. He is one of the best to ever play his position in the National Football League, yet he is extremely modest. He’s been fantastically successful as a general manager, yet he is prone to crediting others. In a sport where players and coaches rarely remain in one division, let alone one team, he’s stayed put with one franchise, going from first round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns to All-Pro tight end to an assistant coach to scout, and when the team moved to Baltimore, to making personnel decisions and ultimately serving as general manager. He remains in the Ravens front office, choosing to step aside voluntarily to allow Eric DeCosta, his longtime assistant, to take over the job of GM last year.
Hall of Fame entry isn’t exactly a new thing for the 64-year-old Muscle Shoals, Alabama, native who has been inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame (in 1994) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (five years later). Most anyone associated with the NFL is certain he’d be inducted into Canton a second time for piecing together all those successful Ravens teams, but, alas, you can’t get into that Hall of Fame twice. Here’s a prediction: He’ll accept this latest accolade with humility and with grace. He will credit those who taught him the game from University of Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant onward as well as those who have worked by his side. And anyone who hears his message will depart with at least one thought in their mind: Maybe nice guys do sometimes finish first.
“There’s a quiet confidence about him, very measured. He doesn’t get rattled. He takes everything in,” say Brian Billick, the former Ravens head coach. “He’s a phenomenal listener whether it’s listening to his head coach, or his scouts as the team prepares for the draft. He just internalizes it all. You know he’s listening.”
Mr. Billick and others also praise his knowledge of the game and ability to spot talent. At Alabama, he played a hybrid tight end and split end and his 20.3-yard-per-reception average stood as a Southeastern Conference record for two decades. At his state championship high school team, he played wide receiver. But when he was drafted by the Browns in 1978, the team wanted to use him exclusively at tight end, a position that was then still more associated with blocking than with catching. He soon became Cleveland’s primary receiving threat, the “Wizard of Oz,” later, just “the Oz.”
“He was not only an exceptional athlete who could catch BB in the dark, but from the beginning he was aware of every aspect of every position and of the importance of a strong team and leadership,” recalls Sam Rutigliano, Mr. Newsome’s first NFL coach, leading what came to be known as the “Kardiac Kids” in Cleveland because of all the games decided in the final seconds. “I’m not at all surprised where he ended up.”
Mr. Newsome suspects many of the skills of an NFL general manager translates into the business world generally. He believes in empowering people around him, something he thanks both Coach Bryant and a former Browns and current New England Patriots head coach named Bill Belichick for demonstrating to him. And he also puts faith in putting team first, as corny as that might sound to those who have never faced the pressure of working in the NFL. “There is no room for selfishness,” he says, recalling that at Alabama “we were challenged to get 10% better at something every day. I have been trying to live that ever since.”
His elevation to general manager in 2002 was particularly noteworthy because he was the first Black person to hold that position in the NFL. He takes that milestone seriously, but he doesn’t recall feeling overly burdened by it. He’d already been doing the job without the title. Instead, he came to recognize the importance of the moment in what it demonstrated to younger Black players. “As [former Georgetown University basketball coach] John Thompson once told me, it signals to African Americans that they can grow up to be an NFL general manager.”
“I would like for the city to understand there is hope,” he says quietly. “A lot of times people question, why? You can have hope. You can keep trying. People believing in each other, although I know it’s easier said than done.”
John Harbaugh has seen how well Mr. Newsome communicates with players and how important his success, and the Ravens success generally, has been to so many living in and around Baltimore, a city that has struggled with racial disparities, gun violence and drug abuse. “He connects well with people in what is a diverse, blue collar sport,” says the Ravens head coach, who considers him not just a colleague but a close friend. “What’s the good you can do for a community as a coach or general manager? You can bring joy and fulfillment to a community and even pride sometimes.”
And what is he most proud of from his years in Baltimore? That’s easy. It’s still the two Super Bowl rings. And it’s also not too shabby that one of his last major decisions as general manager was in 2018 to draft Lamar Jackson, the quarterback who last year led the NFL in passing touchdowns and set the league’s quarterback rushing record. His record for drafting quarterbacks prior to that selection was not exactly stellar.
When the draft concluded, Mr. Newsome got a standing ovation from his colleagues. A speech was expected. He declined to give one. That’s Oz. “Rain or shine he’s out there at practice,” says Kevin Byrne, the longtime Ravens spokesman who is retiring as a consultant to the team later this year. “If he’s being saluted, somebody better make sure he comes. I guarantee you he won’t be making a speech.”
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti knows the final question interviewers are prone to asking about his beloved former general manager. Is he really so selfless that he would willingly step aside to give his former assistant a shot at being in charge? Is that for real? His answer, happily: why yes, it is.
“Other franchises called for permission to interview him, Eric, and he rejected those requests. Ozzie didn’t want me to lose both of them, and he knew he couldn’t do this forever. Now, he has the satisfaction of watching his former protégé take his vision forward,” Mr. Bisciotti says, “And I, with just two coaches and two general managers in 20 years, am the luckiest owner in the world.”
Ozzie Newsome Jr.
Hometown: Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Current residence: Cockeysville
Education: University of Alabama, Colbert County (Leighton, Alabama) High School
Career highlights: Forty-three years in the National Football League, 13 as a player and 30 in the front office