The phone rings...
Back then, it had a cord and a cradle and a number that belonged to more than one person. The telephone Ozzie Newsome shared with Johnny Davis kept ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
It was the night before the 1978 NFL Draft and Newsome, an All-American tight end at the University of Alabama, was projected to go early in the draft. So was his roommate Davis, a battering-ram fullback who found the end zone so often he earned the nickname "Goal Line." The Chargers, Saints and Browns were calling for Newsome. All of them had picks in the top 15 and needed a receiver. They were thinking about drafting Newsome, but none of them could say for sure.
Davis was experiencing the same thing, the anxiety building every time the telephone rang. And he cracked.
"He was getting similar calls," Newsome recalled. "And he just said, 'I can't take this.'"
Davis went back to his childhood home. And so Newsome spent the night alone, shutting out the stress for a few minutes of fitful sleep.
The draft arrived early the next morning. Back then, it wasn't on ESPN, wasn't in prime time and wasn't analyzed pick-by-pick by Mel Kiper and a whole network of other pundits. Earl Campbell went first overall. Newsome had gotten to know Campbell at the all-star games and All-American dinners and was happy for him. But back before text messaging and cell phones, there was no way to send a subtle congratulations.
The Saints took wide receiver Wes Chandler at No. 3. The Browns followed with linebacker Clay Matthews at No. 12. John Jefferson went to the Chargers at No. 14. Cleveland picked again at 21 and Newsome thought that his wait was over. Then, the Browns traded back two spots.
"Disappointment started to creep in," Newsome said. "Just as I started to be overly disappointed, I got another call. At that point, I was not disappointed any more."
The tight end born in Muscle Shoals, Ala., amid the Montgomery Bus Boycott and molded under the legendary brim of Bear Bryant, was headed to the NFL. Ozzie Newsome was a Cleveland Brown. The anxiety was over. The phone had stopped ringing.
The dream had come true.
The phone rings...
It's 1993 and Ozzie Newsome is inside the Browns war room, staring at the draft board that everyone helped to create. His playing days are over. Following a sparkling pro career that set records for receptions, yards and touchdowns by a tight end, Newsome was named an assignment scout in 1991 and an assistant to head coach Bill Belichick, two years later.
In a sense, Newsome was straddling two jobs, trying to determine whether his future would lie in coaching or personnel. And inside the war room, he wouldn't be making any of the calls, just sharing opinions that carried about the same weight as everyone else. When trades were proposed or selections were made, someone else would pick up the phone.
On the outside, nothing special was happening in Cleveland for Newsome or anyone else. Belichick compiled a record of 36-44 from 1991-1995. He cut local hero Bernie Kosar, a quarterback who was born and raised in rust-belt Youngstown, inflaming a fan base that would become even more angry when the franchise bolted for Baltimore.
In the war room and on the field, there was little magic and fewer milestones. But everywhere else, something special was taking place. The Browns coaches and scouting staff were perhaps some of the greatest gridiron minds ever assembled. Michael Lombardi, a long-time personnel man in the league and now an analyst for the NFL Network, called it a "football think tank" in Michael Holley's book, War Room. Ernie Accorsi, architect of the New York Giants' two Super Bowl trophies, was the general manager. Nick Saban, the Alabama coach with two national titles, was the defensive coordinator. Future college coaches Kirk Ferentz (Iowa) and Pat Hill (formerly of Fresno State) were also on staff. Phil Savage, a personnel guru who would become a cornerstone of the Ravens' franchise, worked in the scouting department. So did Chiefs' GM Scott Pioli and Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz. And Tom Dimitroff, the Falcons' general manager, worked on the grounds crew.
Despite all their failings on the field, the Browns' offices were fertile football ground. Greatness hung in the hallways. Genius lingered in the meeting rooms. Amid, the endless hours and miniscule details, ideas emerged that could take football teams -- several of them, really -- to elite levels.
It was there that the Hall of Fame tight end took on the most humble tasks, scouting little-known players with lesser pedigrees and scant hope of NFL greatness. And it was within that process that Newsome moved past his athletic prowess and developed a new skill set that would flourish in due time.
"I think my success came from when I started (in Cleveland)," Newsome said. "Ernie Accorsi was the GM and Bill Belichick was the head coach. I had two great mentors ... My first three or four years, I just kind of listened and learned. They gave me like eight to 10 players. I was responsible for evaluating them and working them out. I was out getting practical experience. That's what has helped me. Having been a player, a scout, and a coach, I have perspective."
He couldn't have known it then, but in those mediocre seasons, amid those menial tasks and vibrant minds, Newsome gained the wisdom that could build a championship team. He just needed the opportunity to do it.
Soon, he would get it.
The phone rings...
It's 1996 and Ozzie Newsome is inside the Baltimore Ravens' war room, surrounded by the cacophony of phones and conversations and the constant activity that accompanies draft day.
His official title is vice president of player personnel, but make no mistake, he's running the draft. It's the first one ever for the Ravens and the franchise, which burned every bridge and broke thousands of hearts when owner Art Modell left Cleveland, needs a fresh start. Baltimore has two picks in the first round at No. 4 and 26. Newsome is the triggerman.
Soon, he will pick up the phone and set the new course of the franchise, for better or for worse. Pressure builds. Perhaps it's not the same as hauling in a pass on third and long, but the effects will linger much longer.
The phone rings.
Jonathan Ogden got the first call. Ogden, a monstrous 6-foot, 9-inch, 345-pound offensive tackle from UCLA, was not as flashy or exciting as Lawrence Phillips, an explosive running back from the University of Nebraska. But as Newsome explained to USA Today after the draft, Ogden was the highest-rated player on Baltimore's draft board. And that board, along with Newsome's adherence to it, would become a staple of his success.
Twenty-two picks later, Ray Lewis got a call. Lewis, who left the University of Miami a year early, was the fourth linebacker taken in the draft, falling from what seemed to be concerns about his size (he was only 6-1) and rumors about character issues. Neither kept him from making an instant impact. He led the team in tackles his rookie year and became the heart of the franchise that Newsome helped revive.
"He (Newsome) really has mastered the draft," said Todd McShay, who has spent the past several years analyzing the draft for ESPN and all of its platforms. "He does a great job of surrounding himself with people who are capable, who have opinions and who aren't afraid to express those opinions, and then sorting through it all and making smart poised decisions when it matters. You can be brilliant with the process and not hire the right guys who are on the field. You can surround yourself with the best guys in the world and not know how to execute the information. He's as good as there is in the business on both ends, at both surrounding himself with the right people and then sorting through the information and making the right decision."
Newsome's success in the draft has continued long after the selections of Ogden and Lewis, who both seem destined to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Including that first draft in 1996, Newsome has selected 15 Pro Bowl players and signed another (Bart Scott) as a rookie free agent. In all, the players he has drafted have been to more than 50 Pro Bowls. And in 2002, the Ravens recognized that success by promoting Newsome to general manager.
The kid born in Alabama just three months after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat had followed his dreams to the highest levels of professional football, achieving greatness on the field and surpassing it by becoming the first African-American GM in the history of the league.
"It's amazing to see a Hall of Fame player, a great player, be a Hall of Fame general manager in a town like Baltimore," said Mel Kiper, a Baltimore native and a permanent fixture in the NFL Draft. "What he's been able to do with the Baltimore Ravens is unbelievable. The level of consistency -- there was only one year in there where they were rebuilding -- to have that consistency, and to have the Ravens take over the city of Baltimore like the Colts did, is remarkable."
This week, Newsome and his staff will get another chance to put their skills on display. The NFL Draft begins Thursday night, live on prime-time television, and the Ravens have the 29th pick. Newsome is the triggerman.
Players holding Iphones and Droids and other Smartphones with touchscreens, text messaging and Internet capabilities will be awaiting each pick. Anxiety will flood over them, the emotions building exponentially with every selection. And television cameras will hover all around, broadcasting the drama to the estimated 40 million people who will be watching at home.
Back in 1978, before all that technology and television coverage, Ozzie Newsome was there too.
"You go from a guy that's been a little disappointed, to being a guy that's excited to be drafted, to a guy that gets to make the calls to guys who are excited," Newsome said. "It's an experience a lot of people in this world would like to have, but not many get a chance."
At pick No. 29 (or perhaps somewhere else if a trade takes place), Newsome will look at his draft board. And he'll stay close to it. Then, the 23rd pick in the 1978 draft will pick up a phone.
Past will brush up against present, emotions will swirl, a connection will take place. Dreams will come true.
The phone rings.