Cleveland fans ease Newsome into Hall

Browns standout gets warm reception

Taylor, Dickerson inducted

August 08, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

CANTON, Ohio -- They barked. They chanted. They embraced the prodigal son.

For one day, at least, Ozzie Newsome was back in the Dawg Pound, back where he carved a reputation as one of the NFL's most gifted and dangerous tight ends.

Amid chants of "Oz-zie, Oz-zie," a largely partisan crowd of Cleveland Browns fans ushered Newsome into the Pro Football Hall of Fame yesterday with open arms and vibrating vocal chords.

This one-time torrid love affair was back in full bloom.

"I came to understand and appreciate passion for 13 years, for playing in front of what I consider the greatest football fans in America," the former Browns star said in an eloquent speech on the steps of the building where he was enshrined.

The Class of 1999 squeezed glowing credentials through those doors, and more than a little baggage.

Lawrence Taylor, probably the greatest outside linebacker in the history of the game, has a sordid track record of misdeeds off the field, among them multiple arrests on drug charges.

Eric Dickerson, one of the game's most graceful running backs, holds the single-season record with 2,105 yards in 1984. But his career carried a what-might-have-been shadow: he forced a 1987 trade from the Los Angeles Rams after a contract dispute, and never again reached his early performance level in seven seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Raiders and Atlanta Falcons.

Tom Mack, who never missed a game in 13 seasons as the left guard with the Rams, was a Hall of Fame finalist 10 times before getting in this year. He had, in fact, given up after missing out in 1998.

Billy Shaw, a left guard with the Buffalo Bills for nine years in the 1960s, became the only enshrinee to have spent his entire career in the old American Football League. But he had to do it the hard way, getting voted in by the Hall's Senior Committee.

Then there was Newsome, whose 662 receptions are the most of any tight end in NFL history. When owner Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season, Newsome took a prominent front office position with the Ravens -- vice president of player personnel -- and quickly fell from grace with Cleveland fans.

He admitted being ill at ease about his very public return to Cleveland.

"First of all, you expect the worst and work from there," said Newsome, 43. "It came down to the first time I had a meeting with Bear Bryant [at Alabama]. He said in all circumstances, always show your class."

But Newsome's concern proved unfounded. In the end, his reception was everything he could have hoped for. The only time the Cleveland crowd booed was when ESPN, televising the ceremonies, showed a picture of Modell and made mention of the move.

"I tried to prepare myself for this week mentally," Newsome told reporters before the ceremonies. "But what happened, I couldn't prepare for. The people have been unbelievable the last three or four days."

Newsome was even able to joke about an incident during the morning parade through Canton, when he and Calvin Hill, his presenter, shared a car.

"When Calvin and I went riding this morning, a balloon popped, and Calvin said, `Uh-oh,' " Newsome said to laughter.

Among the Ravens representatives on hand were executive vice president Jim Bailey, vice president of public relations Kevin Byrne, assistant personnel director John Wooten and pro personnel director James Harris. Conspicuous by his absence was Modell, a no-show Newsome regretted.

"He's a big part of what happened to me and he won't be here," Newsome said. "He called me the day of the election and told me not to mention his name, or the family name. He didn't want to be a distraction."

Among the many people he thanked -- including his mother Ethel Newsome, who was in attendance -- Newsome refrained from thanking Modell.

"If the team had not left and I'd still be working for the Cleveland Browns, there probably would be a bit more enjoyment," he said. "But this is great, really great."

Hill, a former Cleveland teammate of Newsome's, extolled Ozzie for his grace, dependability, humility, class and family commitment in a thoughtful presentation speech that clearly warmed the crowd.

It was a day punctuated by heart-warming introductions. Taylor, who racked up 142 sacks and won two Super Bowls in 13 dominating seasons with the New York Giants, was presented by his 17-year-old son, T. J. Taylor, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his mother.

"When I reached my teens and read about his success on the field and mishaps off, it helped me know, love and respect my father even more," the youngster said.

The man who changed the nature of the linebacker position with his electric performance said he nearly broke down over his son's speech. "I almost lost it," he said.

Taylor, 40, made veiled references to his troubled life away from football. He has pleaded guilty for evading taxes, filed for bankruptcy to prevent foreclosure on his home, failed to pay child support and battled substance abuse.

"Life can knock you down, turn you out," he said. "You have problems every day of your life. But like Ozzie Newsome said, sometimes you've just got to go out and play.

"A Hall of Famer never quits. A Hall of Famer realizes the crime is not getting knocked down, it's not getting back up."

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