Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome grew up during the civil rights movement close to its heart, in Alabama. He was the only African-American in his sixth-grade class when schools were finally desegregated.
So when Art Modell asked him to run the team when the former Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996, Newsome didn't feel the slight bit nervous about running a multimillion-dollar franchise.
"It was turbulent in Montgomery and Birmingham because they were bigger cities," said Newsome, 44, a native of Muscle Shoals, Ala. "The violence never reached the magnitude of water hoses and dogs that Bull Connor unleashed in Birmingham. But I still grew up in the days when there were colored water fountains and colored entrances. Black schools were on one side of the railroad track, white schools were on the other.
"One thing I learned about going to that predominantly white school was to bite my tongue and be patient," Newsome said. "No. 1, you're dealing with 12-year-olds, and they can say some cruel things, but it wasn't as much the kids as it was the adults. So when you go through something like that at age 12, there are very few things that rattle you. Things have always come to me sooner than they should have, but I've been able to accept the challenges."
He not only has accepted the challenges, but he also has won them easily.
Newsome still maintains his patience and reserved demeanor, quietly becoming the architect of one of the NFL's best teams and defenses. As the Ravens (12-4) prepare for their AFC wild-card playoff game against the Denver Broncos (11-5) today at PSINet Stadium, Newsome is a top candidate to be named the league's Executive of the Year.
"You can't build teams by throwing around money and using the free-agent system," said Modell, who rewarded Newsome with a three-year contract extension earlier this season. "You build your team through adroit drafting, then depend on the coaching staff to develop those players.
"Ozzie runs the show. He took a couple of years to get untracked, but we were like an expansion team. He is the guy who built this team. To me, he is the best personnel man in the NFL today."
While teams like the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks have tried to build through free agency, Newsome has stocked his roster with seven first-round picks and three second-round choices who were starters this season, and he has added selected free agents such as defensive linemen Tony Siragusa, Michael McCrary and Sam Adams.
Some would say drafting well in the first round is easy, but Washington had busts with receiver Desmond Howard in 1992 and quarterback Heath Shuler in 1994. Indianapolis struck out with defensive lineman Steve Emtman in 1992 , and Cincinnati with running back Ki-Jana Carter three years later.
Newsome has a basic scouting philosophy.
"The first thing I do is to see what kind of athlete he is. That's for any position," Newsome said. "No. 2, I want to find out whether he is explosive or not - can he play with power, being able to burst and catch somebody, or burst down the field to make a catch? Then I look at skills for the position."
Newsome has been overwhelmed by only two college players.
"Jonathan Ogden was the easiest to grade," he said. "Some of the things he did you just sat there and laughed."
The other was Randy Moss, who was passed over by the Ravens and several other teams because of his off-the-field troubles during high school and college.
"Athletically, he was a phenom," Newsome said of Moss. "But that year we had problems with Bam Morris and I made a concerted effort to never put the Modell family into any more embarrassing situations.
"What we've tried to do here was draft defense, especially because our conference had [mobile] quarterbacks Mark Brunell, Jeff Blake, Kordell Stewart and Steve McNair. We wanted guys who could run and tackle."
An Alabama legend
Newsome learned the basics of the game from University of Alabama coach Bear Bryant, and humility and perseverance from his parents. His father, Ozzie Sr., owned a restaurant. His mother, Ethel, did domestic work.
Newsome, one of five children, grew up in a town of 20,000 admiring Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. He had a special affection for former Baltimore Colts running back Lenny Moore and his high-top spikes, but always pretended to be Fred Biletnikoff in sandlot games.
He was recruited out of Colbert County High in Leighton, Ala., known as a quality student and a star athlete, having played linebacker, safety and wide receiver.
"Ozzie came from a good family," said Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, who recruited Newsome to Alabama. "He would go to class, answered you with, `Yes, sir; no, sir,' and respected elderly people. He was well-liked in his school."
But he was outstanding as an athlete.