Not long after Ozzie Newsome was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last January, he walked into the office of Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell and asked his friend and longtime employer if he would present him at the induction ceremony here Saturday afternoon.
Modell was deeply touched, but turned Newsome down. Knowing full well that he is still reviled by many in these parts for moving the old Cleveland Browns to Baltimore three years ago, Modell told Newsome he did not want to risk becoming any sort of distraction.
He told Newsome, only the fifth tight end elected to the Hall, that the day belonged to him and the other four inductees -- New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson, Rams guard Tom Mack and Buffalo Bills guard Billy Shaw.
"There is still a lot of animus in Ohio toward me," Modell said today from Baltimore. "I didn't want anything to detract from his day. When he asked me to introduce him, I was deeply honored. But I told him I loved him dearly, and that we'd be with him in spirit. I consider him a member of my family. He understood."
A large contingent from the Ravens will be on hand, as will thousands of Browns fans past and present who still hold Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, in the highest regard. The fact that the new expansion Browns will be playing their first preseason game here on national television Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys will make it that much more special to Newsome, still one of the most popular players in team history.
When Modell turned him down, Newsome turned to friend and former teammate Calvin Hill, who finished his playing career with the Browns in the early 1980s.
"People always talk about his consecutive game streak , but I don't think he ever even missed a practice," Hill said today. "He took great pride in everything he did, on and off the field. When they first started calling him `The Wizard of Oz,' he kind of chuckled about it. But he never used it himself. He wasn't the kind of person who was going out and buying a piece of gold jewelry with his number and `wizard' around his neck."
Newsome said he played the game the way his college coach, Alabama's legendary Bear Bryant, always emphasized it to his players.
"As it turned out, he was the greatest influence on my career," said Newsome, who came to the program only four years after Bryant first began recruiting black athletes. "He taught me much more than just how to catch the football. He taught me how to be a man and that no player was ever bigger than the team."
Hill said Bryant, while he was alive, always made it a point to send Newsome a telegram before the start of every season he played as a pro.
"He would always say, `Keep your class, let your playing do your talking and when you score, act like you've been there before,' " Hill said. "Ozzie was the fiercest competitor you ever saw, and that goes for Ping-Pong, basketball and anything he played. But you never saw him woofing. He'd never try to taunt or humiliate another player. He always gave the ball back to the referee. That's just how he was."
Modell recalled phoning Bryant and inquiring about Newsome's skills about an hour before the 1978 draft was scheduled to begin.
"I called The Bear and in that drawl of his, he says to me Ozzie was the greatest receiver he'd ever seen in football, and that also included Don Hutson," Modell said. "We originally drafted him as a wide receiver, which he also could have played. He was a game breaker, a go-to guy who'd always get you the first down, the touchdown. When he retired, I asked him to stay around and help out in training camp, then I hired him to scout. He worked his way up the ranks, and now I truly believe this may be the best personnel man in football."
Newsome was the Browns' offensive player of the year as a rookie, then became the leading receiver at the tight end position in NFL history, with 662 catches for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns. He ranked as the game's all-time fourth-leading receiver when he retired in 1990, and also had a streak of 150 straight games with a reception, second-longest streak in the game at that time.
Hill said he always admired the way Newsome carried himself off the field, and tried to use his dear friend as a role model for his son, Grant, now an NBA all-star for the Detroit Pistons.
"As a parent, you always want to be a role model yourself," Hill said. "But I would always point out other people to Grant. Bill Bradley in basketball was a model for how you ought to conduct yourself. In football, Ozzie was one of a quartet of people I admired. It's pretty good company -- Roger Staubach, Ken Houston and Paul Warfield -- and now all of them are in the Hall of Fame.
"It was very touching to me when he asked me to introduce him. You hear a lot about players who don't respect the game, but Ozzie put a lot of sweat equity into football. Many of these young guys don't even listen to the older players now, but Ozzie always listened. He wanted to learn. He became the younger brother I never had. I'm just so happy for him. He belongs there. He's a very special person."