Ozzie Newsome just might be the happiest person in New Orleans next weekend.
Newsome, the crafty general manager of the Baltimore Ravens, will be seeking another Super Bowl ring to go with the one he earned after the 2000 season. That would be reason enough to flash his toothy smile in the Big Easy.
But there's so much more for Newsome to look forward to in the city he insists is best suited to host pro football's biggest game.
One day before the Super Bowl, the NFL will announce its newest entrants into the Hall of Fame. Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, the first draft pick Newsome made in Baltimore, is one of the favorites. Former Ravens owner Art Modell, who made Newsome the first African American general manager in NFL history, is also on the list of 15 finalists.
"For the past 15 months, my dream has been having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl in New Orleans. I think New Orleans is the greatest venue to have a Super Bowl," Newsome said. "But to know Jonathan was up (for the Hall of Fame) and was going to have the opportunity to probably be selected the day before the game, and then for Art, who's now deceased, but also to make it in the top 15, (it's like) that little dream that little kids have growing up."
That's not all. Ray Lewis, Newsome's second selection in that franchise-altering 1996 draft, will play his final game on Super Bowl Sunday against San Francisco. The 37-year-old linebacker, snagged with 26th overall pick in the draft, might be the best player at his position in the history of the game.
"Our ultimate warrior is going to play his last down of football in that game," Newsome said. "I don't think you could write a script like that."
Well, how's this for an outlandish story? Hall of Fame tight end out of Alabama plays 13 years, is inducted into the Hall of Fame and then becomes one of the shrewdest front-office men in game. Using exceptional draft picks and selective free agents, Newsome has made the Ravens perennial contenders.
Known affectionately as "The Wizard of Oz," the 56-year-old Newsome — along with Lewis — are the key links between this Super Bowl team and the one that routed the New York Giants 34-7 more than a decade ago.
"Ozzie is the foundation of the Ravens," coach John Harbaugh said. "He has been since 1996. He's been the GM since the beginning. He drafted Ray. He drafted Jonathan Ogden. He's drafted every player. He's made every free agent signing that's come through here. There is no us without Ozzie. We're not here without Ozzie Newsome."
Newsome never won a championship with the Cleveland Browns, but his playing career laid the groundwork for a job that would earn him acclaim and provide him with a deep feeling of satisfaction.
After he retired in 1990, Newsome was hired by Modell in Cleveland as a special assignment scout.
"I just told Mr. Modell that I wanted to stay on the football side," Newsome said, "and he allowed that."
Two years later, Newsome became assistant to the head coach (Bill Belichick). In 1994, Newsome became the Browns' director of pro personnel, and when the team moved to Baltimore, Newsome took over as vice president of player personnel — a fancy name for general manager.
"The preparation came from being around (then-GM) Ernie Accorsi and Bill Belichick, and being able to listen to those guys for the first two or three years and to gain as much education as I could get," Newsome said. "We know how great Ernie was and we see how good Bill has been, but being able to learn from both of those guys really helped prepare me."
Although football is a team game, Newsome believes there's more teamwork in the front office than on the field.
"From this standpoint, it's not as much about what I can do as an individual. It's about me having a collective group of people around me that see the game, who work at the game the same way that I work at it, have the same visions and goals that I do," he said. "As a player, you can go out there and play. Tiger (Woods) can go out there and shoot 68 because of Tiger. But when you're a general manager, it's not about you. It's about all of the other good people that you have around you that help you and have the same vision and goals that you do."
Maybe so, but Newsome deserves the majority of credit for making the Ravens one of the NFL's most consistent winners. Baltimore is the only team to reach the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, three times advancing to the AFC title game during that span. Since the start of the 2008 season, Newsome signed free agents Matt Birk, Bernard Pollard, Vonta Leach and Jacoby Jones, and drafted starters Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Michael Oher, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Lardarius Webb.
He traded for Anquan Boldin, who helped Arizona make the Super Bowl in the 2008 season and has been a key to Baltimore getting this far.
Ralph Friedgen, an assistant coach when San Diego went to the Super Bowl in 1995 and head coach at Maryland from 2001-10, marvels at the hurdles Newsome has cleared to keep the Ravens winning year after year.
"Ozzie does a great job of getting character kids," Friedgen said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I thought he and Bill Polian were the best GMs in the league, but now that Polian isn't working Ozzie stands alone. The rules in the NFL are designed against who have success: you get the worst schedule, you draft the lowest and you run into salary cap issues trying to keep your best players. Yet Ozzie has a team that goes to the playoffs year in and year out. It's amazing."
It's also hard work, but Newsome loves it.
"I've seen (Terrell) Suggs change and I've seen Ray change and I've seen Ed (Reed), watching these guys grow and mature," he said. "Evaluating players is one thing, doing contracts is another. Going down to the principal's office to spend time with (owner) Steve (Bisciotti), that's another thing.
"But to be there with those guys and watch those guys grow up, you can't separate that. You can't find anything better than that. So I enjoy it."
It's one thing to like your job. It's another thing to excel at it. Someone asked Newsome if next weekend — with Ogden, Lewis, Modell and his Ravens on the big stage — might seem surreal.
"It's part of the dream, that dream," he replied. "I don't know if I'll have to pinch myself to see if I'm still dreaming."
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