No. 97: Ozzie Newsome

OK, here’s a little perspective on how much the game has changed.

When Ozzie Newsome retired in 1990, his 662 receptions were good for fourth on the all-time list. And he was No. 1 all-time for tight ends by a substantial margin.

He is now 59th on the all-time list of receptions and seventh among tight ends, behind Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Shannon Sharpe, Greg Olsen, and Jimmy Graham. This year, probably by November, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce will pass Newsome even though he’s only played in the league for seven seasons.

When Newsome caught 89 passes in 1983 and then again in 1984, he became the first player in NFL history to catch that many passes in multiple seasons. Now that particular record is held by Larry Fitzgerald, who caught at least 89 passes in EIGHT different seasons.

SIXTY-FIVE different NFL players have caught 89 passes in multiple seasons.

The Wizard of Oz — Ozzie’s classic nickname — was playing a game that was about to go from black and white to color.

Before the 1978 draft, the Cleveland Browns let it be known that they wanted and needed a game-breaking receiver, the sort who strikes fear into the hearts of opposing coaches. The Browns’ receiving corps in ’77 had featured 35-year-old Paul Warfield, who was retiring, 30-year-old Reggie Rucker, and 6-foot-4 possession receiver Dave Logan. All three were valuable in their own way, but they probably made up the NFL’s slowest relay team.

And that just wasn’t going to cut it. The Browns had hired a pass-happy (and generally happy) coach named Sam Rutigliano. And if Rutigliano was going to install the high powered, pass-crazy offense that he had in his mind — “What we do best is throw the football,” he used to say, “and besides anything else would be increasingly boring” — he just had to have one of those jet-fast receivers, like Pittsburgh’s Lynn Swann or Oakland’s Cliff Branch or the Jets’ sensational rookie Wesley Walker.

The stars did seem aligned for the Browns to get a speed receiver. Not only did they have two first-round picks, but that draft happened to feature three super-speedy college receivers — Florida’s Wes Chandler, Stanford’s James Lofton, and Arizona State’s John Jefferson. All three would end up becoming All-Pros. Lofton would end up in the Hall of Fame. Rutigliano felt sure the Browns would get one of them.

But the receivers flew off the board faster than he expected — Chandler went to New Orleans with the No. 3 pick, and Lofton went to Green Bay at No. 6. The Browns did have a shot at Jefferson with their first pick, but they gambled he would be there later. Instead, they took linebacker Clay Mathews*.

*That certainly worked out; Mathews had a glorious 19-year career, and he was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2021.

But by the time the Browns got to their second pick, Jefferson had been taken by San Diego, where he would become a superstar in the Air Coryell attack. And the Browns found themselves with the No. 23 pick, all their coveted receivers gone and a desperate need for a playmaker.

So they took a wide receiver from Alabama named Ozzie Newsome.

It’s fair to say that people in Cleveland were less than impressed.

“In a time when virtually all of the top receivers in the NFL are rather small, yet extraordinarily fast,” wrote Tom Melody in the Akron Beacon Journal, “the Browns have acquired a 6-foot-2, 218-pounder who is at least a step slower than Lynn Swann, Cliff Branch and the others who quickly determine the course of games in the NFL. … It would not be wise to wager that Newsome will make it big in the NFL.”

“He’s not a prototype wide receiver,” Bob Sherwin wrote in the News-Journal. “But he’s also not in the tight end mode.”

“How many passes did he catch at Alabama?” one radio show host asked. “Five?”

The last was not an unfair question — Alabama was coached by Bear Bryant then, and it’s fair to say that Bear preferred running the football. Alabama completed a grand total of 71 passes in 12 games in 1977.

But more than half of them were caught by Ozzie Newsome.

“He’s the greatest end in Alabama history,” Bear insisted. “And that includes Don Hutson.”

Yes, Bear Bryant loved Ozzie for many reasons that we will get into in a moment — basically, EVERYBODY loved Ozzie — but that didn’t necessarily mean that Newsome had a place in the NFL. The Browns introduced him on draft day as a wide receiver, but nobody really bought into that. By the time training camp started, they had admitted that he was a tight end instead. By then, he weighed 225 pounds, well on his way to the 235, and he wasn’t blazing fast, and it wasn’t really all that clear how big an impact he could make.

“We saw during the minicamp that Ozzie could play wide receiver in the NFL,” Rutigliano said. “But because of his qualities, he has a chance to be a great tight end.”

OK, I should probably interrupt the storyline to get this out there: Ozzie Newsome is my favorite ever football player. He was the player I idolized as a kid, the player I felt most deeply devoted to when I got to college, and the player who changed my life as a young sportswriter. I’ve told the last part before, but, of course, I will tell it again:

In 1987, when I was 20 years old, I began working at The Charlotte Observer as something called an agate clerk. Agate is the tiny type that newspapers use for statistics, standings, boxscores, results. My job was to put the agate together: I took high school results over the phone, I put together and updated the various sports standings, the transactions section, etc.

All along I wanted to be a writer, and I kept looking for opportunities to do that. In late August 1987, the Browns went to Atlanta for a preseason game, and I pleaded for the chance to go down to the game and write something. Sure, maybe I wanted just wanted to go and see the Browns, but I had a pretty good pitch. That year, the Browns had drafted a linebacker out of nearby Duke named Mike Junkin. He was something of a statewide legend because of one monster game he had against rival North Carolina State as a freshman: he made 18 tackles that day, and it seemed like he made even more than that.

Duke was pretty terrible all three years that Junkin was there, but he kept making tackles, probably a half-billion by the time he was finished, and the Browns absolutely fell in love with him. Cleveland traded away their own all-pro linebacker Chip Banks to get the fifth overall pick. Everyone thought they would use the pick to take Penn State’s Shane Conlan, who was widely viewed as the best college middle linebacker in the country.

Instead, they took Junkin.

“He’s like a mad dog in a meat market,” Browns scout Don Anile said. After the Junkin experiment went very badly, this quote was attributed to coach Marty Schottenheimer, but it was actually Anile who said it. Schottenheimer did say, “of all the linebackers I have had the chance to evaluate, Mike Junkin is one of the very best I’ve seen.”

Junkin would eventually become one of the 10 biggest draft busts in NFL history — he never started a game, the Browns dumped him for a fifth-round pick after only two seasons, and he lasted in the NFL just one more year after that. But none of us knew that at the time (also, none of us knew that he had failed a drug test at the NFL combine), and so I pitched a story about the mad dog in a meat market starting his NFL career, and the editors bit and let me go to Atlanta.

Here was the problem, though. I didn’t know how to cover an NFL game. I didn’t know Schmidt from Spagnola in those days. So I watched the game from the stands (I didn’t know anything about press boxes) and then tried to race down to the locker room to talk with Junkin after the game. I got lost about 25 different ways on the way down, and by the time I finally got there, the players had all but cleared out. Junkin was gone. And I was panicked.

The Browns clubhouse guy said that I might still be able to interview Junkin by the team bus if I rushed out there. So I sprinted, full speed, and sure enough, I did find Junkin … he was talking to his girlfriend. I uncomfortably ambled over there — I have never been good about approaching strangers, which I guess is not the best trait for a journalist — and kind of coughed and humphed until he noticed me.

“Oh, it’s OK,” his girlfriend said. “He would be happy to give you an autograph.”

I still feel the dagger of those words.

I stumbled and bumbled and explained that I was not actually looking for an autograph (though I certainly could understand the misunderstanding). No, see, I was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and I was hoping to just ask Mike a few questions so I could write a quick story on him.

In my memory, his response rhymed neatly with the phrase “Duck fat.”

I can only imagine the shade of red I wore in that moment. Even now, almost 35 years later, I can feel the shame. As those years have gone on, I have come to feel empathy for Junkin. He’d been involved in a long holdout. There was absurd pressure on him. He already was disappointing as a player. I can certainly see how he would not want to answer questions by a bus in Atlanta from some 20-year-old kid who looked to be 15 and claimed to be from a North Carolina newspaper.

But that empathy for Junkin that has built up over the years doesn’t change the way 20-year-old-me felt in that moment — I was utterly devastated. My life felt over. All I wanted was to become a sportswriter, and this was the first big sportswriting opportunity of my life, and I had crashed and burned. It was clear I was not cut out for this racket. Maybe I could get a job moving boxes again in that sweater factory. I know that might sound dramatic now, but it was exactly how I felt then. There was not a hole big enough in the world for me to crawl into.

And then, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Can I help you with anything?” the man said. And the man was Ozzie Newsome. My hero. Thirty-one years old, already an NFL legend, already one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game. He had somehow seen what happened, and he came over to offer me an interview.

And so if you thought there was even the slightest chance that The Football 101 was going to be WITHOUT Ozzie Newsome, well, to quote Mike Junkin, “Duck fat.”

Ozzie Newsome has never spent a lot of time talking about his childhood in Muscle Shoals, Ala. He grew up knowing racism as few others do. A few months before Ozzie was born, his father, Ozzie Sr., was involved in a shakedown scheme by the Muscle Shoals political powers; they demanded an extra $25 a week from Newsome just so he could operate his restaurant, Fats Cafe.

“I can’t pay that kind of money,” Newsome explained to reporters after the commissioner and the mayor were indicted and impeached. Both politicians were eventually found not guilty by nearly all-white juries, but that was what it meant to be a black man in Alabama when Ozzie Newsome was born. He grew up in a town with separate drinking fountains, grew up having to sit in the balcony at the movie theaters. Segregation and racism were all second nature to him.

But when he was 11 years old, he made a fateful decision — he asked his parents to let him attend the white school for fifth grade. “I had done a lot of reading,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal’s Pat McNanamon, “and it seemed like the guys who had gotten the most exposure by going to the predominantly white high schools or colleges were able to go on to the next level.”

He would remember taking the bus across town in the morning and being the only black student in his class. Then the day would end, and he would take the bus back to where he saw no white people. The civil rights movement was raging all around Alabama; just a few months after Newsome started going to the white school, Martin Luther King was assassinated. The University of Alabama did not sign its first black football player until Newsome was in junior high school.

But Ozzie Newsome had this drive, this uncommon inner strength that was utterly unmistakable. You couldn’t help but admire the guy. Remember when I said that Bear Bryant loved Ozzie Newsome. Well, obviously, he did. Newsome was the perfect Bear Bryant player. He played hard every game. He never wanted any credit. He was utterly unselfish. He didn’t just listen to those famous Bryant quotes — “the game is 60 minutes, but it lasts a lifetime;” “it’s the will to prepare that matters;” “there’s no substitute for guts” — he was the living embodiment of those quotes.

There’s a great story about Ozzie Newsome’s first NFL game: The Browns were playing at home against San Francisco, and in the second quarter — with the score tied 7-7 — Newsome took an end-around handoff and ran 33 yards for his first NFL touchdown.

He was so excited after scoring — a perfectly understandable emotion — that he spiked the ball. It was hardly a boisterous celebration; probably nobody even noticed it. But Newsome felt terrible about it. The very next day, he called Bryant and apologized and promised he would never do anything like that again.

And, he never did.

I don’t know how miraculous people like Ozzie Newsome happen. Some of it is undoubtedly nature, and some of it nurture — he was raised by loving parents, he has talked about the many coaches and teammates and people who made a difference in his life, etc. But where does someone develop the sort of strength of character that he has displayed throughout his life? You literally cannot find a single person who has a bad thing to say about Ozzie Newsome, either as a player, a football executive or a friend.

“Ozzie Newsome,” Bear Bryant once said, “is what our sport is all about.”

And what he meant was: “Ozzie Newsome is what we WISH our sport was all about.”

There’s a reason that Ozzie Newsome doesn’t always end up on lists like these … and the reason comes down to one word: Blocking. As a pass-catcher, he was sublime. Even though he never played with a Hall of Fame quarterback (all due respect to Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar), and he spent much of his career playing with receivers who did not command double teams, he still caught more passes than any tight end before him. This was because linebackers couldn’t keep up with him, and safeties couldn’t match up with him physically.

And, wow, those hands.

Those hands were marvels. They were Rachmaninoff’s hands. They were Thelonious Monk’s hands. It didn’t matter what position his body was in, didn’t matter what direction he was facing, didn’t even matter the angle of his body to the ground, he would pull the ball in. From 1981 to 1984, Newsome’s per 16-game average was 83 catches and 1,012 yards, this at a time when such numbers were basically unheard of. And he did this for bad offensive teams with a declining Sipe and less-than-stellar Paul McDonald at quarterback. And I doubt that anyone made a higher percentage of diving, sprawling, lunging catches than the Wizard of Oz did.

If he played today, there’s really no telling how many balls he’d catch.

But … the blocking part, that was the knock. So many people would talk about Newsome’s blocking flaws that after a while, it just became gospel that he couldn’t block, wouldn’t block, hated blocking, etc. In the end, I suspect most of that was overstated. Newsome was a thoroughly unselfish player; he definitely blocked and even blocked well at times. Yes, overall, I’m sure Newsome was not the world’s best blocker, but he got in the way of enough defenders to play with six 1,000-yard backs and three teams that reached the AFC Championship Game.

Anyway, the greats are great for what they can do, not what they can’t — Deion Sanders wasn’t a great tackler, Tom Brady couldn’t run, and Barry Sanders would sometimes get taken out of games on third and short. And so what? Ozzie Newsome caught footballs.