Monday, October 19, 2020

Intelligent Conversation

So long J.O.

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I’ll be posting a tribute blog in the morning regarding the immaculate career of Jonathan Ogden, which will end at the Bellagio at an 11:30 press conference tomorrow. And man do I have a lot of pictures of J.O. with funny hair through the years! I’ll be sifting through them tonight!

It’s truly the end of the beginning of the Ravens. It’s kinda personally sad for me but I’ll write more and probably pretty emotionally tonight.

If you were on our text service, you would’ve known about Ogden’s retirement at 10:40 a.m. You can join our text service by clicking here. It’s free.

What’s also free is my 2001 Super Bowl book, “Purple Reign: Diary of a Raven Maniac.” You can read the whole book by clicking here.

Instead of throwing a sappy blog up quickly, I remembered that I wrote the beginning of a whole chapter about J.O. in the book and I thought I’d post an excerpt here. People come up to me all the time and say nice things about the book. Some tell me they bought it on ebay or whatever. I really appreciate it because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my 25-year media career. I’m still proud of the book and read it and remember that season and just have the greatest memories of that time in my life. Life was a lot different then.

I do have some hard editions still around the station. I’ve always sold them for $20, but the book is totally free and the same online and it’s a click away.

If you want a “real” copy, just drop me an email at nasty@wnst.net

Here’s most of Chapter Three…if you dig it, go read the whole thing at some point. It has a happy ending!

 

3. THE ORIGINAL BIRDS AND THE MEAN MACHINE
“I view myself as one of the more physical tackles in the game, the kind of guy who loves to hit you in the face, knock you to the ground and fall on you.”

Jonathan Ogden to Sports Illustrated, January 2001

The phone that was being shown on national television was very simplistic.

White phone. Black logo. Nondescript font. No color scheme. No logo. Not even a hint of a logo.

BALTIMORE RAVENS is all it said.

The ESPN audience of Mel Kiper groupies would be tuning in to see the future of the NFL unfolding on Draft Day, April 20, 1996. There was the phone, along with a hat of similar non-distinction, on a table in the middle of the Paramount Theatre. Amidst a sea of tradition and color and fanfare that only Draft Day can provide, Ravens equipment manager Ed Carroll presided over the team’s first draft in New York City that day awaiting the word from the war room back in Baltimore about whose name to submit to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Only time brings clarity to these situations and decisions. Before the day was over the franchise would take a pair of future Hall of Famers, left tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis.

Six days later, Carroll would become their new best friend in the organization, making sure they had pads, tape, protectors and most importantly, a jersey and helmet when leaving the clubhouse.

Six days later, the team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns took to a shoddy practice field in Owings Mills, Md., for the first mini-camp as the Baltimore Ravens. Of the more than 60 players who participated in that camp, only kicker Matt Stover, defensive end Rob Burnett, defensive tackle Larry Webster, and wide-eyed rookies wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, offensive tackle Spencer Folau, Ogden and Lewis would still be around to celebrate a Super Bowl championship in Tampa in January 2001. Two others, running back Earnest Byner and special teams ace Bennie Thompson, would be part of the organization as members of the coaching staff. Just one coach, defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, would still be in place in Tampa to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

When the team took the field that day under new head coach Ted Marchibroda, it looked more like a jailbreak than an NFL team. Literally.

That weekend the assembled group of original Ravens – wearing an ensemble devoid of any colors, tradition, markings or logos – forever became known as the Mean Machine.

Just like Burt Reynolds in the early 1970s movie, “The Longest Yard,” a drama pitting a prison football team against the outside world, the Ravens were wearing plain white helmets and a plain white jersey with black numbers and no names.

It was good enough for Burt, but it wasn’t conducive to making anyone feel like they were still in the NFL in 1996.

“It was a little surreal coming over from Pittsburgh with all of the tradition,” said Marvin Lewis, who was three months removed from coaching the linebackers of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX in Tempe, Ariz. “Here were all of these NFL players out on the field with no identity at all. Even the coach’s gear they gave me was all plain black and white. I can’t imagine there’s been anything like it in the history of the NFL.”

The only distinguishing characteristic of the uniforms was a bright red Riddell logo for the manufacturer of the helmets, stuck smack dab above the eyes of the players.

“When I got drafted I didn’t even get a jersey with my name on it,” Ogden told a group of reporters at the Super Bowl five years later. “They gave me a black jacket with RAVENS written in white on the back. If you had asked me back then – hell, even two years ago – if we would be in the Super Bowl now, I would’ve said a lot of things would need to change for that to happen.”

So just how did they get from that field that day in black and white to wearing the purple jerseys signifying the World Champions?

The two best answers all came in the same day: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis.

Other players will come and go in the organization. More championships may fill the cupboard of Baltimore football fans in the future. But in the hearts of the fans, there are only two Ravens that can ever be called “original Ravens,” and that’s Ogden and Lewis. No disrespect to any of the others, that’s just the way that it is.

That said, you probably couldn’t find two more opposite personalities.

Ogden, a giant of a man at 6-8, 350 pounds, is quiet, book smart, articulate, as simple and as unassuming as any man of his size can be.

Lewis, a sculpted 6-1, 252 pounds, is the life of the party, smiling, surrounded by people, complex, friendly to a fault, and perfectly comfortable in the spotlight.

Ogden wears jeans and sweat suits.

Lewis wears only the finest tailored suits from the pages of GQ magazine.

But the common bond they share and all of the same days of hard work, sweat and dedication will forever have them linked to the first Super Bowl championship of the Baltimore Ravens.

Let’s start with Ogden, who won the Outland Award in his senior season at UCLA and was one of the most highly touted offensive linemen in the history of the game. It’s easy to get lulled into indifference regarding the enormous left tackle because his craft is usually performed away from the ball and his assignment rarely gets involved where the naked eye sees a play. Much like officiating in sports, if you don’t notice it then it must be good.

It didn’t take long to get a glimpse at the greatness of Jonathan Ogden. The first sign came four games into the Ravens’ first season. While rolling ahead of a block against New Orleans, with Byner carrying the ball, Ogden got in front of the veteran running back and proceeded to outrun him into the Saints’ secondary. Here was a gigantic natural tackle, playing the left guard position, moving into an NFL defense with the speed of an outstanding fullback, ready to blow up tiny safeties and cornerbacks. Ogden actually had to stop and wait for Byner to catch up, before the back gained 42 yards on the play.

In 1997, his second season, he switched to his natural left tackle position and has been voted to the Pro Bowl in all four of his opportunities since.

Don’t mistake his cool Southern California, UCLA demeanor off the field for softness. On Sundays, it becomes rage and fury.

“I don’t know why, but I enjoy physically trying to rip people on the football field,” Ogden told The Washington Post. “I enjoy trying to hit and head-butt them and punch them and slap them. I love that stuff.”

Using his immense size, unmatched athletic ability and unrivaled technique, Pro Bowls became routine. But the Ravens’ losing ways in his early years in the league never wore well with the big guy.

By the end of the 1998 season, Ogden, who routinely would come to my live show at The Barn on Monday nights near Christmas and don a Santa Claus hat – a gargantuan, 6-foot-8, Afro-wearing version of Kris Kringle – had nearly had enough.

Ogden confided in me after another depressing season at the end of the Marchibroda era that his days would be numbered in Baltimore if he didn’t feel the team could make progress and win. He didn’t always win at UCLA, but at least he felt as though they were competing. More than that, Ogden had purchased a home in Las Vegas and spent much of his offseason seeing old friends on the West Coast who needled him about what losers the Ravens were.

His career would be too short to spend it losing football games. He was already wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He had already been given the highest individual honors an offensive lineman could garner in the NFL. Now, it was clearly about winning and winning soon.

The vanilla, predictable offense that Marchibroda was running at the end of 1998 with a weak-armed Eric Zeier and a banged-up Jim Harbaugh was killing Ogden, and you could see his frustration on the field. Routinely, he would take off his helmet and slam it to the turf, screaming at no one in particular to either create some positive results or release him from his misery in Baltimore.

But then the change occurred.

Immediately, he liked Brian Billick. Here was a guy with an offensive philosophy, a plan of attack. Billick was a guy with a track record for running offenses. A guy who would make the necessary adjustments that Marchibroda was either unwilling or unable to make. Ogden noticed and started reconsidering his position to leave Baltimore.

The one thing that the Ravens always had on their side was the fact that his family – father Shirrel and mother Cassandra – hailed from Washington, D.C. After seeing Jonathan go off to school 3,000 miles away and having him live nearly the same distance, it was great for family relations to play his football just 45 miles away from his parents’ home.

It should be noted that Ogden has great embarrassment and admiration for his mother’s extensive community and player involvement in Baltimore. She is omnipresent at Ravens’ games – home and away – and has been from the moment he was drafted. She began the first-ever NFL mother’s association, which garnered her huge publicity throughout the league but caused big Jon to take relentless grief from his buddies on the team. Sort of a book club for NFL moms.

“What can I do about it?” he would say to his pals with a smile. “She’s my Mom. That’s just the way she is!”

Cassandra, who fronts an assistance program for minorities interested in going into the legal field, just thought she saw a need to have a support group for the many mothers she met at various team functions and games.

He loved his parents. He loved playing in Baltimore near them. But he hated losing.

Shortly after Billick arrived – before training camp began in 1999 – Ogden made it very clear that he liked the direction the team was heading in with the new coach. He gave resounding approval by re-upping with the Ravens for six years and $44 million with a $12 million signing bonus instead of using a voidable-years clause in his contract that would have made him a free agent after the 1999 season.

“A lot of people thought I was stupid for wanting to stay here,” Ogden would later tell Sports Illustrated. “But I never had any doubts. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who kept looking for greener pastures. I was at peace with where I was, so why change?”

The money was insane. But that would have happened anyway, anywhere. If Ogden had hit the free agent market, he probably would have gotten more money once teams started in on the bidding. He’s that good, that special.

But Ogden would be the first to admit that the money was somewhat irrelevant because it’s money he will never spend. Ever.

His frugal nature is almost as legendary as his talent.

“With J.O. it’s just the little things,” said starting right guard Mike Flynn, who along with Spencer Folau, make up Ogden’s inner-circle of friends on the team. “He’s just cheap and I can’t explain it. You’ll go out to a movie with him and he doesn’t even want to spring three bucks for the popcorn. You think it’s like a joke with his $42 million contract and all – and we ride him about it – but he’s dead serious.”

While rookie running back Jamal Lewis was busy buying engraved $1,300 watches for all of his linemen, starters and reserves, late in the 2000 season after gaining 1,000 yards – including Ogden – the offensive line had to employ psychological warfare on Ogden to get him to foot the $2,000 bill for dinner at a fancy steakhouse after he got his fat contract.

Flynn, the team’s diplomat and philosopher, summed up Ogden thusly: “He’s just a big dork like Spence and me.”

Ogden told The Washington Post, “Some of the guys, I know if you talked to them, they’re like, ‘He’s a strange cat, that Ogden. He’s a weird one.’ I just am…I’m always kind of crazy, slightly.”

After spending time with him in a clubhouse for more than five years, you become numb to what an unbelievably large man he is. I’ve spent my share of time in NBA and college basketball locker rooms, so seeing big guys is not out of the ordinary in my line of work. You tend to become very desensitized to even the largest of football players, especially when they are standing next to each other. But it’s completely different when they mix with the real world.

The first time I’d seen Ogden away from the football field and away from his contemporaries was at a restaurant in downtown Baltimore at a team function in 1996. He walked through a crowded dining area and every head turned, every jaw dropped at his freakish enormity. I thought about it, and for a moment I felt sort of sad for him. I knew him as the “big dork” and gentle giant of the team’s clubhouse. He’s always been a really regular guy and easy to talk to (as long as he was sitting where you could look at him at eye level) and approachable. As he moved through the room that night and I saw the public reaction, you couldn’t help but feel the constant tug of him being a walking freak show. Like a circus act, and a very famous one at that.

“Sometimes I wish I could just blend into the crowd, be like every other person,” Ogden said. “See what it’s like to walk in a crowd and have no one even pay attention to you. I look at it like this – everyone is the way they are for a reason. I figure God put me here to be this big and athletic and I guess He wants me to play football. He didn’t put me here to be just anybody.”

 

 

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