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The Ravens Have Arrived

The best pass rushers of his generation were like gnats on the windshield of a Mack Truck named Ogden.

After 10 winning seasons, nine playoff berths, and a pair of World Championships, the Ravens have finally arrived. On Saturday, in Canton, Ohio, the NFL’s holiest of holys, Ozzie Newsome, appeared on the stage. There was a time when Newsome was known first as the Hall of Fame tight end who glided through coverage and smashed through linebackers for the Cleveland Browns. Now he is known as the general manager and keen mind behind the Baltimore Ravens. He was at the dais to introduce Jonathan Ogden, the first player drafted by the Ravens and, now, the first Raven enshrined into the Hall of Fame—and the greatest player ever to don the purple and gold.

At first blush, it seems odd to say the Ravens are just now arriving; for many, that deal was sealed with the first ring. But now the Ravens’ history has been set with a bronze bust in Canton. Yes, three other Ravens players—Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, and Deion Sanders—have made the Hall, but Sanders’ time in Baltimore was a career afterthought, and Woodson and Sharpe, though integral in Baltimore’s first Ravens Super Bowl, spent the bulk of their careers elsewhere. Jonathan Ogden was a Raven from start to finish.

And what a start! Ogden came to Baltimore and played his rookie season, the Ravens’ inaugural season, at left guard, learning the ropes, then moved outside to left tackle. In his first year at tackle, Ogden made the Pro Bowl, the first of 11 straight selections in 11 years. He was four times a first-team All-Pro and was named the starting left tackle of the All-Decade team for the 2000s. Oh, and then there’s that ring. He may not be the best Raven of all time—that distinction belongs to Ray Lewis, with an honorable mention for Ed Reed—but he was the best player and, with apologies to Anthony Munoz, arguably the greatest left tackle ever to play the game.

Ogden came to the NFL a baby-faced giant. I met him once in his rookie year, and he reminded me of a My Buddy doll with the power to rip oak trees from the earth. I’m 6 feet, 2 inches and was working as a bouncer in Fells Point at the time and met a lot of athletes, but none made me feel as small as J.O. When the 6-foot 9-inch (7-foot with the afro), 345-pound Ogden shook my hand, it disappeared into his mitt like Amelia Earhart into the South Pacific. Come to think of it, he did the same thing to nearly every D-lineman he ever played against.

In his 12 years, Ogden served up enough pancakes to open a pair of Denny’s. The best pass rushers of his generation were like gnats on the windshield of a Mack Truck named Ogden. He was smooth, buttery even, and could backpedal faster than a presidential candidate after the primaries. His reach was 7 feet from fingertip to fingertip, more than enough to simultaneously tickle Shaq’s nose and toes. Power rushers bounced off the Paul Bunyanesque Ogden, and speed rushers were caught in his Rodan-like wingspan. And, man, what a tactician. Known for his giant head, he needed it for that massive football brain. “He just made everything look easy,” says Michael Strahan, the retired Giant who looked more like a flea next to Ogden, in a video for NFL’s list of top 100 players. “And there’s nothing worse than when you’re working hard against somebody and you’re out there sweating and grunting and you’re looking up at this guy, and this guy’s just sitting there with his head wedged into a football kind of like, ‘Gosh, that’s the best you can do?’ It’s so disheartening.”

There is no doubt that Ogden deserves his first-ballot Hall of Fame status, but it is more than that that makes this such a defining moment for the Ravens. In 1996, Baltimore had yet to embrace the Ravens, the team was a national pariah for skedaddling from Cleveland, and Ozzie was running his first-ever draft. He, too, was a rookie, not the icon of front-office wizardry he is today. At the time, there were doubts when he selected Ogden with the fourth pick of the first round and Lewis 26th. Lewis was too small to play linebacker, and Ogden was constantly compared to Tony Boselli, who was taken two spots ahead. Clearly, Ozzie knew something, as Lewis proved plenty big and Ogden proved more productive than Boselli, who, though great in his day, was riddled with injuries.

It is fitting that in the first round of his first draft Newsome selected not just two cornerstones for one of the winningest franchises in the NFL in Ogden and Lewis, he also took two of the greatest players ever to play their positions. Those selections served notice to the football world that the Baltimore Ravens were the real deal. That Ogden enters the Hall the same year his team won another Super Bowl is no fluke. Newsome, this most excellent architect, chose the massive man as the cornerstone of his new era for the team, and five years after Ogden’s retirement, the franchise Newsome built is stronger than ever.

In five years, the great Ray Lewis will join Ogden in Canton; soon after that, Ed Reed will follow. But this moment cements the Baltimore Ravens in football history. Their gleaming Super Bowl rings shine on their bright present, Ogden now stands immortalized, a reminder of the team’s strong and (short) storied history. And Ozzie Newsome is still there, keen-eyed, promising a bold future.

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