Yet more than 25 years ago, the former Colby linebacker rushed to a bench between the locker room and the field before every Mules practice. He was the first one there each day, ensuring every teammate would have to walk past as he shouted.
“‘What a great day to practice! This is gonna be an awesome practice!’” DeCosta, 48, recalls saying. “They’d just look at me and they’d just shake their heads. I would drive them crazy, but I like to think that people would see that, or see me, and know that at least I had a passion for the game. I was consistent. I answered the bell.”
DeCosta, in his first—and very successful—season as the Baltimore Ravens’ general manager, places a premium on enthusiasm. And consistency. And loyalty. And humility.
He’s the top executive for an NFL franchise—there are just 31 other such jobs in the entire world—and a league leader in using analytics to evaluate players and guide organizational decisions. A Ravens’ employee for 24 years, he spent the last dozen patiently waiting for a promise to be kept as his stock soared around the league.
When Pro Football Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome finally stepped aside as the franchise’s general manager last year, DeCosta’s journey from undersized NESCAC linebacker to the NFL’s pinnacle was complete. He’s in charge of making key personnel and strategic decisions for a business Forbes values at nearly $2.6 billion, and yet he still thinks of himself as an intimidated 18-year-old kid at Colby who was never more than a “pretty good” student and athlete.
How on Earth, then, did he get here?
In their first meeting, Tom Austin had a feeling about this high school kid from Taunton, Mass. He was polite, well-mannered, looked you in the eye during conversation. And the questions he asked—this DeCosta kid had some guts.
Austin had been the Mules’ football coach since 1986. His teams went a combined 1-15 in his first two seasons, but in 1988 had what he calls “the most celebrated 4-4 season in America.”
Colby was no football powerhouse. And DeCosta had other options. He was 5 feet, 10 inches tall and maybe—maybe—180 pounds. At any level, that’s not ideal size for a linebacker. But other NESCAC schools, it seems, saw what Austin was about to see in the focused teenager. “We were in the process of rebuilding the program, and Eric was not bashful about asking how it was coming, and what kind of commitment the College was making to football,” Austin said.
If only for a moment, the coach was taken aback by the kid. “He asks questions sometimes that take some thought to answer,” Austin said. “This is a young sprout, a senior in high school. Obviously, he had done his research.”
Austin liked that. DeCosta probed, and Austin replied. The kid was persuaded.
“I went to Colby primarily because of Coach Austin,” DeCosta said. “For me, I think that most things are relationship driven. And so when I went up there and I met Coach Austin, I just felt like … if I have to play for somebody for four years, I want to play for this guy. And that was basically it.”
“He stepped right in and took charge. His attention to detail was unmatched, he was very prepared.”—Former Colby head football coach Tom Austin
As a Colby player, DeCosta led by example
Eric DeCosta—all 5 feet, 10 inches and 180-some-odd-pounds of him—could play football.
“Eric was a little guy,” said Gregg Suffredini ’93, who played inside linebacker with DeCosta. “But he could hit harder than anything I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Steve Hatch ’93, a safety and wide receiver on the Mules’ football team, remembers DeCosta as a playmaker. During their senior season, Hatch says DeCosta intercepted an opposing quarterback’s pass and “probably got hit 10 times” on a long interception return. He refused to go down.
“He was affectionately called one of the ‘Smurfs,’ because he wasn’t so large,” former Colby football coach Tom Austin said. “He was small, but that didn’t prevent him from doing the job.”
Most important to the coach, however, was DeCosta’s innate leadership ability. “He stepped right in and took charge,” Austin said. “His attention to detail was unmatched, he was very prepared. He knew his role and the role of others, and did not hesitate to correct teammates who were a bit lax in detail.”
DeCosta’s teammates haven’t held that against him. He says he stays in touch with more than 20 guys he played with. Each summer, some of them—including Suffredini and Hatch—get together with their families. Suffredini’s sons Matt, 17, and Kevin, 16, are interns in the Ravens’ equipment room. Hatch, a lifelong New England Patriots fan, is a Ravens season ticket holder.
DeCosta’s loyal. And he inspires loyalty. Hatch has even gone so far as to create an anonymous username to push back against anyone who criticizes DeCosta on Ravens’ fan message boards.
He’d attend Colby as an English and classics major, play football and become a team captain as a senior amid an underground fraternity scandal in 1990 that stripped the program of its upperclassmen. Amid the tumult, Colby football enjoyed its winningest seasons since the 1960s. The Class of 1993, Austin said, was the first four-year class to graduate with a winning record since 1962 and the first to record consecutive winning seasons since 1960.
DeCosta—the “pretty good” athlete—led the way.
“He was the kid who made those highlight plays,” said Gregg Suffredini ’93, a linebacker who played next to DeCosta in the middle of the Colby defense. “He always made the hit, made the big sack, made the big interception. We were involved in basically every play, and his nose was always around the ball.”
The two were fast friends from sophomore year on and are still close today. But as co-captains on the Colby football team, they were opposites. DeCosta thought he had to outwork everybody to succeed, Suffredini said. He expected his teammates to work hard, too. Mistakes didn’t go unnoticed or unreprimanded. His co-captain was more of a “keep it loose” kind of guy. DeCosta was the first player out of the locker room, shouting about how great practice would be that day. Suffredini? “I was definitely not,” he said. “I was the last guy out.”
Everyone understood that DeCosta expected a lot—off the field, too.
Steve Hatch ’93, a Mules free safety and wide receiver and now an anesthesiologist and the chief medical officer for JJM Medical Services—and DeCosta’s roommate for three years—said he and others sought DeCosta’s feedback on class assignments. He was well read, a good writer. “He was intense,” Hatch said. “He would proofread some of our papers, and there were times he would say, ‘Go back into your room and rewrite that. I’m not even finishing it.’”
DeCosta wasn’t asking his teammates, his roommates—his friends, the men he now calls his brothers—to do anything he wasn’t already doing. “He was respected because he lived it,” Suffredini said. “The kid could barely bench his weight, yet he was in the locker room every day … trying to get better, faster, stronger.”
“He set the tone,” Austin said. “Once he decided to come to Colby, he certainly lit it up—academically and athletically.”
Studying Greek as a language
was preparation for the NFL
Eric DeCosta recognized in the second grade that the kids in his reading group were struggling. It crushed him when he realized that meant he must be struggling, too. So each night for the rest of the school year, he’d sit next to his mother and read aloud. He had been assigned a new group by the end of the year.
Now, DeCosta says he’s reading five books—simultaneously. It’s a love he inherited from his late mother (he estimates she reads tons of books a year) and a love that was fostered by English faculty members at Colby.
For example: Cedric Bryant, Lee Family Professor of English, instilled in DeCosta a lasting appreciation of African-American female authors. His favorite book remains Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. “It was extremely stressful, extremely intimidating, but probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life,” DeCosta said of learning under Bryant.
Hanna and Yossi Roisman arrived at Colby College in 1990—the husband and wife team were hired to lead the College’s Classics Department. Hanna taught Greek mythology; Yossi, ancient history.
It was in those courses they met a quiet, serious student named Eric DeCosta. The student was intimidated (“These people were brilliant,” he’d say almost 30 years later.) but that’s not what the now-retired Roismans remember.
DeCosta was immersed in the material, they recalled. He was always prepared. When called upon, he had answers to his professors’ questions. And they relied on him. Even in the classroom, his leadership skills shone.
Hanna Roisman recalls telling students in one of her first courses that they would need to return to class that evening to watch a movie. The assignment was not on the syllabus. “Suddenly, at least one third of the class got up and huddled next to me,” she said. The huddle had formed around DeCosta. After a few minutes, the students told their professor “yeah, of course we’ll come.”
“He had followers, and he was their leader, and you felt it,” Hanna Roisman said. “Anytime I tried to do something out of the syllabus, I took a glance at Eric to see if I was in safe waters.”
DeCosta said he chose to major in classics in part because he took four years of Latin in high school—giving him a bit of a leg up in deciphering ancient Greek. Still, the work was difficult. “Translating ancient Greek, to do a paragraph might take me three hours,” he said. “It was a very, very monotonous, very painstaking process.”
And what else is monotonous and painstaking? Watching film to analyze a football player’s technique—their footwork, their hand placement, the precision of their cuts, their first-step speed, how they react after a good play, how they react after a bad play, how they react after a play they weren’t even a part of. Every detail matters when evaluating potential professional football players.
The lessons learned by the classics major were the same ones informing the work of the future NFL talent evaluator. “It prepared me, I think, for my job—my career watching tape, breaking players down,” DeCosta said.
He credits the Roismans. The Roismans credit him—you know, the “pretty good” student—for understanding what being a classics major is all about. “Greek as a language is a really wonderful tool for teaching critical thinking and teaching in detail,” Hanna Roisman said. “Every detail matters. Then, you have to put it together, and you have to remember a lot. And he could do it.”
Neither Hanna nor Yossi know much about sports—certainly not the NFL. So no, they didn’t expect he’d become an NFL general manager. But it fits. “I knew, whatever he would do, he would be a leader,” Yossi Roisman said.
“The greatest thing about being an owner is I get to just ask Ozzie questions. And now I get to ask Eric questions.”—Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti
Harbaugh: DeCosta ready for GM role
After 24 years, Eric DeCosta is in charge of the Ravens’ football operations. Good luck finding someone to say the fancy new title has changed him.
“It’s been great working with Eric. It hasn’t been any different, personality-wise. He’s the same guy that he always has been,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after a June practice. “I think he’s taken the role very well. He’s been prepared for it, he’s certainly not intimidated by it, I tell you that.”
The players have taken to him, too—in part because DeCosta knows his stuff, and in part because he’s so approachable.
Fourth-year offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley bonded with the general manager over their mutual interest in advocating for animals. (DeCosta has previously served on the leadership board of the Maryland SPCA.) “He has an open-door policy. You just go in there anytime and talk with him,” Stanley said. “He’s a real good guy, and he cares about his players and just cares about people in general.”
Tony Jefferson, a strong safety who signed with the Ravens in 2017 after beginning his career with the Arizona Cardinals, called DeCosta a “good dude” who’s helping him prepare for a post-playing career as a scout. “I just try to pick his brain a little bit, watch what he does, see how he views things,” Jefferson said. “We’ve got a good relationship.”
The story has been told time and again since billionaire Ravens’ owner Steve Bisciotti announced in 2018 that DeCosta, then assistant general manager, would ascend to the top job in 2019. Bisciotti first asked DeCosta to take the job in 2007. He didn’t want him to take it right away. He wanted to know if DeCosta would wait for it.
This is the guy who, while a football graduate assistant at Trinity College (Austin recommended him for that job), wrote letters to every NFL team seeking an internship. Only the Washington Redskins gave him a shot, and he excelled. But it didn’t lead to a full-time job offer after graduation.
Then fate intervened: The Cleveland Browns were decamping for Baltimore, where they’d become the Ravens in 1996. Parts of the organization would need to be rebuilt. DeCosta had considered law school. The Canadian Football League, too. The Ravens made a more attractive offer: a basement-level, low-paying job in a brand new franchise’s scouting department. “He wasn’t making much,” Hatch said. “I don’t know who was poorer: me, as a medical student, or him. At least I had some great loans.”
DeCosta didn’t languish for long. He outworked everyone around him, impressed Newsome—the Hall of Famer—and later Bisciotti, who bought an ownership stake in the Ravens from Art Modell in 1999 and became majority owner in 2004.
By 2007 the owner knew who he wanted his next general manager to be. But not until Newsome was ready to step back. DeCosta, a rising star blocked in Baltimore by a league legend, received numerous offers to interview for the top job with other franchises. He declined, thinking back to his boyhood idols in Boston who played for the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins.
“Carl Yastrzemski, Larry Bird, Terry O’Reilly … these guys played their whole careers with one team,” DeCosta said. “You only have so much you can give anything, and the idea that you can give everything you had to one team and not have to share between teams—I don’t know. That’s always been beautiful to me.”
In a conference call in the spring of 2018 with season ticket holders, Bisciotti gushed about watching DeCosta grow up in the Ravens organization. Under Newsome’s leadership, the team won two Super Bowl championships. The organization was considered one of the league’s finest talent evaluators.
DeCosta was a key part of that machine. Now he holds the keys, and the owner expects more of the same. “The greatest thing about being an owner is I get to just ask Ozzie questions,” Bisciotti said. “And now I get to ask Eric questions.”
DeCosta brought analytics to the Ravens—and Colby
First priority: Organize the data
The first ingredients to build a world-class analytics department for the Baltimore Ravens were stuffed into books and stashed in filing cabinets at the team headquarters in Owings Mills.
The Ravens launched their data analytics department in 2012—Eric DeCosta thinks they were ahead of other NFL franchises, though certainly behind teams in other professional leagues.
“I knew nothing about analytics,” DeCosta said. “I’ve always loved computers and data analysis and various things, but I was an English (and classics) major and not a very statistics-based person. … We decided to get out in front a little bit of the other NFL teams.”
About eight years later, DeCosta’s an NFL leader in using analytics to inform his decisions as general manager and is using that experience to help Colby become a Division III leader, too. He’s done it by asking the right questions and surrounding himself with smart people—including perhaps the most successful analyst in data-driven Major League Baseball, who he first asked for advice four years ago.
“If the Ravens aren’t the leaders, they’re on the forefront with a small number of other teams” in the NFL, said Sig Mejdal, who helped the Houston Astros win a World Series and is now the Baltimore Orioles’ assistant general manager. “He was reaching out to a baseball organization for help with best practices and lessons learned at a time when the majority of football teams didn’t even have an analyst.”
The Power of Big Data in the NFL
DeCosta and team owner Steve Bisciotti understood the power of big data in 2012. DeCosta said Bisciotti saw his own business, then the home health and medical staffing firm Aerotek, grow when it started making strategic use of computers and data mining. They knew the Ravens could benefit, too. “The first thing we tried to do was really organize the data,” DeCosta said.
“It was all about looking at the various components of a player and what makes him good versus somebody else,” DeCosta said. “Whether that would be something like arm length versus 40-yard dash, versus short shuttle, versus Wonderlic [a cognitive ability test], versus these other sort of subjective things like one-parent family, two-parent family, grew up in Alabama versus grew up in Palo Alto.
“We still use the traditional scouting methods, but analytics is a way for us to augment that process to provide some content that allows us to question traditional scouting at times.”
Colby football Head Coach Jack Cosgrove, who spent 29 years coaching at the University of Maine and saw the Ravens scout a few of his players, said DeCosta has used data to suggest ways that the College could improve its own recruiting strategy.
“It goes to what he does as a professional. His biggest role is personnel, getting players, and we needed to expand that,” Cosgrove said. “We needed to do a better job within our plan to make sure that we identified, and then went out and got, the kind of young men that we want to be part of our program. … The great players are the ones with analytics and data and all that, and love the game.”
Then again, evolution is mandatory in the NFL.
DeCosta launched the Ravens’ analytics department in 2012; he thinks it was among the NFL’s first. He won’t say how large the department is or describe in great detail what it is they look for (the league’s secrecy is legendary, so desperate is each team to acquire the slimmest competitive edge).
In his first news conference after formally taking the job—executive vice president and general manager—DeCosta hinted that analytics would play an even larger role in the organization’s decision-making with him in charge. He’s also brought his expertise in analytics to Colby—teaching a Jan Plan course on the topic, working with the Athletics Department to develop performance metrics, offering sports analytics internships with the Ravens to Colby students.
A member of the College’s Board of Visitors, DeCosta has—at the request of Colby President David A. Greene—taken a critical look at the football program and Classics Department in recent years. Already, he’s helped the College recognize the need to cast a broader net in its football recruiting efforts, recently hyper-focused on the Boston area.
“He’s starting to really engage in a strategic way and is thinking about the future of the College,” Greene said. “This is a guy for whom no job is too big and no job is too small.”
The truth is, DeCosta’s happy to help. Waterville is home. Baltimore, too. He still insists he’s never the smartest guy in the room. But he’s proud of how hard he’s worked—how hard he still works—and the patience he exhibited along the way. Colby and the Ravens gave him a shot.
Why leave either?