Roger Brown: The life of an overlooked superstar

Photo by Detroit Lions

Roger Brown was born on May 1, 1937, in Surry County, Virginia, to Altemus and Nancy Brown (his mother passed away when Roger was 4). The Browns, Roger, Altemus, Jr., and Laura, moved to Newport News and then Nyack, New York, where he grew up and attended high school. He didn’t play sports until 9th grade when his growth spurt began. In junior high he liked the safety patrol. One time the group patrolled a football game, and Roger enjoyed it. The next year he made the freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams. By the end of the season, he was 6’2″ 230 and varsity fullback. In college he was an industrial arts major growing up in the Village of Nyack 20 miles north of New York City, where the was enraptured by the hot, hip new sounds on radio during the “Doo Wop” era.

Ever the entrepreneur, he was a disc jockey in college which helped pay his tuition. Before WESM, the National Public Radio affiliate on the campus of University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a ‘pirate’ radio broadcast emanated from Princess Anne. Brown had a hand in it. Brown and several enterprising classmates built their own transmitter using scavenged parts from a broken-down Rock-Ola juke box and bought new equipment from a fledgling mail-order outfit named RadioShack. “I like to tell people now I majored in communications because that’s really what I did” as a college student, he said. Brown estimates the signal could be heard within a mile radius of campus. It wasn’t on the air long. Nervous that the federal government might object to the institution being the host of an unlicensed broadcast operation, college officials shut it down. That didn’t discourage Brown, however. He found other outlets for his interest in music. Using a pseudonym incorporating the name of his hometown, ‘The Big Nyack’ soon was a DJ at WICO AM, and then moved to a new station, WJDY, that played popular songs of the era.

When Brown arrived at Maryland State as a freshman in 1956, he remembers “That school was so small that you could yell from one side of campus to the other and tell somebody to come on over,” Brown said. “We had maybe 250 students, but we could play football.” “I was drafted out of Maryland State,” he reflected. “I was supposed to go to Michigan State, and I was supposed to go to Syracuse. But my grades out of high school weren’t that strong. So, they said if I went to a junior college and obtained a C average, they would accept me as a transfer.” He attended college at Maryland State (currently the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) He played for the great Coach Vernon “Skip” McCain. There he ran track, was known as the led the Hawks to the CIAA title in 1957 and became a two-time NAIA All-American and two-time Pittsburgh Courier Negro All-American selection.

Coached by ‘Skip’ McCain, Brown liked Maryland State, where he worked up to a 3.0. He moved from fullback to defensive tackle as a sophomore. During his time at MSC, Roger participated in football and varsity track. Brown was Negro All-American honors twice, also Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.  Brown was chosen to participate in the College All-Star Game which included top collegiate players against NFL Champions the Baltimore Colts. As a defensive lineman, he anchored, then-Maryland State, from 1956-59, on a Hawks’ team that outscored opponents 693-213, thanks to a defense that held opponents to 7.3 points per game. Helping the Hawks to compile 23 wins, 5 losses and 1 tie.

After a stellar college career, he was drafted by the Lions in the fourth round with the 42nd overall pick. Fast from his earliest days, in 1960, when he signed with Detroit, he was clocked at 5.4 seconds for the 50-yard dash, he was a member of the Fearsome Foursome with both the Detroit Lions (1960- 66) and Los Angeles Rams (1968-69). where he earned All-American honors while being selected by the Lions.

During his rookie year in 1960, he was so big that the Lions couldn’t weigh him on their scale, which only went up to 250 pounds. Every Thursday he would be taken to a local train station with a few chattering teammates to see if he’d made the 280 lb. limit the Lions set for Brown; usually, he didn’t make it, resulting in a $10 per-pound fine. Despite fighting to make weight he was selected All-Pro. Within two years of being drafted, Brown had perfected the use of his size and agility in devastating fashion. In 1962 he made his 1st of 6 straight Pro Bowl teams (1962-67) while finishing 2nd in the Rookie of the Year voting. In the famous “Thanksgiving Day Massacre,” Brown’s Lions upset the defending champion Packers in 1962. Not much before this game the All-Pro selections were announced, which included 15 Packers, and the Lions had: Carl Brettschneider, Roger Brown, Gail Cogdill, Alex Karras, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Yale Larry, and Harley Sewell and Joe Schmidt, so between the teams 23 members of the 1962 All-Pro 1st and 2nd teams were on the field. 

By the time it was over, Starr had been sacked 11 times and lost 110 yards to the Lions pass-rushers. Jim Taylor, the league’s leading rusher, was held to 47 yards. Roger Brown, who by then had become the larger half of what some argue was, the greatest defensive tackle combination in NFL history, when he teamed with Alex Karras. In 6 seasons with the Lions, he was part of the original “Fearsome Foursome” of: Brown, of the “Fearsome Foursome” defensive front that also included Alex Karras, Darris McCord, and Sam Williams, was credited with six sacks. The 300-pound tackle also had a safety and delivered a jarring hit that knocked the ball out of Starr’s hands; Williams picked up the fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. Detroit built up a 26-0 lead early in the third quarter before coasting home, 26-14. NFL Films ranked the game #6 on its top 10 Thanksgiving Day moments.

He was chosen both All-Pro, voted 1962, NFL Pro Lineman of The Year and was NFL All-Pro.and played in the Pro Bowl all six years that he played for the Lions.  Brown would later play for the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome along with Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones. After Brown was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1967, he played four years as part of the second Fearsome Foursome. While with the Rams, he was named All-Pro for three years and participated in two Pro Bowl games.

Brown retired from pro football in 1970 after ten years in which Brown, was selected to the Pro Bowl six times. Today, he still holds NFL all-time records for the most safeties in a season and most safeties in a career. Brown returned to his Virginia roots in 1991. He was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 and in 2010, he was honored for his collegiate accomplishments with his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

One thought on “Roger Brown: The life of an overlooked superstar”

  1. great article on Roger Brown and a bunch on Maryland State / University of Maryland @ Eastern Shore football, Coach McCain by excellent writer

    if Roger Brown had a catchy nickname, he’d be in Canton. Obviously a great clutch player all time safeties record and “6 or 7” sacks on Thanksgiving against that year’s eventual champion Green Bay Packers who featured an OL with quite a few Hall of Famers on it

    Doug Farrar recently did a post on the 50 greatest HBCU football players and I think his final version had Roger Brown at 25, but the initial tweet of his rough draft had left him out completely, apparently not recognizing “Maryland State” was in fact the HBCU now known as UMES and Roger Brown being such a common name. Anyway, Doug was alerted to the omission and included Roger Brown in the final piece, all of which was outstanding and well researched

    btw Sam Williams became a top DL coach in the NFL for many years

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