When football fans gather gather there are certain things that are likely to be discussed. Which quarterback would you want to win one game? Who was the greatest: corner-back, linebacker, running-back or wide receiver of all time? Older fans often debate which players from the past would be great in today’s game. When a giant of a man closed his eyes one final time on the 17th of September 2021, we bid farewell to a player that I feel was hall of fame worthy in his time, but would have been even better in the pass first version of the NFL.
Where It All Began
Roger Brown was born on the first of May, 1937 in Surry County, Virginia. My father and he actually ran across each other as youngsters. Both spent time in Surry County and Newport News, Virginia. However my father was a 138 pound ‘quick guard’ while by the time Brown started high school he was over 220 pounds and played fullback, later he moved to defensive tackle.
While still in his teens moved to Nyack New York. He would have had chances to play for Syracuse or in the Big 10, but he had some academic inadequacies. He originally planned to play for coach Vernon “Skip” McCain at Maryland State College [now University of Maryland-Eastern Shore], get his grades up and transfer. Instead he found a home and began to flex his entrepreneurial muscles. “Big Nyack” is how he was known as a disc jockey known and party promoter.
While at then-Maryland State from 1956-59 as a defensive lineman he was instrumental to the Hawks outscoring opponents 693 to 213. Brown was the linchpin of defense that held opponents to 7.3 points per game. He led the Hawks to the CIAA title in 1957, becoming a two-time NAIA All-American and two-time Pittsburgh Courier Negro All-American selection.
The Path Towards Greatness
He was drafted in the fourth round, 42nd overall in the 1960 NFL Draft. When he got to Lions camp they were unable to weigh him at their facility. Once weekly he was taken to the rail-yard where freight was weighed. Weigh-in day came each Thursday, and he was struggling since he was 6’5″ 298 by the end of his college career. In the early 1960s, Brown’s team mandated weight was 280 pounds; for each extra pound he was fined $10.
Despite his size he was a rare athlete. He’d been a sprinter at Maryland State, he ran the 100-yard dash in 10 flat. Once at Lions’ camp ran a 50-yard dash in 5.4 seconds. He used his rare blend of size and speed to become a key member of the first “Fearsome Foursome” in Detroit with Alex Karras, as well as defensive ends Darris McCord and Sam Williams. It was this front that perpetrated the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre,” versus the Green Bay Packers. That day, the team set a franchise-record 11 sacks. Of them Brown had seven of the sacks.
After the 1966 season he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams to replace Rosey Grier who had torn his Achilles tendon. As a member of the sun-drenched Southern California version of the”The Fearsome Foursome” he joined hall of fame members, David “Deacon” Jones and Merlin Olsen, as well as Lamar Lundy. Once there he helped this great defensive line to continue its dominance for coach George Allen. In that season’s finale on December 17, the Rams sacked Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas seven times and Brown was in the backfield constantly.
A Lasting Legacy
Though he died still waiting for that call to Canton, he has received many honors including being named to: The University of f Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks Hall of Fame in 1982, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1997, the College Football Hall of Fame (2009) and the Black College Football Hall of Fame (2015). In 2018, he, Karras and Herman Moore were made members of the “Pride of the Lions” ring of honor at Ford Field.
Here’s part of what Bart Starr wrote in a letter of support he sent the the Pro Football Hall Of Fame’s Senior Committee: He and Brown faced each other many times, so they came to develop a tremendous respect for each other. He wrote, “I personally believe the strength and character of an exceptional Sports Hall of Fame are directly commensurate with the quality of its members. Roger Brown brings that quality with him and deserves to be inducted in our Hall of Fame.”
A Second Career
Once his career ended, in 1969, Brown originally started in the restaurant business in Chicago. Later he opened restaurants closer to his childhood home. With no more train-yard weigh-ins, his once powerful frame swelled to 448 pounds. There are so many stories of players, particularly former linemen who have died, many with heart problems or diseases related to the amount of weight they carried.
In the 1990’s Brown was upstairs at his namesake sports bar in downtown Portsmouth VA, one of the eight restaurants he owned after his NFL career, when he passed out, hitting his head on the steps. Roger Brown, who had formerly commemorated successful weigh-ins with bountiful dinners with teammates, including 16 side dishes, and many bottles of wine, he reported, was now a victim of his appetite.
Brown was eventually hospitalized since he’d developed an irregular heartbeat and a defibrillator was inserted into chest. “A hell of a way for your body to say: ‘Stop eating.’ ” He said in an interview with the Washington Post.
The next great weight challenge of his life had nothing to do with avoiding a fine. Instead he was trying to preserve his life itself. He started accompanying his wife, Kay, to the YMCA, leaving more of his meals on the plate. He walked more and treated himself to feasts less. In the last decades of his life he weighed 227 pounds.
By The Numbers
In his career he started 124 of the 138 games he played in the NFL, he totaled 79 sacks [unofficially, the sack became an official statistic in 1982], he had seasons of 14.5, 14, 12 and 11.5 sacks despite playing in the era of 14 game seasons and offenses that were run dominant, he also tallied 2 interceptions and 3 safeties. I hope that his family, friends, former teammates, and football fans will finally get to see one of the true giants of the game and one of the game’s greatest interior linemen finally receive his final and ultimate honor.