Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Jerome Brown
There was nothing small about Jerome Brown. The former University of Miami defensive tackle was not only a physically large man, he lived large. He played big in big games. He spoke loudly and he loved to drive his cars fast. He was the leader of the swaggering Miami Hurricanes of the 1980s. He played and lived with swagger until the day he died.
Just about the only thing small about Jerome Brown was his hometown of Brooksville, Florida, located just north of Tampa in Hernando County. He was always the biggest kid in his class. His personality was just as large as his size. He was a class clown, loud and gregarious and always backed up his boastful claims. People were always drawn to him and he never lacked friends. By the time he graduated from Hernando High School, he was a hometown legend. He was a star in football, baseball and basketball. As a senior he was 6-foot-2, 250 pounds and had the speed of players much smaller. He led Hernando High School's baseball team to a state championship as a junior, while leading the team in home runs and stolen bases. He was the leading scorer and rebounder on the basketball team. But on the football field, he was truly a man among boys playing defensive tackle and tight end. He was recognized as one of the finest high school athletes in the nation and was named to the prestigious Parade All American Team in 1982. Colleges from all over the Southeast rushed to Hernando High School to recruit him. In the end, he chose to attend the University of Miami and its emerging football program.
It didn't take Brown long to make a strong impression on the Miami coaches. He was one of five true-freshmen to see action on the 1983 national championship team. He was a raw talent who got by on natural athletic ability. But his technique was poor and he was at times undisciplined. Brown's first two years at UM were spent primarily as a backup. But everything came together his junior year in 1985. He went from a raw prospect to quite possibly the most dominant defensive lineman to ever suit up for Hurricanes.
By 1985, Brown had grown to 275 pounds and finally became a polished player. He was now able to blend technique along with his natural athletic gifts. He introduced himself to the college football world on October 19, 1985. The Canes traveled to Norman, Oklahoma to take on the Sooners. Miami was a young team and unranked at the time, while Oklahoma was a top national championship contender. In a game that featured two future hall of famers (Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman) and dozens of future NFL players, Jerome Brown was the best athlete on the field. Late in the first quarter with the score tied 7-7, Oklahoma attempted a short field goal to take the lead. Brown charged up the middle, through the Oklahoma line, and blocked the kick. He then pumped his arms and screamed to the crowd it was going to be a long day for the Sooners. Brown almost single-handidly dominated the game. Late in the second quarter, he sacked Oklahoma quarterback Troy Aikman. Two plays later, he stormed by the OU offensive line and combined with UM teammate John McVeigh to sack Aikman again. The tackle was so violent, Aikman would fracture his leg. The injury ended Aikman's career at Oklahoma and lead to his transfer to UCLA where he would later emerge as a top pro prospect. Brown finished the afternoon with 14 tackles from his defensive tackle position, blocked a kick and a recovered a fumble. He did this despite being constantly double-teamed. The Canes won 27-14 and were back as a national championship contender. The Canes finished the year 10-2 and Brown was named All American.
When the 1986 season began, Miami emerged as the nation's most dominant team. The Canes also developed a bad boy reputation both on and off the field. UM players were known for talking trash and intimidating opponents. Brown was the team's unquestioned leader. He would sack quarterbacks and throw down ball carriers like sacks of garbage and then stand over them and talk trash. When Oklahoma visited the Orange Bowl play Hurricanes in 1986, Brown set the tone during the coin toss. He stared down the Oklahoma captains at midfield and then yelled "fresh meat!" The second-ranked Canes beat #1 Oklahoma again 28-16 behind 4 touchdown passes by Vinny Testaverde. The Canes cruised through the regular season undefeated and Jerome Brown was the most feared defensive lineman in college football. Despite missing three games due to injury, he was still named to every All American team that existed and was a finalist for the Outland and Lombardi Trophies. The Canes finished the season ranked #1 and were invited to the Fiesta Bowl to play #2 Penn State.
When the Canes arrived in Tempe, Arizona, Brown became the focus of attention. It was his idea to dress up the team in military fatigues during the Canes flight to Arizona. Brown was the first player to get off the plane and he made it clear he was ready for war. During a steak fry function hosted by the Fiesta Bowl, Brown was insulted by a racial skit performed by the Penn State players that also lampooned Miami coach Jimmy Johnson. He led a walkout of the Miami players from the restaurant and said, "Did the Japanese go sit down and have dinner with Pearl Harbor befor they bombed them?" But Penn State was ready and upset Miami 14-10. Brown and the Canes defense did their part to win the game. Miami dominated every statistic except the score. Penn State was held to just 162 yards of total offense. But Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions and Canes turned the ball over seven times. Brown had a sack and led a stout defense. But his efforts were left wasted in Tempe.
Jerome Brown finished his UM career with 183 career tackles, including 21 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, caused 5 fumbles and recovered 4. The Canes played in a New Years Day bowl in all four years he played, including the national championship in his freshman season at the 1984 Orange Bowl.
In 1987 he was selected in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles. He quickly prospered playing for head coach Buddy Ryan and teammed up with Reggie White and Clyde Simmons to form one of the best defensive lines in the NFL at the time. He was named twice to the Pro Bowl.
Off the football field, he also stood out. He was easily recognized on campus for riding his red motor scooter to class. He once broke up a Ku Klux Klan rally by himself in his hometown.
"Jerome had a big 4-wheel drive truck with speakers and loud music," said former Eagle teammate Keith Byars. "And Jerome just came out there and drowned the whole Klan rally they had going. He wasn't going to back down to them and they just dispersed."
He once saved a trucker in an overturned cab. "I tried to interview him about the KKK rally,"said Ray Didinger of the Philadelphia Daily News. "I tried to interview him about saving the trucker on the highway. But he really didn't want to deal with it. In his mind, he did what anybody would have done under those circumstances."
But in the prime of his career, his life was cut short. On June 25, 1992, Brown and his 12-year-old nephew Gus were killed in an automobile accident in their hometown of Brooksville. Brown lost control of his Corvette at high speed and crashed into a power pole. He was 27-years-old.
"He's a person who impacted a team like nobody on any team I've ever played on," said former UM teammate and punter Jeff Feagles.
During an interview with NFL Films, former UM quarterback Vinny Testaverde said of Brown, "Whenever you talk about Jerome Brown to anybody, the first thing you do is smile. He really touched so many people in such a short time that he was with us. It really was incredible."