(Image By Jerry Thierolf)
Twenty years ago, Jerome Brown was killed in a car crash that also claimed the life of his 12-year old nephew Gus. When young people, especially athletes die so young we’re quick to say that their lives were unfulfilled and how we were cheated.
In Jerome’s 27 years on earth, you’ll see that the former All-Pro defensive tackle did enough laughing, living and loving for two lifetimes.
It’s hard to talk about Jerome Brown or watch clips of him. This tribute is necessary because it’s what I do. Jerome Brown was more than just an indispensible piece on a Super Bowl-worthy team. Far more than 2 sacks and a forced fumble every other Sunday.
Jerome Brown was the big brother that I always wanted. A hulking mass of hope, all 6’3″ 290 lbs. of him.
He was the hope of his beloved Miami Hurricanes and leading them into a pre-game dinner with Penn State during Fiesta Bowl week in 1987, he introduced The U to world. And just as quickly as Gen. Brown entered with his troops, garnered in battle fatigues, they left, unwilling to dine with the enemy.
For five glorious seasons in Philadelphia, he was hell on wheels alongside The Minister of Defense on a defensive unit that rivals any in the history of the NFL. Eagles fans believed their Super Bowl would be delivered on the backs of Brown and Reggie White – not with the legs of Randall Cunningham.
Finally, William Jerome Brown was the hope of his native Brooksville, Fl., a small integrated town that he brought together in triumph and in sorrow.
This was anything but amateur night in Tempe, Az.
Eye of the Hurricanes
If you donned the helmet of the University of Miami Hurricanes, your name was associated with people, places and things not of a popular variety, and if your skin was dark it was done in double time. Labels like “fatherless” or “barely educated” were thrown at young African-American males with exceptional athletic talent who were not afraid to let you know it.
That wasn’t the case for Jerome who was raised by Willie and Annie Bell Brown in Brooksville, Florida, a tightly integrated town west of Orlando. Jerome would letter in baseball, basketball and football at Hernando High — earning a scholarship to the University of Miami football program.
Unaware that he would be the spark ignighting a phenomenon in college athletics.
In Brown’s freshman season, the Hurricanes defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 31-30 to win the programs first National Championship. The victory would kick-start a dormant football program and make the University of Miami the destination of talented young African-Americans males, most of whom resided in the state of Florida. The Hurricanes had the type of team that made America uncomfortable — young, boisterous African-American men with talent out the ass. With a republican president in his late 60’s, this was the last thing anyone expected to rise out of South Florida. The likes of Brown with star wide receiver Michael Irvin, brothers Bennie and Brian Blades, Alonzo Highsmith and Melvin Bratton, the ‘Canes brought Black Mustard to a cream-puffed Coral Gables community.
One of the best ‘Canes…ever!
New head coach Jimmy Johnson failed to land the Hurricanes into National Title games in 1984 and 1985. In 1986, Vinnie Testaverde had one of the great seasons by a collegiate quarterback in recent memory. Brown led a ‘Canes defense that held opponents to 136 points in an 11-game season. Miami would finish the regular season 11-0 and a #1 ranking and Testaverde would win the Heisman Trophy in a landslide. The Hurricanes were headed into their second championship game against the bluest of blue bloods, the #2 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl to decide the college football’s national champion.
Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos.
The media chose to use the “Good vs. Evil” moniker over the “Duel In The Desert” theme that was selected for the game (think UNLV/Duke in 1990). The Hurricanes arrived in Tempe, Arizona ready for war in the most literal sense as Brown and several of his teammates exited the team plane in Army fatigues and combat boots. The operation was spearheaded by Brown who did most of the talking as the pregame hype intensified.
The night before the game, both teams met for a steak fry dinner, while the Hurricanes stuck to their battle theme, the Nittany Lions appeared in suits and loafers. Class took a backseat quickly as the Nittany Lions players cracked jokes about Jimmy Johnson’s hair. Having seen and heard enough Brown declared, “Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?” Before long, Brown led his teammates from the steak fry and into the night. Despite being chastised in the media for his actions, Brown spoke about what triggered the walkout sometime later. “Penn State started getting personal.” Brown continued, “They said some things about our coach and made some racial jokes. It was better to walk out than start fighting.”
University president Tad Foote was outraged at the players behavior and had grown weary of Brown who had been the center of disciplinary action on a few occasions while at Miami. Brown response was simple. ” Ask Tad Foote what Yale’s record is, They wear suits and tuxedos to every game and they end up 0-10. That sure brings the school a lot of money.”
The ‘Canes would lose 14-10 behind five interceptions by Vinnie Testaverde. The defense smothered the Penn State offense but an inept offense was too much to overcome. Even in defeat, Brown’s words and actions would be a reference in the history of the University of Miami football program.
Man, this can’t be your Sunday’s best!
Soul of the Eagles
Jerome Brown was selected with the ninth pick overall in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles. He stated in his opening press conference that he was living a dream and would just be happy with $100 a week, an endless supply of bologna sandwiches and a VW Beetleto get around in. But this wasn’t Miami anymore. Jerome was a country catfish dumped into a city swimming with piranhas that had devoured his kind before and often. Eagles head coach and defensive guru Buddy Ryan penciled Brown in as a starter playing next to Reggie White — arguably the best defensive player in the NFL at the time. Reggie was a God-fearing man who wore his convictions on his sleeve and was unashamed in spreading the gospel. In comes Brown, a 22-year old rookie who was a jovial, free spirit and lived life his way.
The perfect yin to White’s yang.
Reggie was more of a big brother to Jerome than anything and if there was a father figure for Brown it was head coach Buddy Ryan who like Brown lived by his own rules, and allowed each player to be himself.
The Eagles defense resembled a band of brothers that were inseparable. They rarely hung out with anyone from the offense — in particular quarterback Randall Cunningham, who always seemed to draw the ire of fiery linebacker Seth Joyner. Joyner felt Cunningham was more concerned about the celebrity of being one of the NFL’s best instead of playing to his full potential. The defensive unit consisted of defensive lineman Mike Golic, Mike Pitts and Clyde Simmons, linebackers Seth Joyner, Byron Evans and William Thomas, corners Eric Allen and Ben Smith, safeties Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters along with Brown and White. Kelly green heroes littered the field, more than willing to drop you with one shot or pound on you for four quarters. With Brown’s arrival, Ryan’s fabled 46 defense was complete.
“They brought the house, but we brought the pain” – Jerome Brown after the Eagles defeated the Houston Oilers in the “House of Pain” game.
Jerome was the youngest star on a team full of stars, but his playful nature and the ability to cause havoc on Sundays endeared him to his teammates and the Philadelphia fans. Jerome was a big country kid who won the heart of a city not known for embracing too many African-American athletes.
Peep Jerome in the red and black leather…
Under Ryan, the Eagles would make the playoffs three consecutive seasons, falling to the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins. The most frustrating of these games was a 1988 wildcard meeting against the Bears in Soldier Field in what is now known as The Fog Bowl. During the second quarter a dense fog covered the field decreasing visibility to roughly 10 yards. The Eagles failed to capitalize on several scoring opportunities prior to weather becoming a factor, losing to the Bears 20-12.
Buddy Ryan had been under owner Norman Braman’s skin for some time. Buddy had the players and the city of Philadelphia in the palm of his hands — which ate away at Braman’s ego. It often got to a point where Brown and other players would defy the owner to his face while Ryan did it in the press. Ryan would refer to his boss as “The man in France” pointing out Braman’s disconnection with the team.
With Ryan going winless in the playoffs three consecutive seasons and entering an option year, Braman played his trump card and sent Ryan packing. Rich Kotite would replace Ryan to the chagrin of fans and players — notably the defense. It was Braman’s revenge on players like Brown — who he would point out were out of shape and didn’t seem focused on winning.
Ryan’s firing and Braman’s comments would be the only fuel the defense needed heading into the 1991 season.
The Eagles would enter the 1991 season as favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Those hopes were all but dashed week 1 in Green Bay when Packers defensive lineman Bryce Paup hit quarterback Randall Cunningham low, tearing his ACL. The Eagles would go through the season without Cunningham but the defense was very much intact. If it meant sacking the Cowboys Troy Aikman close to a dozen times or breaking the finesse Houston Oilers receivers in two, it was done despite of what the offense produced.
The 1991 Philadelphia Eagles Defense was one of a handful in NFL history to lead the league across the board in all defensive categories. Brown would be named and NFL All-Pro as well as to the NFC Pro Bowl team for the second consecutive season after being shafted after the 1989 season.
It would be the last time he would wear a Philadelphia Eagles helmet.
Much more than just a football player to those in Brooksville, Florida
The Heart of Brooksville
There’s a moment in everyone’s life that defines them. Good or bad, that moment tells you everything you ever needed to know about that person. Ask anyone in Brooksville about Jerome Brown and they’ll bypass Brown the student athlete as if he never played three sports.
They’ll tell you about the day Jerome Brown stood up to the Klu Klux Klan and lived to tell it.
Six Klansmen set up shop in near the Hernando County Courthouse at the corner of Broad and Main in Brooksville. With bullhorn in hand they began to spew their message of hate. ” I don’t see no African dances. I don’t see no watermelons gettin’ busted. Looks like there might be a few white people here today.”
With about 150 anti-Klan protesters, 50 Klan supporters and only two dozen police officers, the numbers didn’t favor a peaceful ending to the demonstration.
In the distance there was a rumble and pretty soon a jet black Ford Bronco appeared that housed 1,000 watts and a 12-speaker stereo system that was more than enough to drown out any slurs the KKK could bellow out through a $15.99 bullhorn. The Bronco pulled up as close as the crowd would allow. From the truck emerged a 6’3″ 290-pound man who spoke no words. He was calm and carried a sign that simply read: GO AWAY KKK!
That man was Jerome Brown.
The anti-Klan protesters erupted in cheers as Brown worked his way through the crowd urging people to stay cool and orderly. Jerome would make it far enough to stand face to face with the hooded adversaries who tortured, maimed and hung many Black men just like him. There were no words spoken, Just a man, his sign and his hometown at his back. On that day Jerome Brown claimed Brooksville, Florida as his…forever.
The news of Jerome Brown’s death shook the NFL. In Philadelphia, there was a feeling of great sadness as the sports community lost another young athlete not in his prime. The Flyers had lost all-star goalie Pelle Lindbergh to a car accident in 1985, and of course Philly native and NBA prospect Hank Gathers in 1990.
The Eagles were weeks away from training camp and most weren’t sure if football would be an elixir or a constant reminder that Brown isn’t here anymore.
Before any of those things could take place, the Miami Hurricanes, Philadelphia Eagles and Brooksville, Florida had to say goodbye to Jerome and his nephew Gus Brown
Bring it home for Jerome
The 1992 season would get underway and the Eagles would keep Jerome’s locker untouched as they dedicated the season to him. There were several plays that stood out during this season but none exemplified Jerome Brown more than the Eagles goal line stand against the then-Phoenix Cardinals at Veterans Stadium.
As the Eagles stopped the Cardinals short on seven consecutive plays, you got the feeling that there was an extra push coming through the middle for the Birds.
Reggie and the Eagles come through
The Eagles would defeat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wildcard but fell to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional round. The defeat brought an end to a dream of winning a Super Bowl and one of the great stories in the team lore. As free agency entered the NFL it meant the break up of one of the best units in NFL history as players used one last move of defiance against owner Norman Braman. Wherever these Eagles landed they remained unified in their love and admiration for Jerome Brown.
The legacy of Jerome Brown lives in the great defensive tackles that emerged from the University of Miami program over the years. Players like Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Warren Sapp and Vince Wilfork. It lives in the fans of the Philadelphia Eagles who remember Jerome fondly through smiling tears. Finally the legacy of Jerome Brown rests in the Brooksville Community Center that bears his name. Although none of the children that benefit from the center will ever meet the man who stood toe to toe with the KKK back in 1988, they can be inspired by the life that Jerome Brown led.