Friday, April 20, 2007

the Biggest Hitter | by Jay

The two captains for the Blue-Gold game are former Irish greats Ross Browner and Tony Rice. I was in school with Rice, so I have many fond memories of him running the option, darting between tacklers, and leading the Irish to so many great wins. But my recollection of Browner is much hazier; I remember shaking his hand after a pep rally in 1977, but I was only seven years old at the time. Here's a little retrospective we threw together; if you want, feel free to chime in with your firsthand memories of Ross Browner.

"I sat down with Ara and said, 'Coach, I really like dishing out the punishment.' He said, 'Well, defensive end will be your position.' "

-- Ross Browner, Notre Dame defensive end, 1973-1977

Where to start with Ross Browner? How about a quick glance at the trophy case:
  • Two-time consensus All-American ('76 & '77); one of only 16 Irish players to achieve that distinction
  • Won the Outland Trophy in '76
  • Won the Lombardi in '77
  • Won the Maxwell in '77
  • Finished fifth for the Heisman Trophy in '77 (The late, great Eddie Robinson said at the time: "Even though he came in fifth, he deserved to win it!")
  • Holds Irish record for most tackles by a defensive lineman in a career
  • Holds Irish record for most tackles for a loss by any Irish player in a career
  • Holds Irish record for most career fumble recoveries (12)
  • Would surely hold the record for most QB sacks, if the stat was recorded previous to 1982
  • Selected eighth overall in the NFL draft by the Bengals; played 10 years in the NFL
  • Selected to the College Football Hall of Fame
  • Named one of just three defensive ends (along with Jack Youngblood and Hugh Green) to the Sports Illustrated College "All-Century" Team
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Ross Browner: the best defensive lineman to ever play for Notre Dame, and arguably the greatest defensive player in the history of the Fighting Irish. If he's not number one, he's right up there. Ara Parsheghian summed up Browner: "I have to say that he's one of the finest defensive ends that I've ever coached. He had speed, he had quickness, he had size. He was a great competitor. And, he has a terrific personality." And with Browner's help, Notre Dame won two National Championships that bookended his career under the Dome.

Browner was one of those rare talents who was a superstar from the very beginning. He grew up in Warren, Ohio, and was heavily recruited by Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Penn State, but he loved Notre Dame:
When I went to Notre Dame I was really impressed with the players, guys like Eric Penick and Joe Theismann and Al Samuel and Wayne Bullock. I liked the coaches – Joe Yonto (Browner's position coach), Greg Blache, Coach (Ara) Parseghian. They really impressed me. They told me what a great university Notre Dame was, and that there was national TV and radio exposure. They said we'd play all over the country. That really interested me, that schedule. It was great that they weren't in a conference, and they didn't play just in one area. I loved the idea of playing in California, Texas. They took us everywhere...

Then I saw the campus and found out about the mystique and the spirit of the place, about Knute Rockne and Touchdown Jesus. I can remember meeting Father Hesburgh (university president) and Father Joyce (executive vice president) and (Athletic Director) Moose Krause and (SID) Roger Valdiserri. I can remember them saying, 'Ross, we'd love to have you here. It will be a great experience and it will provide you with a great opportunity.
Initially, he was recruited as a tight end by Ara, as the heir apparent to senior All-American Dave Casper. But Browner had so much natural ability the Irish needed to find a way to get him onto the field right away. And that suited Ross just fine. Ara: "Ross had just arrived on campus, but he played like he had been there for years. It was very apparent that this guy was going to be something special." Said Browner:
"When I arrived as a freshman (1973), I wasn't sure I could play. We had Steve Niehaus, he was like 6-5, 280, and Mike Fanning was 6-8, 260. There were a couple of other big guys. I was like, 'My goodness. I'm just a little, small thing.' I thought maybe I could be a kamikaze on the kickoff team and make some big hits and get noticed that way.

The only thing I did was pray and say 'God, make a direction for me and give me an opening, and I'll make it from there.' When Ara Parseghian saw our first scrimmage against the varsity, we were stuffing the offense and sacking them right and left. He said right then and there he was going to move some of us up to first team.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Browner started the first game of his freshman year against Northwestern. In the game he blocked a punt -- and broke the punter's leg.
"Ross got in there so fast and blocked a kick, and Northwestern's kicker broke his leg in the process," Parseghian recalled. "It was unfortunate that had to happen to the kicker, but that play made people realize how fast Ross was. He was unknown before that play."

Browner wasn't sure how the kicker's leg broke.

"I'm innocent," Browner joked, "but I do remember recovering that block for two points. I scored the first two points of our national championship season."
That '73 season turned out to be magical for Notre Dame; the Irish went undefeated, and a trio freshmen -- Browner, Luther Bradley and Willie Fry -- contributed mightily the Irish's dominance. Here's a video from the Southern Cal game of that year, featuring highlights of the fantastic frosh. Browner finished the season with 68 tackles, third-best on the team.

At the end of the season, Notre Dame squared off against powerhouse Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, prevailed in a nip-and-tuck 24-23 victory, and won the National Championship.

In the offseason came the first controversy of Browner's young career. Along with five other players, he was suspended from Notre Dame for a year for an incident involving a female student.
A female student alleged that Browner and five others -- including Browner's roommate Willie Fry and fellow All-America strong safety Luther Bradley -- raped her on campus. Since the woman refused to testify against the players, the case did not enter criminal court. The incident did, however, leave a cloud over the football program.
Ross spent the suspension year in Indianapolis as a construction worker. He kept in shape at a health club, and with Parseghian's backing returned to ND the following summer.
Parseghian backed his players and kept them from being expelled for good, although he didn't condone their actions.

"I fought hard for those kids," Parseghian said. "I didn't believe that a kid 18, 19 years old should have his whole life and career destroyed. I thanked Father Hesburgh for being compassionate.

"There's no question that Ross made a mistake, although he was not paramount in the incident," Parseghian added. "I've always said that it's not the first mistake that you make. It's the one you repeat."

Throughout the ordeal, Browner maintained his innocence.

"My parents said I could leave school if I wanted to, but I stuck around because I did nothing wrong," said Browner, who worked and lived in Indianapolis during the one-year suspension. "I did make a mistake by being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Browner was the first in a line of fantastic football-playing brothers. Two of Browner's brothers, Jim and Willard, followed Ross to Notre Dame. "That was a great thrill to be able to play alongside my brothers at Notre Dame," says Browner. "I was very proud of my brothers, especially since I was the oldest." The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Younger brothers Keith and Joey starred at Southern Cal, and all of the brothers but Willard went on to careers in the NFL. No other family has put more players into the NFL than the Browners.

By the 1976 season, Jimmy had joined Ross in the starting lineup at strong safety. Willard was seeing extensive playing time at fullback. The brothers were inseparable on campus, with Jim & Ross rooming together and Willard living nearby. When Ross won the Bengal Bouts his junior year in the superheavyweight division, beating All-American tight end Ken MacAfee in front of 7,000 at the JACC, brother Jimmy, a karate black belt and former Gold Gloves boxer was his corner man.

If Browner was a budding star his freshman year, by his junior year he had arrived as the best defensive lineman in college football. He led the team in tackles both his junior and senior year, and terrorized opposing backfields. In 1977, Browner and the Irish went 10-1, but ended up as big underdogs in the Cotton Bowl against #1 Texas. Said Browner:
I think we were ranked No. 5 going into the Cotton Bowl to play No. 1 Texas. That was Earl Campbell and (Johnny) 'Lam' Jones and (Johnny) 'Ham' Jones. One thing that sparked us for that game was how we felt like we were treated like second-class citizens down there. At the ceremony where bowl officials were giving out the watches, we were sitting up in the balcony and Texas was on the main floor. Anytime we went around Dallas people were like, 'Why did you guys show up? We're undefeated.' We got so fired up for that game. We were determined to win. Earl had won the Heisman and he had a pretty good game, but we kept him running east and west and he had no touchdowns.
The Irish routed the Longhorns, 38-10, and Browner had his second National Championship.

After a nice, ten-year NFL career, Browner owned several successful businesses, and in 2005 he moved to Nashville to become vice president of corporate/community development for Backfield In Motion, an academic and athletic program for inner-city youth.
"When I got here, I was very pumped up about what they're doing for inner-city boys. I wanted to be a part of it. I want to make sure they don't do the wrong things in life. There are too many prisons filled with them. We try to help the kids keep an awareness of education, life skills and academics. And we teach them the game of football. It has been a great sport for me and tremendous in my life."

Here's a '77 highlight reel with some excellent clips of Browner in action (provided by our buddy T.J., who also has lots of ND clips in the BGS video vault):

Watching those highlights, you get the distinct feeling that Browner versus the Offensive Line was an unfair fight. Browner didn't just shed blockers, he simply disregarded them, swatting them away like a petty annoyance on the way to tackling the ball carrier. There's more than one clip in that reel where you have to strain to even identify who the blocker was; Browner engulfs his man, moving over him, and exploding to make the tackle on Campbell or whomever. Although he was a big guy (6-5, 270), he wasn't much bigger than scores of contemporary players. And yet he appears like a giant among the little people, all long legs and massive frame, pushing through a double team, running down a quarterback, pouncing on a loose fumble. He played with a tunnel vision, like there were only two players on the field who mattered: the ball carrier -- and Ross Browner. An unfair fight indeed.