HELLER: Children learn from Tom Brown, a mentor who’s been there and done that

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Tom Brown starred in football at the University of Maryland, started the 1963 season at first base for the expansion Senators and spent five seasons as a defensive back with Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Yet his biggest athletic achievement might be continuing right now as Brown, 71, directs unique youth sports programs in Salisbury, Md.

Putting it most simply, he runs Tom Brown’s Rookie League for boys and girls aged 6-12 who play baseball, flag football and basketball under his watchful eye. Parents and coaches are not the focus. Neither, heretically, is victory.

“When you and I were kids, we’d just find an empty field, choose up sides and play,” says Brown, who has been working with youngsters since 1974. “Now with many coaches and parents, it’s all about winning. Just look at ESPN and its coverage of the Little League World Series.”

How laid-back is sports under Brown’s gentle hand? When an 8-year-old brought along his 6-year-old brother one day, the younger boy asked Brown if he could umpire.

“Maybe,” Tom replied. “How loudly can you say safe or out?”

Usually, Brown is the only umpire or referee. Sometimes in basketball, he’ll pretend he didn’t see a play and ask who was the last player to touch the ball before it went out of bounds.

“You know what?” he says. “Almost always, a kid will stick up his hand and say, ‘It was me, coach.’ “

We’ve all heard horror stories about parents going bonkers and committing ill-tempered and perhaps illegal acts during youth games. During Brown’s activities, adults are asked to sit, enjoy the games and not worry about their offspring making mistakes.

The whole idea is for the children to enjoy playing, regardless of how successful they are. In all sports, players rotate positions, and nobody sits. There are no stars or benchwarmers. In fact, individual stats aren’t even kept. Most parents respond as positively as their kids.

“We are so grateful to have our son in your basketball league,” one mother emailed Brown. “You are having such a positive effect on his self-esteem. [His] ADHD matters less to him on the court.”

Brown knows all about the ups and downs of sports. As a rookie with the Senators, he bashed the ball so hard in spring training that President John F. Kennedy, upon being invited to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day, replied, “I’ll only come if that kid from Maryland starts at first base.” Unfortunately, Brown batted .147 in 61 games. The following year, he joined the Packers and started on Lombardi teams that won two Super Bowls.

After following Lombardi to the Redskins in 1969, Brown sustained a shoulder injury that ended his career. Lombardi always told his players, “You’re not going to play football forever. Find something you’re good at and make a niche for yourself.” So Brown did.

Participation in Tom Brown’s Rookie League costs $170 for 20 sessions spread over 10 weeks. But, he says, no applicant is turned down and scholarships are available.

“We’re an instant gratification society,” says Brown’s son Jimmy, a teacher and assistant coach at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, “but there’s nothing like Dad’s program. I brought my 5-year-old son to a game. At first he was a little nervous, but the atmosphere was so warm that soon he was playing against 7- and 8-year-olds and having a great time. All the problems with youth sports are out of the equation.”

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