- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gene Stallings, the first but hardly the last of Ray Brown’s NFL coaches, was asked what he remembered about his former player. Stallings said Brown was a great person who eventually became a good player. Then he asked, “What’s he doing right now?”

Right now, Stallings was told, Brown is completing his 20th professional season. He is a reserve offensive lineman with the Washington Redskins, his second incarnation with the club.

“He’s still playing?” Stallings said, clearly excited by this piece of news, his rumbling Texas drawl rising on the telephone. He laughed heartily. “That tickles me. Oh, my. Lord have mercy.”

Mercy? Stallings dispensed little of it. During Brown’s first preseason with the then-St. Louis Cardinals in 1986, Stallings, a first-year coach, told his rookie offensive tackle his game needed some work. Actually, he called Brown a “quarterback killer.” At 6-foot-5, he barely weighed 240 pounds, an eighth-round draft pick from Arkansas State who played primarily tight end in a wishbone offense. Today Brown would have been passed over because the draft is seven rounds.

“I couldn’t even bench 300 pounds,” Brown said. “I was just a piece of clay. I carried that big old word: ‘potential.’ ”

Brown bulked up, learned quickly and eventually started a few games at guard for the Cardinals by the end of the season. Still, he was merely a temp. He was waived during training camp the next year, then re-signed. He accompanied the team to Arizona in 1988 but played little. He signed with the Redskins as a free agent in 1989.

“I do remember this,” Stallings said. “I thought his football was ahead of him.”

Two decades worth, it turned out. Brown’s long career is an astonishing feat to anyone who understands the rigors of the game, the offseason work needed and the two-a-days, the constant physical and mental assaults.

“It’s a great accomplishment to make 10 years, let alone double that,” said Redskins tackle Jon Jansen, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon and has played much of this season with two broken thumbs.

Said tackle Chris Samuels: “I know how my body feels after six years. So looking at Ray, he has to be a special breed.”

Added center Casey Rabach: “Whatever he’s got, I want some.”

ESPN commentator Mark Schlereth, a linemate of Brown’s with the Redskins in the early 1990s whose career was ended by injuries, said, “In football years, he’s older than Methuselah. Every time I see him I shake my head. Can you believe that guy is still playing? It’s amazing. Just amazing.”

Brown, who will turn 43 on Dec. 12, is the NFL’s oldest player. From 1993 through 2004, he started 187 of 192 regular-season games while playing three seasons with the Redskins, six in San Francisco (where he made the Pro Bowl in 2001), two in Detroit and last year back with the Redskins (when he filled in for Jansen).

There is some dispute whether Brown is the oldest active lineman since the 1920s or the 1940s, but it is safe to say he has been around a long time.

Just how long?

Brown began his career during the second Reagan administration. Pete Rozelle was NFL commissioner. Los Angeles had two teams. Arizona, Tennessee, Carolina, Jacksonville and Baltimore had none. The Cardinals played in St. Louis, the Titans in Houston as the Oilers. The Browns were 10 years from becoming the Ravens. Joe Gibbs was coaching the Redskins the first time around.

During Brown’s rookie season, a ground ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, and the Fox network was launched. Michael Jordan would wait more than five years for his first NBA championship. The Internet was a plaything of the super smart. Reality television meant news and sports. The words, “Paris Hilton,” “caramel frappuccino” and “boo-yah” were absent from the public discourse.

Nearly two decades later, almost 100 pounds heavier than in his quarterback-killing days, Leonard Ray Brown is still part of the NFL landscape. Since spending two years on injured reserve with the Redskins in 1990 and 1991, he has remained remarkably healthy, although not impervious to the damage all players endure. He had knee and ankle surgery during the past offseason.

“First and foremost, I’ve been blessed,” said Brown, who returns to where it all began for him when the Redskins play the Rams on Sunday in St. Louis. “I truly do believe that. Divine intervention. And coaches who have helped me and being in the right place at the right time.”

Luck has been a part of it, too, but Brown has tried to improve the odds through sheer effort and diligence. Inspired by wife Ashley, he took up the Pilates training regimen five years ago. One year, he got into bike riding. He used to run the hills near his former home in San Jose, Calif., and he lives in the weight room.

“I can’t sit around for too long,” he said. “I’m totally aware of my age. I try to add something new to my conditioning to keep it exciting.”

Long ago Brown figured the only way he would stick around was to outthink everyone else. Watch film, take notes.

“I knew that would get me on the field,” he said. When Steve Mariucci, who coached Brown in San Francisco and Detroit, was talking about a particularly studious player a few years ago, he said he was “like a Ray Brown.”

Brown to this day talks about how he missed the two seasons yet got to practice every day (the rules were different then) and what a valuable experience that proved to be.

“It gave me the opportunity to learn the game, to steal from some great players,” he said.

Life in the NFL presents more of a mental than a physical challenge, Jansen said, “and that’s what breaks guys down, the mental side of the game.” But it has never broken Brown down. Not only has he lasted this long, he remains good-humored and universally liked. At an age when a football player’s body long since has required new parts, Brown still walks with a spring in his step and a smile on his face, enjoying every day of his extended career.

“Ray is like a rookie when it comes to running around and stuff,” Redskins tight end Robert Royal said. “He’s always getting people pumped up. He’s one of those guys who’s first on the field, and he never walks. We don’t look at him as an old guy. That’s not what he is.”

It is hard to find someone, anyone, who does not like Ray Brown. Former Redskins defensive line coach Jim Hanifan recalls how when Brown left the club in 1996 after signing a lucrative free agent contract with San Francisco, he made sure to drop by Redskin Park and say goodbye to everyone, including and especially the secretaries and other support staffers.

“He’s a wonderful human being,” said Hanifan, now a Rams broadcaster. “It’s just obvious. I don’t know how many guys are nicer than Ray Brown. He’s just a class, class act.”

Brown was a tackle when he joined the Redskins and in his first game, replacing an injured Joe Jacoby, he held the all-world Reggie White to no sacks. But Hanifan knew Brown was better suited to playing guard, and the two worked relentlessly to make it happen.

“I kept telling him, ‘Wait for your time, wait for your time, things are gonna work out.’” Hanifan said.

When Jeff Bostic got hurt in 1992, guard Raleigh McKenzie moved to center and Brown replaced McKenzie.

“It was a beautiful thing to see him step onto the field,” Hanifan said. “I hated to see Jeff go down with an injury, but it afforded Ray an opportunity, and since then he’s never stopped.”

Brown grew up in Marion, Ark., a small town just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, and is old enough to have attended a segregated school. One of eight children, he is the son of the late Leonard Ray Brown Jr., a truck driver and church deacon, and Murdie Brown, who was a cafeteria worker and a housekeeper

“We were poor, but we were loved, as my mom says now,” he said.

Neither of his parents graduated from high school, but they made sure their children were educated. Brown was an honor student and class president.

“Pretty much a square, man,” he said. “What was important was not football but whether I could pass math.”

For fun, there was fishing and trips to Memphis. Football was a pastime, a hobby, just something to do. He was more into basketball and track.

But he was good at football, and Memphis State gave him a scholarship. He transferred to Arkansas State, a smaller school, after a year, but it wasn’t until he was drafted that he began to think he might be able to do this for awhile.

“I knew I could do something,” he said. “I guess it took me 20 years to find out what. It’s been a journey.”

Now, though, it appears about to end. Brown wants to explore other avenues and says this season will be it. Gibbs has said a job with the Redskins, in some capacity, is waiting. He also wants to be a full-time dad to his two young kids (he has three grown children by a previous marriage).

“There’s no more, man,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed myself. I’ve got a lot of working in my future. I think there will be opportunities for me in football, I would think. I’ll slap my resume around, and maybe somebody will tweak it and see where I would fit in.”

And what will he take away from 20 years in the game?

“The moments I’ve had with people. Moments with coaches. I’ve had some real good personal things told to me by people who are pretty powerful in this industry that I don’t necessarily have to share with anyone. But they make me feel good. And I’ll always love the competition. That’s why I’ve got to get into something else. To appease that.”

Meanwhile, Brown leaves 20 years of goodwill behind. His career “shows his remarkable character,” Hanifan said. “You have to have such passion for the game that it almost defies logic to put your body through all the things you have to do. … It’s a really amazing story.

“You look at Ray Brown, you talk about a guy who’s persevered. His work ethic and dedication has been above and beyond so many others. If everybody had that, gosh, you’d have something special.”

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