Twenty years later, Brown's death still seems impossible
It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the death of Jerome Brown. It was June 25, 1992, when he died in a car crash in his hometown of Brooksville, Fla. He was just 27 years old.
I still remember hearing the news. I was covering the U.S. Olympic track trials in New Orleans. A reporter from a Florida newspaper pulled me aside in the press box and said there was an unconfirmed report that Brown was involved in a fatal accident. He asked what I had heard.
I was stunned. I called the sports desk at the Philadelphia Daily News and no one there had heard anything. I thought it was just an ugly rumor. A few minutes later, the editor called back. “It’s true,” he said. “The story just moved on the wire.”
I don’t remember much about those track trials. It was all a blur after that. All I could think about was Jerome Brown being gone and how impossible it seemed.
He was coming off his best season in 1991. He led the NFL’s defensive tackles in solo stops (88) and ranked near the top in quarterback sacks (nine). He made the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year and helped the Eagles defense finish first overall.
Like many of his teammates, Brown was still burning over the dismissal of head coach Buddy Ryan the previous year and played the 1991 season to prove a point. He worked harder and dropped 30 pounds, which improved his stamina and quickness. He also got a tighter grip on his emotions.
“It took me four years to get my priorities in place,” Brown said. “I don’t take stuff for granted the way I used to. I guess I’m maturing.”
He laughed and said, “Either that or I’m just getting old, like Reggie (White).”
Brown’s image, built over an All-America career at the University of Miami and five seasons with the Eagles, was one of a brash and mouthy mauler, long on talent but short on discipline. He swaggered and swore and played the game with a fuse that burned fast and hot (see Reuben Frank's story)
Off the field, he lived the same way. He loved hot rods and loud music. He once told an interviewer: “I’m not the type of person you dare to do anything. If you say, ‘Don’t do it,’ it’s done.”
The last time I spoke to Brown was three months before his death. I was writing a story about the Eagles defensive line -- Brown, White, Clyde Simmons, Mike Pitts and Mike Golic. It was the best in the league and arguable one of the best ever.
I left a message on Brown’s answering machine. The next morning, the phone rang. It was Jerome calling from his car. I could barely hear him over the music blaring from his stereo. I shouted a few questions and he shouted back his answers. Finally, I asked if he could turn down the music.
“I did turn it down,” he said.
I asked about his scuffle at the Pro Bowl, a shoving match with Bruce Matthews, the Houston guard, which escalated into a mob scene with Jerome’s teammates – White, Simmons and linebacker Seth Joyner – rushing in to help.
“[Matthews] tried to make me look stupid,” Brown said. “I was standing next to a pileup and he tried to push me over it. The play was over. It was a cheap shot. What was I supposed to do?
“I went after him and the other guys jumped in. We’re like family; we stick together. After the game, some players said, ‘What’s this fighting stuff? This is the Pro Bowl. It’s just an exhibition, it’s not for real.’
“I said, ‘It’s a football game, right?’ They said yeah. I said, ‘Then it’s for real.’”
After Brown’s death, the Eagles kept his Veterans Stadium locker just the way he left it with his football shoes stacked on the floor and his shoulder pads and helmet resting on the shelf. His jersey was mounted in a silver frame and hung inside the stall. It stayed that way for the entire 1992 regular season.
It was impossible to walk past the locker and not hear the echo of his voice, his infectious laugh and playful taunts. His spirit remained. Guys talked about him almost every day.
When the Eagles went to New Orleans for the NFC wild card game that season, they brought Brown’s equipment and set it up in the locker next to White. Brown’s father, Willie, spoke to the team before the game. The Eagles defeated the Saints, 36-20, for their first road playoff win in 44 years.
“This one was for Jerome,” Joyner said afterwards.
No doubt it was.
When you talk to those players now, they agree Brown’s death was the beginning of the end of that era. A year later, White left for Green Bay, then others followed him out the door and soon all that remained were memories of a ferocious defense and thoughts of what-might-have-been.
Jerome Brown has been gone 20 years.
It doesn’t seem possible.E-mail Ray Didinger at firstname.lastname@example.org