BEFORE cellphones, before the Internet, it was on a Thursday evening exactly 20 years ago when the phone hanging on the kitchen wall began to ring. It was the office. Jerome Brown was dead.
You do this job long enough and you become numb to stuff. The news is bad, yes, but an impending deadline becomes the most powerful anesthetic. You gather your thoughts for a few minutes, if you have a few minutes, and then you start typing. There isn't any other way.
That night was one of the hardest, though. It is easy to remember the feeling, even after all this time. No one is ever ready for that kind of news, especially about someone you have covered pretty closely for 5 years: the Eagles' 27-year-old defensive tackle and a nephew, dead in a Corvette, dead in a one-car accident at high speed, wrapped around a utility pole.
There was all of the shock because this huge man with a matching, playful personality was gone. The guy was just so much fun. It was impossible to forget the day this big kid of a man brought a new leather briefcase into the locker room and, when asked about it, half-proudly and half-conspiratorially unlatched it to reveal the full setup for a portable bar. There were dozens of moments like that, at least a couple of which are printable.
But it was more than just the personal shock. This might be the subsequent years talking, more than the memory of that horrible night, but everyone sensed the loss of not just a man, but of a rollicking era and all of its attendant possibilities.
As it turned out, the greatest defense in the franchise's memory — assembled by Buddy Ryan, coaxed into the best season we have ever seen after his firing by defensive coordinator Bud Carson — went on to win only one playoff game. It was in New Orleans, in January of 1993. The team dressed that day in a locker room that included a stall dedicated to Brown's memory, filled with his No. 99 jersey and other mementos and stuff he had left behind.
Ryan got fired, Jerome died, Reggie left in free agency, fin. The bracketing there is perfect, too, because Jerome loved Buddy's rambunctious leadership and Reggie forever worked to tame Jerome.
Two things happened at the end of the 1990 season. First, Ryan got fired after a third consecutive failure to win a playoff game. That was not exactly a shock, given the hints that had been dropping from owner Norman Braman. Buddy had pushed the envelope past tearing in some ways and everyone knew it. The day he was fired, talking to writers in his office, the great defensive mastermind and motivator summed up his worldview in one earthy sentence: "Three playoff games, the offense couldn't piss a drop."
So, there was the firing. Then came the aftermath, when management got its revenge in an Inquirer story, painting Ryan's team as a bunch of out-of-control renegades and indicating that Jerome was the poster child, leading wild and raucous high-stakes card games on team flights and leaving tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid gambling debts to his teammates.
When the story came out, Brown was legitimately dismayed by it. He said the money part was exaggerated by a factor of at least 10, and that nobody on the team paid up anyway, but it was more than that. Days earlier, he had played a great game in the 1990 wild-card playoffs against Washington despite having a separated shoulder. My memory is that he said something like, "I took 12 shots [of painkillers] to play in that game," and he did not understand why the club had turned him into a villain. He wasn't mad — he was hurt.
The incident grew him up very quickly. Brown became much more serious, almost overnight. He turned into one of the guys a reporter could go to for comment — for actual adult perspective — when things were not going well for the team. He was still Jerome — the guy who, when talking about what the Pro Bowl meant to him, said, "More money, more money, more money, more money, more money" — but there was a maturity that was clearly growing.
And then he died.
Jerome had always been more complicated than his hilarious profanity. He was a kid who once stood up against the Ku Klux Klan at a rally in his hometown. Visiting his home in Brooksville, Fla., on the day after the Eagles drafted him, his father told a story about the time he had to tell Jerome to get tougher on a day when racists were taunting him at a baseball game and he wanted to quit.
There always was something there, beneath the laughter. But you usually were too busy laughing along with him to notice.
Just a couple of months before he died, he bemoaned the fact that he wasn't going to be able to play much past the age of 30 with his body. (Note: We used to think of 6-2 and 292 pounds as big.) But, he said brightly, he had his retirement all mapped out.
"I'm going to get up to about 450 pounds," he said. ‘‘I'm going to get myself a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, a big stogie and a white Caddy. And I'm just going to go down there every day and check on my chickens.”
None of it happened, of course.