Football isn't a street fight, but try telling that to the Ravens' crushing offensive tackle
By David Fleming
It happened almost 10 years ago. But the moment is still so fresh in Orlando Brown's mind that when he tells the story, he peers down at his open palms as if he were expecting to see blood on them, and he sucks in a chestful of air as if the smells were still lingering around him. Brown was in 10th grade, hanging on a street corner in his native Washington, D.C., when the boy standing next to him was shot in the head and instantly killed.
"When someone gets shot like that, their body just goes totally limp and sort of folds over right onto itself," says Brown, lowering his face and shaking his head slowly. "Brains and blood go everywhereand they have a terrible smell."
He still can't be certain that the bullet wasn't meant for him. When you grow up in the war zone that is northeast D.C., you can't be sure about much. Brown, 26, a right offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, has been driven by that nagging doubtand by other horrifying events, like the time he watched gang members shoot up the casket at his 14-year-old cousin's funeralalmost every day of his life. And it is this force, along with the guidance of his sweet and stubborn mother, Catherine, that propelled him out of the inner city. It transformed him from a raw, undrafted small-college lineman into a sculpted 6'7", 340-pound blocker with a million-dollar bank account who is now on the verge of going to the Pro Bowl.
Brown wasn't even invited to his firstand onlyworkout following his relatively undistinguished career at South Carolina State. In 1993, Scott Pioli, then a scout for Cleveland, was on campus to work out a defensive back when Brown, who was nicknamed Zeus by his mother, stepped into Pioli's face and announced he would be joining them. When Pioli said no, Brown asked again and again until Pioli relented. Although Brown had next to no technique, his combination of size, power and quick feet astounded the scout. "I knew I had to do something to make him remember me," recalls Brown. "So I got down in my stance and I hit [Pioli] as hard as I could, and he fell back on his butt and slid about 10 feet on the floor. He got up and asked me my name. And then he told me to never do that again. The next play I did it again, only harder."
Brown, who in 1993 had declined a $400,000 offer from the World Wrestling Federation to seek his fortune in football, made an impression. But he didn't make the team until a workout in Cleveland a few weeks later in front of then coach Bill Belichick. "They asked me to pass-block and, well, I didn't know how," says Brown. "So I did what I do best. I tried to crush somebody." That person was the Browns' assistant equipment manager, J.J. Miller, who, because of a lack of available bodies, was filling in on defense by holding a blocking dummy. Brown ran him into the ground and broke his shoulder. "And for the rest of that year, I couldn't get any new socks, no new shoes, nothing. J.J. never forgot what I did," he says. "But I asked Bill later at what point he decided to keep me, and he said, 'After you broke J.J.'s shoulder, you were officially on the team.'"
Brown spent his entire rookie year on injured reserve with a hurt shoulder of his own. The season wasn't wasted, though. Seven days a week, for eight hours a day beginning at 5:30 a.m., Brown was torn down and rebuilt into an NFL lineman by strength coach Jerry Simmons and former Cleveland assistant line coach Pat Hill. "What we did to him that year was absolutely unmerciful," says Simmons. "And every day he looked me in the eye and begged me, seriously, to help him get better because he didn't want to go back to D.C. For him it was a do-or-die situation."
Brown ran hills, watched endless film of the ideal blocking form of Rams tackle Jackie Slater, worked on his flexibility until he screamed in agony and learned the offense by lining up plastic chairs to represent defenders. And since then Brown, one of the biggest and strongest linemen in the league (he can squat 1,000 pounds), has tossed most opponents aside as if they were made of plastic.
Brown says that the first time Belichick put him into a preseason game, against the Giants in 1994, he knew only one running playroll 34 rightso they rolled right five times in a row. And five times in a row Brown pancaked his man. He started Cleveland's final eight games that year and turned in a dominating performance against future Hall of Famer Reggie White. With Zeus on the loose, the Browns that year gave up a team-record-low 14 sacks and increased their rushing average by 25 yards per game. "Guys like White, Neil Smith, William Fuller," Brown says, "I've beat up the best."
Brown signed a four-year, $1.35 million per year deal in 1995; now he anchors the Ravens' line. And he's gone from the ghetto for good. He recently designed and built a 5,800-square-foot home, just down the road from Cal Ripken in Hunt Valley, a suburb of Baltimore. About the only place his past bubbles to the surface is on the field. There he's still a kid, afraid that if he misses one assignment he'll be cut and, as he says, sent home "to be killed or jailed." So he plays and practices with a violent abandon unmatched in the league. Hill says, "He's got one hell of a mean streak. There were times when I thought he might kill someone out there."
"I take my pass sets just like a fight on the street," says Brown, who is now one of the Ravens' seven captains. "That's how I play the game. I'm gonna punch you everywhere I can, from your stomach to your neck to your face. And if you touch my quarterback, even if you just bump him after a play, I'm gonna kill you the rest of the game."
Brown speaks these words while standing on peach-colored carpet near the giant bay window of his new home. The window looks out on a field of meticulously groomed grass and shrubs. Contrasts between his two lives are all around him now. His mother used to work four jobs so she could afford to buy him sneakers. Now, the crates of shoes that Nike sends him sit in his giant garage, untouched in their plastic wrappers.
Brown worries aloud about Catherine, whom he can't persuade to leave D.C. He wants his parents to come and live in this house with him, together with his fiancee, Mira Evans, their one-year-old son, Orlando Jr. (already 45 pounds) and the child they are expecting in October. But Catherine just won't budge.
"I'll convince her sooner or later," he says, gazing out the window. "It just takes time, believe me, to realize that this is home now."