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What's Eating Gilbert Brown?

Nothing much. In fact, it's the Packers' nosetackle who's consuming everything in sight, especially running backs

by Austin Murphy

Posted: Wed January 21, 1998

A few minutes after nine last Friday morning, some of the Green Bay Packers were getting cranky. Breakfast was late. At five after the hour, Gilbert Brown ambled into the locker room bearing three big sacks of sausage sandwiches.

"Running a little behind today," chided strong safety LeRoy Butler, dipping his hand into one of the sacks.

"I'm so hungry I can't see straight," said rookie defensive tackle Jermaine Smith, likewise helping himself.

"They don't say thanks," said Brown, one of the NFL's best nosetackles, shaking his head with mock exasperation as a parade of his teammates dropped by his stall to avail themselves of the free grub. "They just take."

Gilbert Brown To Brown, who stands 6'2" and is listed at 345 pounds—the last time he weighed 345, truth be told, the NFL had 28 teams—food is love. This Friday-morning sandwich drop is not to be confused with Brown's Monday-afternoon handouts: dozens of Gilbertburgers. The Gilbertburger, available at the Burger King on Oneida Street, near Lambeau Field, comes with twice the trimmings of a normal Double Whopper but no pickles. Like Brown, it is gigantic. Like Brown, it occludes.

By thrusting himself like a monkey wrench into the cogs of opposing interior lines, by occupying up to three blockers at a time, by destroying plays before they get started, Brown, 26, makes it easier for his defensive teammates to flow unimpeded to the ball. In addition to providing them with two meals a week, he fattens their statistics.

Nicked throughout a regular season in which he played in just over 36% of the defensive snaps—Brown missed two games in the first half of the season with a strained right knee and a bruised hip, and two more in December with a badly sprained right ankle—he has enjoyed better health in the playoffs.

There is no denying that those injuries have cost Brown some stamina. Despite the fact that his fitness level is less than optimal, and that his effectiveness wanes late in games, Brown is still the biggest reason, literally and figuratively, that right now the defending Super Bowl champions are playing their best defense of the last two years.

How long has Brown been fetching breakfast for his teammates? "Since I got here five years ago," he says. "Want a sandwich?"

This kindness is at odds with the image Brown seems determined to cultivate. His first response when a reporter approaches is to scowl. He owes his nickname, the Gravedigger, to his habit of shoveling imaginary dirt on opponents after big plays. The Darth Vader eye shield on his helmet lends Brown additional menace. As a run stuffer, he is unsurpassed. As a bad man, he is a transparent fraud.

"We call him a big teddy bear," says his mother, Ann Brown. Gilbert ran the 100- and 200-yard dashes at Detroit's MacKenzie High, and much has been made of his speed. Not as well known is the fact that he honed that speed while being chased home from elementary school by bullies. Recalls Ann, "He'd fall in the door and say, 'Hey, Mom, can I have some chips?'"

So severe was the Gravedigger's homesickness as an NFL rookie that he would leave his final meeting on Monday afternoon and drive eight hours to Detroit just to spend his day off at home. Ann was concerned about his driving 16 hours by himself. But when she tried to dissuade him from continuing to come, she recalls, "He'd start looking all pitiful"—lower lip trembling, she does a spot-on impersonation of Gilbert on the verge of tears—"and I'd say, 'O.K., O.K., come on home.'"

A widebody and a homebody, he is never so much at ease as when he is with his mother and four siblings. Ann and Leroy Brown met while students at Bluefield (W.Va.) State College. After a hitch in the navy and a stint as a coal miner, Leroy settled in Detroit, where he worked an assembly-line job for Chrysler and indulged his taste for muscle cars.

Gilbert Brown Gilbert's taste sometimes runs to ultra-hip suits topped off by like-colored bowlers. The ensembles fairly shout, Am I bad or am I bad? MacKenzie football coach Bob Dozier recalls his shock the day the usually bashful Brown cast off his inhibitions. At a show in the auditorium the spring of his senior year, Brown, who weighed 280 pounds at the time, appeared onstage slathered with baby oil, carrying a cane and clad only in tight shorts, a cape, top hat and sunglasses. To the strains of a funk song, he doffed everything but the shorts and struck a series of bodybuilder poses while working toward his finale, a biceps-rippling, Hulk Hogan-esque full crab at the front edge of the stage. "People were on their feet, girls were throwing money at him," recalls Dozier. "The place went nuts."

Some thought Brown was nuts to choose Kansas over Michigan, but he preferred the more relaxed pace of Lawrence. He started nine games as a freshman and was joined on the defensive line the next year by Dana Stubblefield, now with the San Francisco 49ers. Little wonder that two seasons after that, Kansas led the Big Eight in run defense and improved to 8-4 from 3-7-1 two years earlier.

Even though Brown ran a 4.9 40 (sans pads) at Kansas—astoundingly brisk for a 300-plus pounder—his coaches there sought to streamline him. To little avail. Despite taking his meals at the Jayhawks' so-called lettuce table, reserved for players deemed to have weight problems, Brown baffled his coaches by adding poundage. It was his custom, as it turned out, to return to his room after dinner and order a large pizza.


Issue date: January 26, 1998

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