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."
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 Gilbert-burger, 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.