To call it voice mail is to demean and cheapen it. For these were not phone messages so much as extemporaneous odes, prose poems to a muse. Sherice Weaver would return to her office after her lunch break, listen to her messages and then gather her female colleagues, who would hear the voice of her fiancé, Tim Brown. A typical recording: "Hello, my love. Just called to tell you that I missed you, that I thank the Lord every day for sending such a wonderful woman into my life."
And so forth. When the message was finished, Sherice's friends would sigh and say, "He can't be real." One day, after hearing the latest of Tim's rhapsodies, one of Sherice's colleagues was moved to tears. "Oh, Sherice," she blubbered. "He loves you so much."
Now it can be told: Brown, 31, the Oakland Raiders' Pro Bowl flanker, has a romantic streak the width of Lincoln Kennedy, the team's immense offensive tackle. Bully for Brown. It is not enough for him to be one of the top five receivers in football. It is not enough for him to be the owner of an apparel company, to drive a black Porsche and have a walk-in closet full of killer threads; to be bright and funny and possessed of a face and body that would not be out of place in a Calvin Klein underwear ad. Brown, apparently, will not be happy until the significant other of every man in America turns to her partner and says, reproachfully, "I wish you could be as romantic as Tim Brown."
The Browns, who celebrated their first anniversary on June 21, are expecting a child this summer. By making it past the one-year mark, Sherice and Tim have exceeded the longevity of former Raiders coach Joe Bugel, who was fired in January after one disastrous 4-12 season. Around that time Brown also flirted with the idea of departing. Though he had tied Detroit Lions wideout Herman Moore for the league lead with 104 receptions and had played in his seventh Pro Bowl, he had become so weary of Oakland's underachieving and the meddling of owner Al Davis that "for a minute there," he says, "I didn't think I would be coming back."
Brown had the option of voiding the remaining years on his contract. In February, however, after careful reflection, he decided to stick with the team for which he has gained 8,588 receiving yards and played his entire 10-year NFL career. "To leave after last season, I would have felt like a dog leaving a fight with his tail between his legs," Brown says.
Clean-cut, well-spoken, sports editor of the school newspaper at Dallas's Woodrow Wilson High and a Notre Dame graduate who won the 1987 Heisman Trophy, Brown has always been a bit anomalous as a Raider, a choirboy among Crips. Davis, the leader of the Raiders gang, has long provided a home for the NFL's wayward souls. The problem is that of late, his mercenaries have tended to pack it in when the going got tough. Oakland dropped eight of its last nine games in '97, after which Brown publicly suggested that former Raiders coach and Hall of Fame offensive tackle Art Shell be rehired to replace Bugel. "We needed someone who commanded respect from the moment he walked in the room," says Brown. "Art could do that with his size alone."
Despite the lobbying by his star receiver, Davis hired as his new coach the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator, 34-year-old wunderkind Jon Gruden, who graciously dismisses Brown's backing of Shell as a nonissue. Citing his coaching experiences with the Eagles and the Green Bay Packers, Gruden says, "Wherever I've been, the flanker's been my best buddy. In Green Bay it was Sterling Sharpe, in Philly it was Irving Fryar." After three minicamps Brown is sold on Gruden, or Groo, as he is wont to call him over the phone, as in, "Yo, Groo, what's going on?" During mini-camp Brown was encouraged by Gruden's hands-on teaching of the club's new offense. The system bears a suspicious resemblance to the West Coast offense, though none of the Raiders would dare to so dub it, considering the scheme's association with their loathed cross-Bay rivals, the San Francisco 49ers.
"It's the Silver and Black Attack," says onetime Niners assistant Gruden, who stood across the line of scrimmage from Brown at the minicamps and showed him how defensive backs would react in certain situations. "I liked that," says Brown, "even though I had to rough him up a little, knock him down a couple times, just to show him he's with the Raiders now."
Brown is speaking inside a trailer—a Starwagon, to be precise—across from Lot 21 at Universal Studios in Burbank, Calif. Brown and some other NFL players were there last week to shoot a candy bar commercial set up by Players Inc, the licensing and marketing arm of the NFL Players Association. He is gazing at a TV between takes when the Starwagon becomes markedly more crowded. "What's up, Timmy?" says 243-pound Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, entering, then making himself at home in the trailer of his fellow Golden Domer. The conversation turns to the curious way the Raiders have always used Brown.
"They wait until they're down 10, 14 points, then they say, 'Let's get Timmy in the game,' " says Bettis. It is Brown's contention that while other receivers of his caliber have game plans built around them, he has been, for much of his career, a FEMA receiver—someone to go to in case of emergency. Shouts Bettis, "See, Timmy, they don't want you to be the superstar that you need to be, the superstar that you are!" If that sounds ridiculous, considering that Brown has gained more than 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last five seasons, listen to Jeff Hostetler, who quarterbacked the Raiders from 1993 to '96 and now backs up Gus Frerotte for the Washington Redskins. "I had to fight to get Timmy the ball," says Hoss. "The entire time I was there, I was told to throw elsewhere."