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Shall We Dance?
Leigh Montville
December 06, 1999
When Cincinnati's John Copeland and Cleveland's Orlando Brown collide on Dec. 12, it will be the 10th time these Goliaths have performed their violent minuet in the trenches
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December 06, 1999

Shall We Dance?

When Cincinnati's John Copeland and Cleveland's Orlando Brown collide on Dec. 12, it will be the 10th time these Goliaths have performed their violent minuet in the trenches

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Copeland remembers the first time he saw Brown come onto the field, as a late-game replacement in 1994. Even in a league filled with big people Brown is eye-poppingly large. "I said, 'What is that?' " Copeland says. "He was so big, and I didn't know anything about him. He wasn't very good, really. Just all emotion. When he was pass-blocking, you could make one move on him and get by. The emotion was working against him. I don't know who worked with him, but they've done a good job. He's become a good football player."

Before Oct. 10 the two men had faced each other eight times. The defensive statistics were a rough gauge of Brown's improvement. In their first four meetings Copeland had 18 tackles, 16 unassisted. In the next four he had eight tackles, seven unassisted. (Nonetheless, Brown's team won the first four games. Copeland's team won three of the next four.)

Copeland said he had played against Brown so many times that he would watch less film before the Cleveland game than he would if he were facing a less familiar opponent. The film sessions mostly would be a refresher course. How many times do you have to watch The Godfather to know exactly when the horse's head will appear in the bed? Copeland knew what to expect.

"Orlando is a smash-mouth," Copeland said. "I think of him as one of the old Green Bay Packers offensive linemen: Get down in the mud and play hard-nosed football. There are other guys who try to finesse you. They just want to move you a little bit to another spot. Orlando wants to take you on. I like to play against a guy who says, 'Come on, let's go. I'll beat you, or you'll beat me. We're going to bang all day until one of us gets tired of banging.' I can't sit there and muscle this guy. He's too big. I have to use my speed on him a lot. I have to try to outsmart him. I don't want to hurt anybody, but I do want to cause some pain. The ball is snapped, and for those five or six seconds we're at war."

The only time Copeland has seen Brown has been on the field. They never have bumped into each other at a Super Bowl, at a nightclub, in an airport lounge. Even if they did, Copeland does not think there would be much conversation. He never has had a real conversation with anyone he has played against. Talk with an opponent? The way they do in the NBA? Or golf? Be his friend? This seems almost impossible.

Copeland doesn't even have much conversation with the offensive linemen on his own team. They are creatures of another species, with different styles and smiles. Why would you want to be their friend?

"In training camp it's the worst," Copeland says. "They're definitely the enemy. You can barely sit down to dinner with them. [Offensive guard] Ken Blackman and I used to fight every day in camp. Ken Blackman thinks he's a tough guy, and I wasn't going to let him tough-guy me. So every time we were matched against each other, we had a fight. Then we took showers in the same room."

The only talk with Brown on Oct. 10 was trash talk. Copeland remembers their fight of two years ago. Final game of the season, in Cincinnati. Copeland got inside Brown's head, calling him "a fat f—-" after every play, asking: "How come you can't handle someone who's so much smaller than you? Just a little guy?" He remembers Brown's rage.

"It's an an odd thing," Copeland says. "It's like you know the guy, but then again you don't know anything about him. I asked [Cleveland cornerback] Antonio Langham about Brown once. Langham went to college with me. Langham says Brown's cool. That's all I know, really. I guess they call him Zeus. Isn't that what they call him? Zeus?"

Zeus. Whatever.

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