"the worst thing a guy ever did to me on the field was grab my testicles," Brown says. "I think it was number 74 of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Nolan Harrison. I was run-blocking. I came up on him hard, and he grabbed my testicles. I never had seen anything like that. He wouldn't let go. He was squeezing. I was so mad, just driving him. I said he was going down! When he let go, though, I dropped to the ground. Dropped. He could have beat the s—- out of me right there. I was helpless. When I finally got back up, I was screaming at him. I said, 'You're gay! You're gay as s—- !' He apologized, but I wanted to kill him."
The game is one long scuffle to Brown. That is the part he enjoys. He doesn't particularly like football, the larger game. The scuffles are what drew him to the sport. He is very good in scuffles. "My mother didn't allow me to fight at first as a kid, but I was brought up in Washington, D.C., and my junior high school principal convinced her that fighting was all right," Brown says. "The principal told her, 'Mrs. Brown, this boy, to survive here, has got to fight. If he doesn't fight, they will make a punk out of him.' My mother, she's from South Carolina, had never heard of something like this. But she finally said, 'Look, I'm going to let you fight. If you can avoid it, avoid it, but don't let anyone step on your toes.' From that day it was on. I fought everyone. There was one kid, I fought him every day for maybe two years until I gave him one good ass-whipping, and he never wanted to fight anymore.
"The coach at my high school heard about me and told me I should come out for football. He said, 'You can fight till the cows come home in football.' I said, 'For real?' I went to my first practice, saw all these big guys around, all of them about 6'5", and I said, 'I can be myself here.' And I stayed."
His neighborhood was in the section of the city called Northeast. Washington had one of the highest murder rates in America at the time. Northeast might have been the most murderous part of a murderous city. Brown saw a friend shot dead right in front of him on the street. The football player was acquainted with the drug dealers and the thugs. They were contemporaries with gold jewelry and fine Mercedes-Benz rides.
The coach at H.D. Woodson High, Bob Headen, tugged Brown in the other direction. Football. Be yourself. Fight here. Orlando's mother, Catherine, who nicknamed him Zeus before he was born because she was teaching a junior high school class in mythology, even told Headen where to find the spare key to the Browns' house. This way he could show up and drag Zeus out of bed if he was trying to skip school. Football for Zeus became structure, an environment where his size mattered, where he mattered.
"It didn't matter on the street how big you were if you ran into someone with a gun," says Brown. "I came home after my senior year of college, and I was carjacked by three kids who must have been 12 years old, maybe 13.1 was talking with this girl in front of her house, and these three kids pulled up, and one had a gun. He told the girl to get on the ground and told me to give him the keys to my truck. I guess I hesitated, and he was like, 'Big man, you ready to try something?' He cocked the gun. I said, 'Here's the keys, and there's a gas card in the glove compartment.' That's D.C."
Colleges didn't rush for Brown's signature on a letter of intent during his senior year at Woodson. Not only were his grades low, but his times for the 40 were slow. He weighed 240 pounds. He spent two years at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, then went to South Carolina State. He was a defensive lineman until halfway through his junior season, when he was switched to offense. The pros were in no rush for his services either. He was not drafted, and the scouts didn't even want to look at him.
Only when Scott Pioli, then working for the old Cleveland Browns, visited the South Carolina State campus to evaluate another player did Brown have a chance to make his case. He arrived at the field and demanded a tryout. Pioli refused. Brown pressed his case. Pioli reluctantly agreed. Brown, who was wearing street clothes, stripped down to his underwear and combat boots and ran "maybe a 5.65 40, so slow it was ridiculous," Pioli would say later. Brown said he was a hitter, not a runner. Let him hit.
Pioli held a blocking dummy. Brown came out of his stance, run-blocking, and knocked Pioli and the dummy to the ground. Pioli said, "Hey, don't do that again." The next demonstration was supposed to be of pass-blocking. Brown didn't know how to pass-block. South Carolina State had a simple run-oriented offense. Brown came out of his stance and run-blocked again, knocking Pioli and the dummy to the ground again. Pioli said, "This time, just keep your hands behind your back. O.K.?" Brown repeated his run-blocking move and knocked the scout and the dummy to the ground a third time. Pioli said, "That's it. The tryout's over."
"I'd seen a camera set up, so this was being put on film," Brown says. "That meant someone else was going to watch the tryout. Whoever it was, this is what I wanted him to see. Turned out it was the coach, Bill Belichick. He was, 'Uh, let's go out and get this guy.' "