This election week, in the interest of equal time, we give voice to another kind of professional athlete, one who's never made a headline, an excuse or a Bentley payment. What he has made, instead, is every plane, practice and block required of him in 15 seasons of professional football. Ray Brown of the Lions hasn't missed a start in more than eight years, hasn't missed a down in more than five years and has quietly accrued a small fortune for his family on one guiding principle. "It's simple," says Brown, a right guard who'll turn 40 next month. "My only rule is, Don't break any rules."
Brown has no publicist, pedicurist or defense attorney; he hasn't been on Cribs, crack or probation. Indeed, his personal goals sound kinky in the context of contemporary sports. "I don't want to be late, I don't want to miss meetings and I want to be accountable for my actions," he says. No wonder you've never heard of this guy.
Brown has never pulled a Sharpie from his sock (though, at 6' 5" and 318, he could easily pull a shar-pei from his sock). He doesn't require validation, except when parking his car. His turn-ons? "Those 'Good jobs' and 'Well dones' from my coaches and peers in the meeting room," he says. "I don't need to hear my name screamed over the P.A. system. Other than introductions, that's a bad thing to hear if you're an offensive lineman."
So pull up a chair. This is how you play two decades in the National Football League. Oldest Living Offensive Lineman Tells All. The main thing to remember? "Don't be anywhere near a football in the NFL," advises Brown. "Oh, my goodness, no. Everybody chases that ball."
Who would know better? The other day Brown asked line-mate Stockar McDougle, with more wonderment than vanity, "You know how many Number 1 picks have come and gone since I've been playing?" Indeed, Brown was drafted so long ago—out of Arkansas State—that neither his team (the St. Louis Cardinals) nor his round (eighth) still exists. Until that draft day, in 1986, he had no agent, no expectations, no ESPN even. Says Brown, "I came home from class, and my roommate told me, 'Someone called and said you were drafted.' " For all either of them knew, it was the U.S. Army.
As a 237-pound tackle Brown nurtured a vivid if delusional fantasy. "The dream was to play four years," he says, "and be vested in the retirement program." Instead he was waived by the Cards in '87 and brought back as a replacement player during that season's strike. "In hindsight," says Brown, "if I'd understood the labor issues, I probably wouldn't have played." But he did, and coaches got to see his skills, and he wound up in Washington, doing what the Stamps did toward the end of Elvis Presley's career: backing up a Hog.
All that time, Brown lifted weights and understudied the best offensive line of our time and refused to give way to despair, like a chrome bumper to rust. One day in 1993 he stepped in to replace an injured Jeff Bostic, and he hasn't missed a single start in the nine seasons since, with Washington, San Francisco and Detroit. "My father always told me to be ready because my time would come," says Brown, "so I always made sure I was prepared. This game is pretty basic if you don't allow vices in your way."
Leonard Ray Brown Sr., who died in June, raised eight children in Marion, Ark., on a truck driver's salary. "He was also a deacon who opened the church every Sunday morning," says his son and namesake, "the kind of guy everybody could bring their problems to." Like Sr., Ray Jr. has been working Sundays all his adult life and believing in eternal verities: clean living, perseverance and giving back to one's community. And so last February, as a 39-year-old, Brown was named to his first Pro Bowl. What was Hawaii like?
"A lot like Marion, Arkansas," he says. "We pretty much brought the whole town there."
It mattered not that the 49ers released him, for payroll reasons, this summer. The Lions immediately signed Brown to a one-year, $750,000 contract. And two weeks ago in Detroit, his wife, Ashley, gave birth to their fifth child, a son named Ray Brown III. Six-year-old Miriam Brown told her father just last week, "You have to play two more years so Trey will know what you do for a living." Brown can see playing at least one more. "But if I don't," he says, "I've had a great run. I know I'm on somebody else's time now."