As recently as December, Orlando Brown felt as if there were hundreds of needles poking the back of his right eye. Doctors had told Brown, the former Cleveland Browns tackle, that the sensation could be an encouraging sign, an indication that the eye, injured in December 1999 when accidentally struck by a penalty flag thrown in an NFL game, was trying to dilate as it should. But Brown was never sure if that was true, or if they were just trying to give him hope that his vision would return to normal.
All Brown could do was pray and pedal a stationary bike, one of the few forms of exercise that the doctors allowed. On football Sundays, peering at the TV through the dark sunglasses he wore to protect his eye from light, Brown studied the offensive linemen, and he pedaled even harder. "I'd go for three, four hours at a time, just pumping and pumping," he says. "It was my therapy. I would just watch and ride, and in my mind I kept saying, I'm coming back. I'm coming back."
Finally, he can say it out loud. After missing more than three seasons, the 6'7", 350-pound Brown, better known around the league as Zeus, is back in the NFL. With the vision in his right eye improved from legally blind to 20/25, Brown, 32, was medically cleared to play again, and on March 18 he signed a one-year, $1 million free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens. "It's too early to tell whether he can get back to being one of the best tackles in the league," says Ravens executive vice president Ozzie Newsome. "But after what Zeus has already gone through, would you bet against him?"
When Brown participated in a minicamp last month, it was the first time he had suited up since the game in which referee Jeff Triplette unintentionally derailed the big tackle's career. In calling a false start against Cleveland center Jim Bundren, Triplette threw his flag, which is weighted with BBs, toward the spot of the infraction. It sailed between the bars of Brown's face mask, striking his right eye. "One minute everything was fine," says Brown, "and the next minute—boom!—darkness, pain." He staggered toward the sideline holding his eye, then headed back toward the middle of the field and shoved Triplette to the ground. Brown was immediately ejected from the game, and three days later he was suspended indefinitely by the league. But by then he was in a Cleveland hospital, with bleeding and swelling behind the eye as well as blurred vision. The discomfort plagued him for most of the next two years.
Triplette told a reporter after the game that he had tried to apologize to Brown. "Certainly there was every effort to apologize because it was totally unintentional and inadvertent" he said. "I've been officiating almost 30 years and never had anything like this happen."
The NFL lifted its suspension of Brown in February 2000, and seven months later, at the start of the season, Cleveland released Brown, negating the final five years of his six-year, $27 million contract. (He had been paid a $7.5 million signing bonus and $500,000 in base salary in the first year of the deal.) Brown eventually hired attorney Johnnie Cochran to represent him in a $200 million lawsuit against the NFL that was settled late last year. Brown and league officials decline to comment on the suit, citing a confidentiality agreement.
Whatever money Brown may have recouped can't compensate him for all his suffering over the last 3� years. His mother, Catherine, had a stroke, which Brown is convinced was brought on by the stress of worrying about him. His father, Claude, who lost his own vision to glaucoma 10 years ago, was so angry at the NFL's handling of the situation that Orlando had to stop talking to him about it. Last year Orlando and his wife, Mira, separated; their three sons, Orlando Jr., 6, Justin, 5, and Braxton, 3, live with their mother in a Baltimore suburb near Orlando's house. "I won't blame it all on the flag, but [the stress caused by that] was definitely a big part," Brown says of the failed marriage.
Brown's life was in upheaval, but the condition of his eye remained maddeningly unchanged. He visited doctors in Cleveland, Baltimore and New York City, none of whom could tell him that the pain, white flashes and blurred vision would go away. There was a chance that the eye would repair itself, he was told, but there was no guarantee. For more than a year after the accident Brown was warned to avoid strenuous physical activity because excess bleeding and a buildup of pressure might cause permanent damage to the eye.
All the while he was not only frustrated by his inability to see clearly but also by the way he felt that others perceived him. After the suspension Brown believed he was unfairly portrayed as a thug with so little respect for authority that he intentionally assaulted a referee. Brown insists that, after being injured, he did not go after Triplette, though Brown stood over the fallen ref before some players pulled him away. "I was going back to finish the game," Brown says. "I didn't even know it was the ref who hurt me. I thought the defensive lineman I was playing against, Renaldo Wynn, had poked me in the eye, and 1 wanted to keep playing so I could tear his ass up. I was mad, I couldn't see straight, and all of a sudden some ref was trying to keep me from going to my huddle, so I pushed him away. I didn't mean to push him to the ground, and I sure wasn't trying to get back at him."
As it turned out, Brown was lucky to have been ejected. Doctors later told him that so much pressure was building on his eye from the internal bleeding that had he stayed in the game instead of going to the hospital shortly after the incident, they might not have been able to save the eye. "People ask me what I'm going to do when I see that ref," Brown says. "I'm going to kiss him, that's what I'm going to do. If he hadn't thrown me out, I would have lost my eye. You know what else? He brought me closer to God. I wasn't the churchgoing kind before this happened, but without prayer, I never would have made it through these last couple of years."