SEPTEMBER 5, 1977
When Ross Browner volunteered as the defensive coordinator at Sutton Middle School in Atlanta this fall, some of his son Rylan's seventh-grade teammates had doubts about Browner's ability to coach. Relying on a cane to get around after having had five operations on an infected foot over the previous year, Browner came across to them as a hobbling old man. "The kids didn't know anything about my career," says Browner, 49, who played defensive end on two national champions at Notre Dame (1973 and '77) and then played pro football for 11 seasons, nine with the Cincinnati Bengals, one with the Green Bay Packers and one in the USFL. "Some of them finally went on the Internet and looked up my r�sum� and came back saying, 'He's legit.' "
As a four-year starter for the Irish, Browner made 340 tackles and recovered 12 fumbles. He won the Outland Trophy in 1976, was named the Lombardi award winner and finished fifth in the Heisman voting in '77, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame four years ago. Selected eighth in the '78 NFL draft by the Bengals, Browner became a starter during his rookie season. In his one Super Bowl appearance, in 1982, he made 10 unassisted tackles in Cincinnati's 26-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
When he's not coaching or writing a column for Notre Dame's website, Irish Today.com, Browner sells supplemental life insurance. A full-time Atlanta resident since 1992, he is heavily involved in the city's NFL Players Association alumni chapter, having served as its president in '95. "You never realize when you're playing how important retirement benefits are," he says. "We're working hard to get the NFL pension system up to speed with Major League Baseball's and the NBA's."
Browner also has been catching up with a son he didn't know he had until Valentine's Day, 1998, when he received a call from a former girlfriend. She informed him that he was the father of her son, Max Starks, at the time a 6'8", 340-pound offensive lineman at Lake Highland Prep in Orlando. When he met the young man several months later, Browner was struck by the resemblance—"I saw myself staring back at me," he says.
Browner, his wife of 17 years, Shayla, and Rylan welcomed Max into their family, and Ross stays in close contact. A senior tackle at Florida, Max is projected as a first-or second-round pick in the April draft. If he makes an NFL roster, Max will join the company of his father and three of Ross's five brothers—Jim, 48, Joey, 43, and Keith, 41—all of whom played at least one season in the league.
Though he retired as a player 15 years ago, Browner found that his new role at Sutton has revived his competitiveness. "I'm pretty happy with my performance as coach," he says. "I've got the itch to get back into football full time."