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The Browner boys have always been their own best friends. Originally they stuck together for protection. They remember the Warren of their childhood as a rough place, a steel town with an East Side-West Side rivalry. There were "cousin feuds"—cousins who didn't get along because they lived on opposite ends of town. A bridge over the Mahoning River, which separates East from West, was the site of many a battle. "You had to fight your way home from school sometimes," says Ross. "There were hoodlums; they were tough."
The Browners, on the other hand, were not so tough. "They were't big at all," says Julia. "Puny kids." Ross's first sport wasn't football but swimming, which he learned at the YMCA downtown. Years later he would win a boxing tournament among NFL heavyweights, but when he wanted to play football in seventh grade, his mother said no, he might get hurt. Other kids were out running the streets. Ross, Jimmie Jr. and Willard stayed home, fielding grounders hit to them by their mother.
Why they turned out to be good athletes is a mystery. Jimmie Sr. wasn't athletic—unless you count lifting cars by their bumpers as a branch of weight-lifting—and he was too busy working to play much with his kids. But the Browners possessed a positivism, a pride in all accomplishments, that made the boys hungry to please. Ross had a "drill sergeant" football coach at West Junior High, a man who practiced his boys till dark. "He put us through hell in the mud, drove us through grass drills," recalls Ross, "but we got a lot of praise, and I liked that." Ross also liked being called Big Moose and Moose Browner. By the end of ninth grade he was determined to become a football player.
The other boys responded to praise as well. They also seemed to have the self-discipline to turn weaknesses into strengths. Jimmie Jr. was quieter than Ross—he read a lot, played the guitar and liked to draw—but after getting roughed up by high school toughs he walked downtown to Cliff Kelly's karate school and signed up for lessons. Today he's a black belt and winner of several bouts as a professional kick boxer.
Two of the brothers, Ross and Gerald, the "baby," ended up larger than life, the stuff of local legends. Those in between, Jimmie, Willard, Joey and Keith, made their way like soldiers, adding to the legend less spectacularly. Even today, it's convenient to approach the Browners from the two ends, the pressure points: Ross, the son who accepted responsibility for his younger brothers, and Gerald, the only Browner boy to enter adolescence without his dad.
They couldn't be less alike. Ross, 29, seems bent on making reality conform to his father's vision. One's first impression of him is not just of his physical strength, which is immense, but of someone radiating enthusiasm like a beacon. Ross, who stands 6'3" and weighs 260 pounds, is a hearty man, smiling broadly, pumping hands, grabbing shoulders. He rarely lets down, as if he feels personally responsible for everyone's happiness. He's the same on the football field, shouting encouragement, clapping his hands, exhorting his teammates. "He's one of those emotional, bigmouth guys that a team needs," says his Cincinnati teammate, Cris Collinsworth. "And I say that affectionately." One of the most highly regarded college linemen in history—he won both the Lombardi and Outland trophies as a defensive end at Notre Dame—Ross has fashioned a pro career with as many lows as highs. After painful losses, he doesn't scowl at reporters, doesn't rage at the impertinence of songbirds. His response to adversity is stoic or Panglossian, according to your view.
Gerald, 10 years younger than Ross, is much heavier in every sense, a gargantuan manchild caught somehow in his own shadow. That shadow is immense: At 6'4", 370 pounds, he dwarfs his older brothers. The athleticism trapped in his improbable and graceless-looking bulk seems more a torment than a satisfaction, as if he secretly agrees with the cruel children who used to call him Big Fatty before they discovered that he was quick-tempered and could outrun them. Gerald also carries the burden of his older brothers' success, the Browner legend, made worse by early notice that his potential was even greater than theirs. "Gerald likes to think that he's older than he is," says Ross. "He tends to visualize himself already there." Instead, Gerald has fallen behind. At 19, the age by which Ross and Jimmie Jr. were on their way to economics degrees at Notre Dame, Gerald has quit two high schools and three colleges and is struggling to prove himself at Northwest Mississippi Junior College.
The middle Browners, less flamboyant, seem to come in pairs. Jimmie Jr., 28, and Willard, 26, grew up in Ross's orbit. They followed him at Warren Western Reserve High and then to Notre Dame, where Jimmie played strong safety and Willard was a fullback. Jimmie and Willard are also joined by circumstance. They are the first Browners to tackle life after football. Jimmie is a purchasing officer for the city of Warren, and Willard is an interviewer for the unemployment division of the Georgia Department of Labor in Atlanta. They are the brothers with the strongest sense of life as their father knew it, life as survival. "I went from making $35,000 a year to making $35 a day sweeping an auto body shop in Atlanta," says Jimmie of his struggle after being released by the Bengals in 1980. Willard, still hopeful of catching on with a USFL team, interviews the jobless in Atlanta, measuring their despair. "It tells you if you have a heart or don't have a heart," he says.
Joey, 23, and Keith, 21, are tall and lithe. Both are cool, reserved, almost detached in their manner. Joey broke the pattern of following in Ross's footsteps by going to USC. Keith followed a year later, and the two were roommates for three years. Keith, who was a reserve guard on the Trojan basketball team as a freshman, may have given up his best sport to play next to Joey, an All-America safety in 1982. Keith also allows that the catharsis of football attracted him. "I have a lot of things inside me that I can get out by hitting someone," he says. Joey and Keith have emulated Jimmie Jr. by training in martial arts. Both are brown belts. Keith is an amateur artist, finding self-expression in pencil drawings. "I used to lash out and yell at people when I was a kid," he says. "Joey taught me to calm down and relax."
What the four middle brothers have in common, besides their athletic accomplishments, is their acceptance of Ross's authority—and their concern about Gerald's development. Ross, of course, has been the pathfinder, the first and the best, the symbol of self-discipline and achievement. "He's the father-type image," says Willard. "He feels he has to watch out for all of us. He has the last word on everything, and that'll never change." According to his brothers, Ross dominates by force of personality—"He's very open," says Willard. "He ought to be a broadcaster." But mostly he rules because he was anointed. "When my father died, Ross was the one he left in charge," says Joey.