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John Garrity
December 19, 1983
There hasn't ever been a band of brothers in football like the Browners, a close-knit bunch in triumph as well as adversity
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December 19, 1983

It's A Family Affair

There hasn't ever been a band of brothers in football like the Browners, a close-knit bunch in triumph as well as adversity

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This time, only his mother was in on Gerald's decision: He would go to Northwest Mississippi in Senatobia, near Memphis, where he could raise his grades in hopes of getting another try at major college football. The decision troubled his brothers, who wanted Gerald to stick someplace, anyplace. They wondered if, for Gerald, the nurturing family hadn't taken on a flypaper aspect. "He knows if something goes wrong, that we're there to help out," says Willard. "That's not growing up. We are like a crutch."

But for Gerald, the move seemed right. On a hot day last August, he lay on a mattress in a dark, shabby dormitory room in Senatobia and sighed. Grambling had been no different from those other places, he said. He was resented because his name was Browner, and no one wanted him to succeed. Here in this little Mississippi town he would find himself; he would show people why he had been, in his words, "the No. 1 player in the country." He said he wanted "to be out of the spotlight for a while, and then come back to the spotlight again, but even stronger."

Back in Atlanta, Julia worried. "Gerald has it harder than the others," she said. "He takes everything to heart; he feels everything is on his shoulders." Nothing Ross did would ever fill the void in Gerald, would ever completely make up for the loss of his father. "Gerald still doesn't understand," she said sadly. "He still doesn't understand."

"Mom has prayed for me," said Ross the day after Gerald left for Northwest Mississippi. Ross was in Atlanta, not in Cincinnati with the Bengals, where he belonged. Two months earlier, at the trial of a Cincinnati drug dealer, Ross had testified, under immunity, that he had bought, on at least a dozen occasions, a gram of cocaine from the accused. "I never used the drug," said Ross in Atlanta, "but I felt that I had to tell the truth, to be true to God. I was associated with it."

Now, Ross and three other NFL players had been suspended by Commissioner Pete Rozelle. They could neither practice nor play until after the fourth game of the season. Suddenly, one of the most popular and admired figures in Cincinnati saw his name splattered with mud.

Was Ross aware of the denunciatory editorials in the national press? "I'm very aware," he said. "I hear the talk and I've read so many articles. But I can't worry about what people say. My involvement was very minute, and for me to take on the burden of the whole NFL is unfair. I still got my life to carry on." He frowned. "But I've asked myself, 'What is the purpose? What is the reason for this?' "

It was not a rhetorical question. If, as his father believed, adversity was a test of one's character, Ross wondered if he should meet this crisis not as a catastrophe but as an opportunity. "When God did this to me...." Ross hesitated and smiled. "Well, actually, Pete Rozelle did this to me." He searched for the right words. "I don't see it as a crisis. I see it as a temporary setback. I was led astray, but now my direction is very clear."

Setbacks, the Browners believe, strengthen one, and the brothers cite precedent. Ross's Notre Dame experience was a triumph—twice on the dean's list, a degree in economics, college football's top lineman—but at the end of his freshman year he was one of six football players suspended from school for a year following a rape complaint from an 18-year-old woman. She did not press charges, and Ross returned to school in the fall of 1975.

So it's understandable that Ross would say that day in Atlanta, "This is not the first time, or the last time, that I'm gonna have to come back from adversity." If anything, his own embarrassment over the drug suspension could serve as a warning to his brothers. "It's opened up their eyes," he said, "and it has brought the family even closer together." The word family seemed to bolster his spirit: "God has given me a security that a lot of people would like to have—family."

"How did he sound?" a worried Julia asked later that night. "Was he pretty low?" However hearty Ross might appear to strangers, his mother knew he was hurting terribly. At first, after the trial, he had hidden from himself, not answering the phone, not going out. Then he had thrown himself into good works, giving his time to youth groups, charities, anybody who would help him atone. He acted brave, confident, but one never knew.

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