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On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 2, Ross resumed his football career at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. He did not start, but when he left the field following his first series, he was greeted by a vigorous and sustained ovation. "Cincinnati really turned me on," he told a clutch of reporters in the locker room after the game. "The crowd roaring and all, I was really excited." Was he nervous? "I was never nervous, just a little rusty. I got bounced around a couple of times like a Ping-Pong ball." He stood by the training-room door, clad only in a towel, and flashed the big smile. Ross Browner was back.
In Senatobia, meanwhile, Gerald is far from the roaring crowd, but the language of redemption is the same. "This is just like a rehabilitation program I'm going through," he says. "There's always some obstacle you've gotta get over. Mine's academic." For now, there were no quarterbacks to pursue, no enemies to swat down—just books and pencils. "Everything's going fine," says Northwest Mississippi Coach Bobby Franklin. "Gerald is doing well in school, and we look forward to having him on the team next year. We're just trying to get him back to a major college where he belongs."
What college that might be, Gerald isn't saying, although he leaves open a return to Georgia. In August, at 330 pounds, Gerald rekindled the interest of major college football coaches by running a 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds. "That's phenomenal," says Southern California Coach Ted Tollner. "He has to be a tremendous athlete, at that size, to do the things he does, the jumping and running." Whether the public will ever see these gifts will soon be resolved. With Jimmie Jr. and Willard as evidence that neither memories nor potential will pay the bills, Gerald seems ready to prove himself, if not to the world, at least to his family. "My last name's Browner," he says defiantly, "but I still have to make Gerald known."
The covenant, his brothers sometimes remind him, was not that they all become football stars but that they should stick together and finish college. There's no jumping the ditch and running with the other kids until the promise is fulfilled. That's why all the Browners live partly in the past.
The custodian of the Browner past, by virtue of his residence, is Jimmie Jr. In September he commemorated his first anniversary back in Warren by taking his girl friend, Pamela Brame, a high-fashion magazine model who has since become his wife, and a visitor on a tour. It was a Sunday morning, sunny and peaceful, without much traffic. Being back home felt strange, he said. Most professional athletes left the city and never came back. "It's not that Warren isn't home," he said as he drove. "But you come back home and can't find jobs."
Jimmie cruised through the downtown area, hard hit by layoffs at Republic Steel and competition from a suburban shopping mall. "Lots of empty stores," he said, his head turning as he passed a city swimming pool where he and Ross had worked summers as lifeguards. He drove on through Perkins Park, green and leafy, with several manicured ball diamonds. One was the site of Willard's greatest pitching triumph, a 23-strikeout eight-inning perfect game for a Pony League team as a seventh-grader.
Next, Jimmie pointed out his apartment, in a white frame house two blocks from the library. He then swung past city hall. The building is a restored gaslight-era mansion, allegedly haunted by the original occupants. "Funny thing, the son shot himself," said Jimmy. "Then the daddy hung himself from a banister."
Crossing over to the West Side, Jimmie bypassed a cluster of old Army barracks that had been converted into low-income housing and approached Western Reserve High, a modern brick structure commanding a flat, barren site. Jimmie drove past without slowing. A mile or so away, the Super 45 Drive-In theater sat abandoned, choked with tall weeds. "We used to stand inside and watch," he said. Up the road, the Browner home, the house he had helped build as a child, was occupied, but he didn't know by whom. The playing field his dad had cleared was empty. It seemed too small to have ever contained the games of the Browners, but that was the passage of time working, childhood scale measured against bigger vistas.
Jimmie did not linger here, either, but drove on, thumping over railroad tracks and turning weedy corners until he had worked his way over to Republic Steel. The yards and parking lots were vacant on this Sunday; it was a ghost mill. Jimmie slowed the car to a crawl, appraising the plant through the windshield as if it were the rusted hulk of a warship washed ashore on some peaceful beach. "I got a chance to work in the factory one summer," he said, breaking the silence. "You blow your nose, black soot comes out. And that's just one day's work. You think of 20 years doing that, all that stuff going into your lungs...."
Whose 20 years he meant was clear. "He died when he was 49," said Jimmie, slowly pulling away. "That's when most people start to prosper in life."