It's funny, but while he's waiting for the football—turning point-over-point, stripe-over-stripe—Notre Dame's Tim Brown hears like Radar O'Reilly: the band, the cheerleaders, his teammates hollering his name, the "oooohhhh" a crowd makes just before the ball is kicked and the sudden hush that comes when the people realize a human jet pack like Brown is waiting underneath it. Then, the instant he catches it, his hearing goes dead, as if someone had turned a switch.
Is there any single vignette in sports as rare and tingling as a kickoff returned for a touchdown? A grand slam, perhaps? Last year major leaguers hit 82. Last season in the NFL, seven kickoffs were returned for touchdowns. A triple play? Slightly rarer—five last year in the majors—but a triple play lacks the dulcet anticipation, the stand-on-your-seat-ness of a kick-off. When people see Brown waiting for a kick, they put down their beers and clear off their laps. This is a moment plump with possibility, like being in a room with a piano and Vladimir Horowitz.
Since Anthony Davis brought back six for USC in the early 1970s, nobody in college football has returned more kickoffs for touchdowns. In fact, TB has a chance to KO AD's six. He had one his sophomore year, then two last year—95 yards against Air Force and 96 against LSU—plus a 97-yarder against Penn State that was called back because of a clip.
Brown seems to have been born waiting at the goal line. Playing for a high school team in Dallas that won exactly four games in his three years, he returned six kickoffs and three punts for touchdowns and tallied 16 more TDs on runs from scrimmage as a tailback and on receptions. His average touchdown was 45.9 yards, if you can grasp that. The guy scored every 12th time he touched the ball.
August 30, 1987
Brown runs 40 yards in 4.31 seconds, is as good a bet as any to win the Heisman Trophy—he'd be the first nonback since Irish receiver Leon Hart in 1949 to claim the prize—and even if he doesn't, he figures to be more fun to watch than the guy who does.
Even under oversized shoulder pads, Brown looks 30 mph over the speed limit. His pads are bulkier because Notre Dame used Brown last year the way sportscaster Keith Jackson used the word "hoss"—nearly to exhaustion. He played tailback, wide receiver, flanker and kick and punt returner. That is still not as many helmets as he wore at Wood-row Wilson High, where he played all those positions plus quarterback, fullback, cornerback and safety, frequently in the same game, occasionally on consecutive plays. "Put it this way," says his high school coach, Richard Mason. "If Tim Brown didn't get on the bus, I didn't get on the bus."
And now Brown waits for the ball, or rather, doesn't wait for it, which is the secret. Brown gets a running start into the ball (it usually deflects off his face-mask, he says). He likes his blockers to get a head start, too, so he hollers "Go!" before he catches it and then hopes he does catch it, because otherwise he is all alone with just an odd-hopping ball and 11 angry men. It's a feeling he knows. The first time Brown went back for a kickoff as a freshman he fumbled and lost the ball, setting up a Purdue field goal, which turned out to be the winning margin for the Boilermakers.
If he catches it, Brown and his blockers are already approaching full speed before most return men have planted their first step. The return play called on the sideline tells Brown where his first move is up the field. After that, he's on his own. That's when the fun starts.
Now comes the delicate moment for "T" (so known since the day his pal and former teammate Alvin Miller walked up to him and said, "Man, you're too fast to be called Tim. From now on you're just T"). If the blocking wedge doesn't work, he has to get brilliant quick or get "clicked," as he says. Clicked used to be known as "creamed."
The most clicky bunch are the seldom-used bodies whose only job is to sprint downfield and hurl themselves at Brown in a frenzied stab at human-ballistic heroics. This is one good reason Brown's mother refuses to watch her son play in person. In fact, even if she's in South Bend, she'll stay in their motor home and watch the game on TV, shutting her eyes during the returns. "She never did like football," says Tim.
Brown's family lives in a small house in lower-middle-class East Dallas. His father, Eugene, is a cement finisher, who has seen five of his six children—Kathryn is only five—go to college. Tim and his friends Brandy Wells (cornerback) and Reggie Ward (another receiver) represent something shiny and modern in sports: talented young athletes who are smart, worldly and disdainful of drugs. All three were named to the Adidas/Scholastic Coach prep All-America team as high school seniors, and they all exercise their intellects as well as their lats now that they're at the most famous football university in the nation.
Of course, they do sometimes rue the rigid atmosphere at Notre Dame. Girls must be out of the rooms by midnight, students may not have alcohol on campus, and nothing unsavory is allowed. Brown won't be seen in the Playboy preseason All-America team picture this year because the current university administration does not want Notre Dame players associated with the magazine.
Politically, players and university are sometimes at odds, too. Notre Dame's refusal to relinquish its investments in South Africa so rankled Brown and his friends that they asked Gerry Faust, their coach until Lou Holtz took over in November 1985, if they could wear black armbands in protest. The university said no.
And then there is drug testing. Notre Dame randomly tests its athletes, but not its other students, for drugs, and Brown wants to know why. "I think it's a matter of my constitutional rights," he says. "If they're going to test me, why not test the guy across the hall? We both go to the same classes. You say I'm a student first, an athlete second. Then why not test him, too?"
No wonder the announcer calls Brown "the deep man."
Because Brown concentrates on his feet when he runs, all he wants to see—needs to see—is a patch of green. If he doesn't see it where it's supposed to be, he takes a guess as to where it might be. "And when you see absolutely nothing," he says, "you just duck your head and hope." When things go wrong, he pays for it.
"You think you're bad?" Penn State players yelled in his face last year after a tackle. "You ain't bad! You ain't——! You run like a little girl!" (The next week against LSU, even though the Irish lost 21-19, Brown rescued the reputations of little girls everywhere by returning that kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.)
Of course, if, say, six or seven blades of grass side by side do open up, he is through them before daylight can arrive. In his first Irish return for a touchdown, against Michigan State as a sophomore, the hole was supposed to be in the middle, but it wasn't, so he took it left. In the touchdown against Air Force, it was supposed to be right but wasn't, so he took it up the middle. Against LSU and against Penn State the hole was right where it was supposed to be, in the middle, and Brown jumped on it like it was the San Diego Freeway. "Once I'm past the first wave," he says, "I'm in good shape, especially if nobody's touched me, slowed me up." In the Air Force return, Brown did make it past the wave, but one young cadet grabbed his leg, forcing him to "shift back into first." Not only that, but he also had to run the rest of the way with his sock pulled down. "Ruined the look," he says.
For just a sliver of a second Brown comes gloriously into focus, flying out of sprawled bodies, thighs churning high, the blue-and-gold jersey of Notre Dame glinting with sunlight.
Of course, that jersey was very nearly the red-and-blue of SMU, formerly a practitioner of major college football but now known mostly for its tennis and track teams. In fact, had it not been for a classic bit of Mustang skulduggery, Tim Brown might have become one of this year's Dallas travelers, knocking on doors, looking for a place to play.
Brown received the SMU pitch from L.A. Rams running back Eric Dicker-son himself. "He [Dickerson] said to me, 'Hey, man, when I was here, I got a car, and I got so much money a month. And there's no reason you can't get those things, too.' And that guy, Sherwood Blount [a wealthy SMU alumnus], was right there, not saying anything, just sitting back with his shades on, nodding."
It all sounded fine to Brown. "I could see me there," he says. "I was sold. They were giving 280Zs at the time, and man, I could just see me in one."
Then came the mischief. The night before signing day, Brown was supposed to meet a Notre Dame recruiter. But after basketball practice that day, his high school principal, Wayne Pierce—who happened to operate the 25-second clock at SMU home games—took Brown over to SMU, where Brown went in to see coach Bobby Collins for a quick chat.
"When I got there," Brown recalls, "there was chicken laid out and a bunch of stuff to eat." They were just talking, Collins and Brown, when a minicam truck from a local television station in Dallas showed up for a scheduled interview with Collins. Giving a high school recruit a ride to a campus he had already officially visited and offering him a free meal are borderline no-nos. "They had to hide me," says Brown. And so they did, in a small room, for about an hour, until the TV crew went away. Then Pierce drove Tim home.
When Brown got home, the fellow from Notre Dame had left, and older brother Don was so mad the roof tiles were steaming. "SMU's offering you all that stuff, and they're not going to do anything for you down the road!" Don said. "Look! You can go to SMU, but I can't support it, and neither will the family!" Brown signed with Notre Dame the next day. "If it hadn't been for my brother, I'd be at SMU right now," he says.
You are a safety, and coming right at you may be the loneliest moment of your collegiate career. Tim Brown has tripped the light fantastic, danced his way through the masses of humanity, found another free second to kick in the turbo and is now bearing down on you, one-on-one, a shining vision of speed, grace and fluidity. In Brown's eyes you can see him thinking, "How bad can I make this guy look in front of his family and friends?"
Pretty bad. An LSU safety stood two yards in front of Brown last year and wound up with a handful of nothing. In the kickoff return against USC, Trojan cornerback Louis Brock Jr., a second-round NFL draft choice, had him eyeball-to-eyeball at the 40 and came up with three fingers on Brown's calf. The move Brown laid on Brock was so mysterious that it is virtually undetectable, even on film. Nonetheless, here is what scientists believe Brown did:
Facing Brock, Brown began with a stutter step as if to go right, then planted his right foot to go left. Brock didn't buy the first fake but bought this one and lunged that way. Only Brown wasn't going left at all. Dipping low and double-clutching from fourth gear to second, Brown planted his left foot, watched Brock lurch in front of him and then blew by him on the right as if Brock were a commuter waiting for the next train. "The ultimate juice," said Miller, which means, we think, the ultimate face job.
Brown offers this helpful hint to prospective tacklers: "If I had to try and tackle me, I'd let me commit myself first. I'd let me go where I want to go and then tackle. Most guys commit before I ever even make a move."
Of course, that's just the players he sees. Brown has learned to avoid players he senses. "It really has to do with peripheral vision," he once said. "If you can't see that guy coming at you from the side, you're going to get nailed. A lot of times I'll be running and see someone coming at me from either side, and I'll just turn and go right at him, and he'll freeze."
Which, of course, is why he's sometimes called Iced T
Right about now, if you look at films, you can see on the sideline a skinny, bespectacled man about four feet off the ground. He is Lou Holtz, and Brown likes Holtz almost as much as Holtz likes Brown.
Holtz walked off the practice field after his third day at Notre Dame last year and said, "Tim Brown is one of the finest I've ever seen. My wife could've picked out Tim Brown." Holtz wanted to recharge the Irish offense by using multiple formations—everything from the pro-set to the wishbone. But he has never liked shuttling players in and out. He needed a human Kitchen Magician—somebody to play wide receiver, flanker and tailback, with good hands and a quick mind and big enough to lay a block. "In other words," Holtz said, "we were looking for somebody from Krypton."
So what did Brown do? He set Notre Dame career records for kickoff touchdowns and all-purpose yardage. He averaged more than 20 yards a catch and traveled almost 15 yards every time he touched the ball. And he blew away his almost mater, SMU, collecting 235 all-purpose yards and scoring two touchdowns in a 61-29 SMUshing. Brown became so potent as a receiver that Penn State actually used three players to cover him on certain downs last year.
This was a brave new world compared with Brown's Faustian sophomore year, when the game plan was Pinkett, Pinkett, Pinkett and Punt-it. "They were really, really trying to get [Allen] Pinkett the Heisman," Brown told The Dallas Morning News. "They were giving him the ball 40 times a game. I didn't like it. Pinkett didn't like it himself."
The Faust Years were worrisome. Indeed, the sight of Brown crying after a pass hit him in the numbers and bounced into a defender's arms in a bitter loss to LSU in 1985 reportedly convinced Faust it was time to resign.
"He was a good guy," Brown once said of Faust. "He just got in a little over his head." Or as teammate Wells put it one night, "I remember in the Penn State game, we were behind. We had to get a touchdown fast. Time was running out. And I was standing near Faust, and he's yelling, 'Hey, do we have a bomb play? We have a bomb play, don't we?' Can you imagine that—'Do we have a bomb play?' "
It's a given that Holtz knows a good bomb play or two; the question is whether any of his quarterbacks can throw one. And even if one could, would it be good enough to find Brown in triple coverage? "Tim Brown might end up being more valuable to us this year than last year, yet be less productive," says Holtz. "It's like he's going to have to learn a new role. He was a star in The Music Man. All right, now let's see how he does in Hamlet."
:07, :08, :09, :10
Now there's only one person left to juke: the lowly, shivering, eminently jukable kicker, who "just sort of dives at your feet," Brown says. When Brown is done with them, kickers sort of resemble hash marks. Which leaves pure Iced T versus any lemon trying to get an angle on him over the last 40 yards. Of course, as Miller says, "There's no such thing as an angle on T" You couldn't get an angle on Brown if you had a Phaser gun.
This is when Brown resumes hearing. "When I'm free, I hear all the yelling again," he says. "If you're at home, it's loud, but on the road it's just sort of an 'oooooh.' I get more relaxed. I'm back in second gear."
The sight of Brown gliding in for a 98-yard touchdown is the stuff of 11 p.m. sports highlight shows; sports highlight shows make Heismans these days, and Brown wants a Heisman.
"I figure if you're going to go through the whole thing about being a Heisman Trophy candidate, you might as well think in terms of winning the thing," he says.
Win it or not, Denver Broncos director of scouting Reed Johnson figures Brown will be one of the top four or five choices in next year's NFL draft, especially now that a new league rule penalizing out-of-bounds kicks will give the returner more room to do his stuff. All of which means that Brown stands to make a fortune very soon. "I'm going to buy a 928 Porsche for myself and a house for my mom," he says. "And then I'll probably just blow the rest."
You think Mrs. Brown will like football better then?
The warp-speed ballet is over in 11 seconds, but against Michigan State in his sophomore year it took 11.3, of which Brown said, "I must be getting slow."
Anyway, now comes the hard part. He hands the ball to the referee (very Notre Dame) and braces himself to face his inexorable punishment: the celebration. You go to great lengths to run 100 yards in, through and around very angry, very strong guys without so much as getting a dirty look, only to make it to the end zone and get pulverized by 40 of your dearest friends. "Really, this is the scary part," Brown says. "I just try to get down on my knees and fall with 'em.... After that, I just walk to the sideline, and I'm standing there, and I just want to scream, 'Yaaaaaaaaaaah!' "
After every game, of course. Brown receives hundreds of worshipers. But after the USC game last year, someone came up to him and said something strange.
"Hey, Brown," the man said. "You're almost as good as me."
It was Anthony Davis.