The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
To an Athlete Dying Young
It would be hard to find two guys who seemed less ready to die than Jerome Brown and Eric Andolsek. Young and huge and fit, they each could bench-press more than 400 pounds, run like deer and fight off the strongest of men, often two at a time. Death? These guys rippled with life. Andolsek, 6'2" and 286 pounds, was an avid outdoorsman, and he was so massive across the chest that his nickname was Table. Brown, 6'2" and 300 pounds, once single-handedly broke up a KKK meeting, and once saved an entire family from a burning house. Yes, they were larger than life but not larger than death, which snuffed out both of them last week.
Brown, a two-time Pro Bowl player and the main beam of the Philadelphia Eagles' superb defensive line, was driving his 1991 forest-green Corvette in his hometown of Brooksville, Fla., on Thursday, June 25, when he lost control of the car and smashed into a power pole, killing himself and his 12-year-old nephew. Brown was 27. Two days before, Andolsek, a rising star at left guard for the Detroit Lions, was cutting weeds in his front yard in Thibodaux, La., when a flatbed truck veered off the road and ran him over. He was 25. Their deaths follow by six weeks the fatal shooting of Shane Curry, an Indianapolis Colt defensive end, who was killed in the wee hours outside a Cincinnati nightclub during an argument over a blocked parking space. Curry was 24. Heaven is now full up with linemen.
Though their deaths have linked them forever, Brown and Andolsek couldn't have lived more antithetically. Brown practically spilled out of himself. He was loud and funny and passionate and generous. He played football in great chunks of energy, rollicking and wiggling here, stomping and swaggering there, heaving his helmet now and again for good measure. He was the Eagles' class clown and their conscience and their inspiration. And to hundreds of needy kids, he was like a big lovable brother. In January 1991 he rented two buses to take 70 kids from Brooksville to a pre-Super Bowl football clinic in Tampa.
The ninth of 10 children of a truck mechanic and his wife, Brown could be both remarkably immature and brave. As a teenager he fathered two children by different women. At the 1987 Fiesta Bowl banquet honoring the players from his Miami team and those from opposing Penn State, he ripped off his shirt to reveal army fatigues underneath it, announced, "The Japanese never sat down with the Americans before Pearl Harbor," and got up and left, taking all his teammates with him. In '88 he broke up a KKK rally in Brooksville by pulling up in his Bronco, turning up the stereo just past brain-jiggling level and holding up a sign that read GO AWAY KKK. Because none of the folks at the rally could hear themselves anymore, much less the Klansmen who were speaking, the KKK had no choice but to pack up and go home.
Brown was the number one horn behind Miami's swaggering brassiness of the mid-1980s. It was while he was with the Hurricanes that he began collecting dangerous toys, like exotic guns and fast cars. He owned a .44 Magnum and an Uzi, and was banned from campus housing after a child found his Luger hidden under a dorm stairwell.
He had a weakness for Corvettes, one of which he totaled on a Florida highway in his junior year at Miami. He walked away from that accident unscratched, but he apparently did not take the hint—maybe because he had a need for speed. Brown once recalled that the first time he drove a car was with his father on a highway. The traffic was doing about 75 mph, it was raining, and his dad was yelling, "Hit the gas! Hit the gas! Boy, you don't hit the gas, and I ain't gonna let you drive no more!" Said Brown, "I hit it and ain't slowed down since." Until that Thursday.
That Thursday 12-year-old Augusta Wesley Brown was with his Uncle Jerome when Jerome went to Register Chevrolet to check on a 1973 Chevy the dealership was restoring for him. The police think that as Jerome peeled away from the dealership, he was going far too fast on the rain-slicked road and skidded. Trying to right the car, he may have overcompensated. He hit a dirt mound that sent the car flying. It nicked a palm tree, flipped and slammed into the power pole. The bodies were taken directly to the morgue.
"He lived fast, and he drove fast," says Mike Golic, an Eagle noseguard. "For a while he seemed to live on the edge, but I thought he had turned it around."
Says former Philly coach Buddy Ryan, who picked Brown in the first round of the 1987 draft, "It's going to leave a big void in the locker room. He's the guy that kick-started them, the guy that led the defense, regardless of what everyone else thinks. He was a great, great player."
Unlike Brown, Andolsek, whose death was the third torturous twist of fate in seven months for the Lions (box, page 38), was a quiet man. A fifth-round draft choice out of LSU in 1988 and a starter for Detroit since '89, he was a serious player with a will that ran deep. Many in the NFL believe that Andolsek was on the verge of a Pro Bowl season. "He played with everything," says Lion linebacker Chris Spielman, who once got into a shoving match with Andolsek at the coin toss before an LSU-Ohio State game but became his best friend and roommate in the pros. "His heart, his soul, everything."
Andolsek was doing some lawn work in his yard off Louisiana State Highway 1 when James Bennett, 34, of Baton Rouge came driving down the road. Police think Bennett became distracted at the wheel of his 10-wheel diesel, which was going about 50 mph. Bennett veered off the perfectly straight section of the two-lane blacktop and came toward Andolsek. But Andolsek, with his back to the road and the whirring of the weed cutter in his ears, probably didn't hear the runaway truck until it was too late. The truck ran over Andolsek and continued on another 400 yards before stopping. Bennett was charged with negligent homicide and failure to maintain control of his vehicle.
Andolsek's funeral brought more than 500 people, including some members of the Lions, to a small Catholic church in Thibodaux. Another hundred or so mourners crowded onto the front steps. "The ultimate warrior has been laid to rest," said LSU assistant coach Jerry Sullivan after the funeral.
"It doesn't seem fair," says Eagle center David Alexander of the deaths of Brown and Andolsek. "Both these guys were in peak physical shape. Now they're gone. One minute they're All-Pros. The next minute they're not even alive."
Coincidently, both Brown and Andolsek had been through the sudden deaths of teammates. Brown was friends with Curry, who played at Miami from 1987 through '91. Andolsek had played at LSU with Ralph Norwood, who died as an Atlanta Falcon rookie three years ago after apparently falling asleep and crashing his car on a suburban Atlanta road.
Yes, they say only the good die young, but that doesn't make it easier to stomach. In Thibodaux and Detroit, in Brooksville and Philadelphia, a lot of dinners are going uneaten, a lot of hearts are sagging. There was once a little girl who came to her grandfather's funeral, saw him lying in his casket, stomped her foot and said, "I wasn't through with him yet."
A lot of people weren't through with Jerome Brown and Eric Andolsek.