A few minutes after nine last Friday morning, some of the Green
Bay Packers were getting cranky. Breakfast was late. At five
after the hour, Gilbert Brown ambled into the locker room
bearing three big sacks of sausage sandwiches.
"Running a little behind today," chided strong safety LeRoy
Butler, dipping his hand into one of the sacks.
"I'm so hungry I can't see straight," said rookie defensive
tackle Jermaine Smith, likewise helping himself.
"They don't say thanks," said Brown, one of the NFL's best
nosetackles, shaking his head with mock exasperation as a parade
of his teammates dropped by his stall to avail themselves of the
free grub. "They just take."
January 26, 1998
To Brown, who stands 6'2" and is listed at 345 pounds--the last
time he weighed 345, truth be told, the NFL had 28 teams--food
is love. This Friday-morning sandwich drop is not to be confused
with Brown's Monday-afternoon handouts: dozens of
Gilbertburgers. The Gilbertburger, available at the Burger King
on Oneida Street, near Lambeau Field, comes with twice the
trimmings of a normal Double Whopper but no pickles. Like Brown,
it is gigantic. Like Brown, it occludes.
By thrusting himself like a monkey wrench into the cogs of
opposing interior lines, by occupying up to three blockers at a
time, by destroying plays before they get started, Brown, 26,
makes it easier for his defensive teammates to flow unimpeded to
the ball. In addition to providing them with two meals a week,
he fattens their statistics.
Nicked throughout a regular season in which he played in just
over 36% of the defensive snaps--Brown missed two games in the
first half of the season with a strained right knee and a
bruised hip, and two more in December with a badly sprained
right ankle--he has enjoyed better health in the playoffs.
There is no denying that those injuries have cost Brown some
stamina. Despite the fact that his fitness level is less than
optimal, and that his effectiveness wanes late in games, Brown
is still the biggest reason, literally and figuratively, that
right now the defending Super Bowl champions are playing their
best defense of the last two years.
How long has Brown been fetching breakfast for his teammates?
"Since I got here five years ago," he says. "Want a sandwich?"
This kindness is at odds with the image Brown seems determined
to cultivate. His first response when a reporter approaches is
to scowl. He owes his nickname, the Gravedigger, to his habit of
shoveling imaginary dirt on opponents after big plays. The Darth
Vader eye shield on his helmet lends Brown additional menace. As
a run stuffer, he is unsurpassed. As a bad man, he is a
"We call him a big teddy bear," says his mother, Ann Brown.
Gilbert ran the 100- and 200-yard dashes at Detroit's MacKenzie
High, and much has been made of his speed. Not as well known is
the fact that he honed that speed while being chased home from
elementary school by bullies. Recalls Ann, "He'd fall in the
door and say, 'Hey, Mom, can I have some chips?'"
So severe was the Gravedigger's homesickness as an NFL rookie
that he would leave his final meeting on Monday afternoon and
drive eight hours to Detroit just to spend his day off at home.
Ann was concerned about his driving 16 hours by himself. But
when she tried to dissuade him from continuing to come, she
recalls, "He'd start looking all pitiful"--lower lip trembling,
she does a spot-on impersonation of Gilbert on the verge of
tears--"and I'd say, 'O.K., O.K., come on home.'"
A widebody and a homebody, he is never so much at ease as when
he is with his mother and four siblings. Ann and Leroy Brown met
while students at Bluefield (W.Va.) State College. After a hitch
in the navy and a stint as a coal miner, Leroy settled in
Detroit, where he worked an assembly-line job for Chrysler and
indulged his taste for muscle cars.
Gilbert's taste sometimes runs to ultra-hip suits topped off by
like-colored bowlers. The ensembles fairly shout, Am I bad or am
I bad? MacKenzie football coach Bob Dozier recalls his shock the
day the usually bashful Brown cast off his inhibitions. At a
show in the auditorium the spring of his senior year, Brown, who
weighed 280 pounds at the time, appeared onstage slathered with
baby oil, carrying a cane and clad only in tight shorts, a cape,
top hat and sunglasses. To the strains of a funk song, he doffed
everything but the shorts and struck a series of bodybuilder
poses while working toward his finale, a biceps-rippling, Hulk
Hogan-esque full crab at the front edge of the stage. "People
were on their feet, girls were throwing money at him," recalls
Dozier. "The place went nuts."
Some thought Brown was nuts to choose Kansas over Michigan, but
he preferred the more relaxed pace of Lawrence. He started nine
games as a freshman and was joined on the defensive line the
next year by Dana Stubblefield, now with the San Francisco
49ers. Little wonder that two seasons after that, Kansas led the
Big Eight in run defense and improved to 8-4 from 3-7-1 two
Even though Brown ran a 4.9 40 (sans pads) at
Kansas--astoundingly brisk for a 300-plus pounder--his coaches
there sought to streamline him. To little avail. Despite taking
his meals at the Jayhawks' so-called lettuce table, reserved for
players deemed to have weight problems, Brown baffled his
coaches by adding poundage. It was his custom, as it turned out,
to return to his room after dinner and order a large pizza.
Leroy died in the spring of '92, after Gilbert's junior season,
and Gilbert did not play as well the following year. "We were
worried about him," recalls Reggie Mitchell, his position coach
at Kansas. "Losing his dad affected him more than he let on."
Brown reported to the Minnesota Vikings, who selected him in the
third round of the 1993 draft, overweight and ill-suited for the
attacking, up-the-field style of play favored by defensive line
coach John Teerlinck (who these days, interestingly, draws a
paycheck from the Denver Broncos). One day in late August,
Minnesota coach Dennis Green summoned the spherical rookie to
his office and cut him, telling Brown he was too heavy. There
was little to argue: When Dennis Green thinks you're fat, you're
Brown hadn't even had a chance to have a good cry when he walked
into his hotel in Mankato, Minn., and was told by someone at the
front desk, "The Green Bay Packers want you to call." The
Packers, who had coveted Brown before the Vikings took him, flew
him to Green Bay. "He got off the plane, we put him in full
pads, and he ran a 5.26 40," recalls Green Bay general manager
Ron Wolf. "I'll never forget it." The Pack signed the
Gravedigger, but only after paying a $100 waiver fee.
Thus did Brown become the NFL's version of the Louisiana
Purchase. He has blossomed, in the intervening five seasons,
into a nosetackle without peer--and, for that matter, neck. One
of the curious aspects of his moundlike physique is the ridge of
flesh at the base of his skull. "Oh, that's all trapezius,"
Green Bay strength coach Kent Johnston said. "Gilbert's got some
traps on him." Other than his belly, said Johnston, "He's hard
as a rock."
"Everybody has different places they store [fat], and mine's in
my midsection," says Brown. (So what's filling out those
throw-pillow-sized jowls? Collagen?) His beer-keg belly, he
says, "is kind of like my center of gravity. It helps me out,
especially when I'm getting double-teamed."
"The tendency, when you see a guy who looks like Gilbert, is to
say, 'How good can this fat guy be?'" says Chicago Bears
offensive line coach Tony Wise. "Next thing you know your guard
is coming out of the game saying, 'My back is killing me from
trying to move this guy.' I've been trying to get him blocked
for five years. It hasn't been a real pleasant experience."
"Gilbert has the ability to play on the other side of the line
of scrimmage," says Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur,
"which means he reduces cutback angles."
What is it about Brown that makes everyone want to sound like
Archimedes? "He has the uncanny ability to cut down the angles
for a running back," says 6'5", 285-pound defensive tackle
Santana Dotson, who plays alongside Brown and is Stan Laurel to
his Oliver Hardy.
Dotson's tone was less charitable last Thursday night as he
waited in Brown's kitchen while Brown posed for a magazine
photographer. They were scheduled to meet some teammates at a
restaurant and were already late. "I'm starving, and this fool's
posing," griped Dotson, who then asked the photographer, "Why
don't you get a picture of him eating some ribs?"
"Why don't you get a picture of me kicking Santana's ass?"
replied Brown. Dotson resorted to foraging in Brown's kitchen.
On the counter were half-eaten bags of three types of chips.
Alongside a can of Designer Protein powder were two cans of
Crisco, a product Brown uses to prepare cheese fries, on which
he is apt to snack while watching his big-screen television.
"He is more or less a big kid," says defensive end Gabe Wilkins,
Brown's closest friend on the team. "He's got the pool table,
drum set, darts, PlayStation, Nintendo, Sega, model cars, action
figures, everything that a kid would want."
Perhaps this is why children are drawn to Brown: They sense he
is one of them. Last spring, Brown turned down a more lucrative
contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars to re-up with Green Bay.
The Jaguars were offering $9 million over three years; the Pack
is paying him $250,000 less a year. One reason he took the lower
offer was that he did not want to be so far from his son, Jamal,
4, who lived at the time in Kansas City with his mother, Sheryl
Cherry. Another reason, says Ann, is that Gilbert could not bear
to disappoint the Green Bay-area children, who adore him and
whom he adores in return.
Early in the morning of Aug. 19, Ann took a call at home. When
she picked up, she was greeted by the sound of sobbing.
"What's wrong?" she said.
"All my little buddies ain't gonna like me no more," Gilbert
Earlier that evening, he had been in an argument with a
girlfriend, whom he reportedly pushed over the back of a sofa.
She called 911, and when police arrived at Brown's home, they
arrested him--against her wishes. Brown pleaded guilty to a
misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and was sentenced to 20
hours of community service after expressing regret over the
incident. The episode was out of character for Brown. "We've had
bad guys in here," says a Packers official, "and Gilbert isn't
one of them."
Still, Brown went into a shell, shunning reporters most of the
season and refusing to discuss the incident. "I don't really
want to talk about it," he said last week. "I've been kicked in
the mouth enough over it. I'm looking forward, not back."
Brown's greatest fear remains unrealized. Kids still flock to
him. "When he comes in here, they go right up to him," says
Darrell Perra, a manager of that Oneida Street Burger King.
"He's very approachable."
Last Friday morning a reporter approached Brown with a
complaint: So many condiments had fallen out of the
Gilbertburger he had purchased for the previous day's lunch that
he felt the urge to shower after consuming the unwieldy meal.
"Next time, have them cut it in half," Brown said. "Then eat it
out of the wrapper."
He interrupted the interview not long after, standing up
suddenly and saying, "We'll talk in the car. It's time to go get
the breakfast sandwiches."