Seeing Is Believing An errant penalty flag nearly blinded him in one eye and it idled him for three years, but Orlando Brown returns to the field a more forgiving man

June 08, 2003

As recently as December, Orlando Brown felt as if there were
hundreds of needles poking the back of his right eye. Doctors had
told Brown, the former Cleveland Browns tackle, that the
sensation could be an encouraging sign, an indication that the
eye, injured in December 1999 when accidentally struck by a
penalty flag thrown in an NFL game, was trying to dilate as it
should. But Brown was never sure if that was true, or if they
were just trying to give him hope that his vision would return to
normal. ¶ All Brown could do was pray and pedal a stationary
bike, one of the few forms of exercise that the doctors
allowed. On football Sundays, peering at the TV through the
dark sunglasses he wore to protect his eye from light, Brown
studied the offensive linemen, and he pedaled even harder. "I'd
go for three, four hours at a time, just pumping and pumping,"
he says. "It was my therapy. I would just watch and ride, and
in my mind I kept saying, I'm coming back. I'm coming back."

Finally, he can say it out loud. After missing more than three
seasons, the 6'7", 350-pound Brown, better known around the
league as Zeus, is back in the NFL. With the vision in his right
eye improved from legally blind to 20/25, Brown, 32, was
medically cleared to play again, and on March 18 he signed a
one-year, $1 million free-agent contract with the Baltimore
Ravens. "It's too early to tell whether he can get back to being
one of the best tackles in the league," says Ravens executive
vice president Ozzie Newsome. "But after what Zeus has already
gone through, would you bet against him?"

When Brown participated in a minicamp last month, it was the
first time he had suited up since the game in which referee Jeff
Triplette unintentionally derailed the big tackle's career. In
calling a false start against Cleveland center Jim Bundren,
Triplette threw his flag, which is weighted with BBs, toward the
spot of the infraction. It sailed between the bars of Brown's
face mask, striking his right eye. "One minute everything was
fine," says Brown, "and the next minute--boom!--darkness, pain."
He staggered toward the sideline holding his eye, then headed
back toward the middle of the field and shoved Triplette to the
ground. Brown was immediately ejected from the game, and three
days later he was suspended indefinitely by the league. But by
then he was in a Cleveland hospital, with bleeding and swelling
behind the eye as well as blurred vision. The discomfort plagued
him for most of the next two years.

Triplette told a reporter after the game that he had tried to
apologize to Brown. "Certainly there was every effort to
apologize because it was totally unintentional and inadvertent,"
he said. "I've been officiating almost 30 years and never had
anything like this happen."

The NFL lifted its suspension of Brown in February 2000, and
seven months later, at the start of the season, Cleveland
released Brown, negating the final five years of his six-year,
$27 million contract. (He had been paid a $7.5 million signing
bonus and $500,000 in base salary in the first year of the deal.)
Brown eventually hired attorney Johnnie Cochran to represent him
in a $200 million lawsuit against the NFL that was settled late
last year. Brown and league officials decline to comment on the
suit, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Whatever money Brown may have recouped can't compensate him for
all his suffering over the last 3 1/2 years. His mother,
Catherine, had a stroke, which Brown is convinced was brought on
by the stress of worrying about him. His father, Claude, who lost
his own vision to glaucoma 10 years ago, was so angry at the
NFL's handling of the situation that Orlando had to stop talking
to him about it. Last year Orlando and his wife, Mira, separated;
their three sons, Orlando Jr., 6, Justin, 5, and Braxton, 3, live
with their mother in a Baltimore suburb near Orlando's house. "I
won't blame it all on the flag, but [the stress caused by that]
was definitely a big part," Brown says of the failed marriage.

Brown's life was in upheaval, but the condition of his eye
remained maddeningly unchanged. He visited doctors in Cleveland,
Baltimore and New York City, none of whom could tell him that the
pain, white flashes and blurred vision would go away. There was a
chance that the eye would repair itself, he was told, but there
was no guarantee. For more than a year after the accident Brown
was warned to avoid strenuous physical activity because excess
bleeding and a buildup of pressure might cause permanent damage
to the eye.

All the while he was not only frustrated by his inability to see
clearly but also by the way he felt that others perceived him.
After the suspension Brown believed he was unfairly portrayed as
a thug with so little respect for authority that he intentionally
assaulted a referee. Brown insists that, after being injured, he
did not go after Triplette, though Brown stood over the fallen
ref before some players pulled him away. "I was going back to
finish the game," Brown says. "I didn't even know it was the ref
who hurt me. I thought the defensive lineman I was playing
against, Renaldo Wynn, had poked me in the eye, and I wanted to
keep playing so I could tear his ass up. I was mad, I couldn't
see straight, and all of a sudden some ref was trying to keep me
from going to my huddle, so I pushed him away. I didn't mean to
push him to the ground, and I sure wasn't trying to get back at
him."

As it turned out, Brown was lucky to have been ejected. Doctors
later told him that so much pressure was building on his eye from
the internal bleeding that had he stayed in the game instead of
going to the hospital shortly after the incident, they might not
have been able to save the eye. "People ask me what I'm going to
do when I see that ref," Brown says. "I'm going to kiss him,
that's what I'm going to do. If he hadn't thrown me out, I would
have lost my eye. You know what else? He brought me closer to
God. I wasn't the churchgoing kind before this happened, but
without prayer, I never would have made it through these last
couple of years."

One of the first questions that will be answered in minicamp will
be, Is Brown still as devilish on the field as he was before the
injury? His career began in 1984 at H.D. Woodson High in
Washington, D.C., a year after his junior high school's principal
had told Brown's mother that in order for her son "to survive
here, he has got to fight. If he doesn't fight, they'll make a
punk out of him." The school's football coach suggested Brown
display his force on the football field, which he did. As a
senior at South Carolina State, Brown was still so raw that the
only way he thought he could impress Cleveland pro personnel
assistant Scott Pioli, now general manager of the New England
Patriots, was to plow into Pioli during an on-campus workout and
send him flying two different times.

Cleveland signed Brown, who had gone undrafted, to a free agent
contract in 1993, and he quickly established himself as a danger
not only to opponents but also to teammates because of his
frequent fights in practice. In an attempt to keep Brown from
scuffling, coach Bill Belichick sometimes had him practice in
only a T-shirt and shorts while the rest of the team wore helmets
and pads. "They thought I was crazy," Brown says. "Every day
[during his rookie season] they asked me to see a psychiatrist.
Seriously. Every day. One of the coaches even asked my wife for
tips on how to talk to me without setting me off."

The Ravens are hoping that Brown, who will wear a tinted visor on
his face mask as well as goggles underneath, can channel his
aggression and inflict most of his punishment on game opponents,
and that he can regain his status as one of the league's better
run blockers. "I'm not going to be as crazy as I used to be," he
says. "I'm a little older and a lot wiser after the long, hard
road I've been down. When you've been away from something you
love as long as I have, you appreciate it more." When Brown says
he is seeing things clearly these days, he's not just talking
about his eyes.

COLOR PHOTO: RICK WILSON/FLORIDA TIMES-UNION/AP MOMENT OF RAGE Brown says he shoved Triplette not in retaliation but for keeping him from returning to the Browns' huddle. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS USHER/APIX COLOR PHOTO: JEFF ZELEVANSKY/AP DAMAGES Brown, with attorneys Cochran (above, right) and Clifford Stern, settled a $200 million lawsuit against the NFL. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID I. ANDERSON/CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER [See caption above]

"One minute everything was fine," says Brown of being hit in the
eye with the penalty flag, "and the next minute--BOOM!--DARKNESS,
PAIN."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)