When the Pittsburgh Steelers took Max Starks IV of Florida in the
third round of the 2004 draft, they extended a legacy dating back
more than two decades. A 6'7", 359-pound left tackle nicknamed
the Undertaker (he worked in his parents' funeral home as a kid),
Starks is the fifth member of his family to be drafted by an NFL
team. "People come up to me and say, 'I'm glad you're continuing
that tradition,'" Starks says. "'Your father and uncles were
But not until five years ago did the 22-year-old Orlando native
know he had any NFL relatives. On Valentine's Day 1999, Ross
Browner, a former defensive end with the Cincinnati Bengals,
received a letter from an old girlfriend, Elleanor Starks. In it
she informed Browner that he was the father of her 17-year-old
son, Max, and enclosed photographs of the boy, who bore a strong
resemblance to Ross. "For two people who never knew each other,"
says Elleanor, "they laughed, walked and talked alike. Ross put
some strong genes into that boy."
"I was really surprised that it took so long for me to learn that
I had another son," says Browner, who has Rylan, 13, with his
wife of 17 years, Shayla Simpson. "That letter from Elleanor was
the first time I'd heard from her since April of 1981." (Max was
born on Jan. 10, 1982.)
A month after contacting Browner, Elleanor realized she had to
tell her son about his biological father before he heard it from
someone else. A burgeoning talent at Lake Highland High in
Orlando, Max was about to make an unofficial junior-year visit to
Southern Cal, where--unknown to him--his uncles Joey and Keith
Browner had played; Elleanor feared Max might learn of his
connection to the Browners while in L.A. "Max looks just like his
uncle Joey," says Elleanor, "so at that point I decided to
straighten it all out."
May 23, 2004
Father and son finally met in the summer of '99, when Ross picked
up Max after a Georgia football camp. "When we saw each other, we
hugged and held each other for awhile," says Ross. "I think
learning about me helped him answer some questions about his size
and all the other things he had going for him."
During that visit, Browner took Max to his home in Atlanta, where
he showed him mementos of his playing days. It's no small
collection--Browner was a two-time All-America at Notre Dame; the
third overall pick in the 1978 draft, he played nine seasons for
the Cincinnati Bengals, and in Super Bowl XVI against the San
Francisco 49ers he had 10 solo tackles. "I saw everything," says
Max. "The national championship ring, the Sports Illustrated
covers, the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award."
Football became the common ground upon which father and son could
build a relationship. During Max's senior year of high school, he
and Browner discussed the merits of schools he was considering
(including Notre Dame). Browner also encouraged Max to study tape
of his former teammate, Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz.
The study paid off--Max was a three-year starter at Florida, and
as a senior last season he was not beaten for a sack by a
Max, who remains close to Max III, the father he grew up with (he
and Elleanor divorced in 1990), calls his relationship with
Browner a work in progress. Browner says his priority is to
develop a strong parental bond with Max, but he doesn't hesitate
to offer football advice. "I've already learned a lot from Ross
about how to be an NFL player," says Max. "It's nice having
someone who knows exactly what the man across the line is trying
Max Starks's father, Ross Browner, and three of Ross's five
brothers played in the NFL. Here's a look at the Browner family
ROSS A standout defensive end at Notre Dame, he was picked eighth
in the 1978 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and played nine
JIMMIE A teammate of Ross's at Notre Dame, he was a 12th-round
pick of Cincinnati in the '79 draft and played two seasons at
safety with the Bengals.
JOEY After a stellar collegiate career as a defensive back at
USC, he was a first-round pick of the Vikings in '83; named to
the Pro Bowl six times in 10 seasons.
KEITH A second-round pick of the Buccaneers in '84, out of
Southern Cal, he played five NFL seasons at outside linebacker,
three of them with Tampa Bay.
JULIA The Browner family matriarch was the 1987 NFL Mother of the