October 13, 2017
A strange thing happened this week after transcribing Bob Brown’s answers to a dozen questions I asked him last week. His answers were so kind, sophisticated and graceful, I hesitate to disrupt a telephone interview that was as poignant, tender and touching as any interview that I have had in 50 years as a professional writer.
One of only three Huskers enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, Brown came to Lincoln from Cleveland, Ohio, and I will say this: His voice is as relevant now as it was in 1960. So please allow me to get out of the way, so you can listen to the heart and the soul of an incredible man who appreciates the University of Nebraska as much as anyone I have ever known. Please read on to understand why:
“It all started at the University of Nebraska. We had a great coach and a great coaching staff and it leaves me humbled to know that a young black kid from Cleveland left Ohio, a state I had never been out of in my life. I migrated to Lincoln, Nebraska. I ran into some of the finest people I have ever known in my life and then moved from there and was finally be elevated into the University of Nebraska Hall of Fame. That is as good as it gets.
“I liked the people in Nebraska. I was just kind of a wild-assed kid who had never been out of town in my life. I had just turned 18 and my first move was my biggest move – to Nebraska, a different state, a different place and a different culture and I was just so well received.
“You got to remember this was 1960 when the country was going through all types of growing pains. There were racial problems all over the country and I happened to land in a place where I was always treated with respect and decency.
“I think it was that whole Midwestern honest, hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone type of folks, and I just fit right into that. I came from a very good home with my mom and dad. I was raised with real good values, and I fell into a situation where I was surrounded by people who had values that were very similar to my own.”
In 1960, Civil Rights Had Not Even Begun, but Brown Was ‘Very Comfortable’ Living in Nebraska
“In 1960, civil rights hadn’t even begun. I was very comfortable where I was in Nebraska. I just ran into some very, very nice people.
“When I first met Cleveland, I had two intentions – 1) to play football at the University of Nebraska as a scholarship athlete and 2) follow the edict from my dad to graduate and not just be around there as a football player. When I arrived, I found that was what the coaching staff and the university wanted for me, too.
“They didn’t just want my broad-stone back. They were trying to give me something back, and they did. I received a great education at a fine institution, and I had the privilege of playing football. At that time, Nebraska was in the Big Eight Conference, but its football was as good as anyplace else in the country.
“I had the best of all worlds. I could not have been luckier.
“I remember when we beat Oklahoma in Lincoln to go to the Orange Bowl. I’ll never forget it because we lost to Oklahoma the year before, and they rained on us by throwing oranges onto the field. God bless my Nebraska teammates. When we beat them in Lincoln, we rained oranges onto our field.
“I will never forget that. My favorite experience was playing in the Orange Bowl. In 1963, there was Alabama and Auburn, and there were questions about tension in the air. But it went as smooth as anything could be because we walked away victorious. Those were my two real highlights in my college football career at Nebraska.
“To have the opportunity to play at a very high level and knowing that when I stepped on the field in Philadelphia, I was as prepared as I could possibly be prepared because I came to the NFL from the tutelage of Bob Devaney. I was ready to go. There was never a doubt in my mind to play at that level because I came from a great program, I was taught by a great coach, and had a great staff. I never even considered failure. I knew that I could play in the NFL because I was prepared to go.”
When Bob Devaney Came to Nebraka from Wyoming, He Brought a Winning Staff with Him
“When Bob Devaney came in from Wyoming, he brought a winning staff with him. More importantly, he brought a winning attitude to Nebraska, and I bought into what he was selling – we were not just going to play in the Big Eight. We were going to be from an institution that was going to dominate in the Big Eight. We all bought into that. Bob was such a great coach. More importantly, he was a great man. He was a very sensitive man. His door was always open. I had many, many discussions with him and I always left those discussions feeling better.
“Nebraska was the starting point for me and it was just a great place for an 18-year-old to meet people like a man. Coach Devaney had a winning attitude, and he created a tradition of winning at Nebraska.
“Every young guy coming from a high school program enjoys the experience of coming to Lincoln, looking around and meeting people there. Lincoln has so many intangible things that we take for granted…the university, the program, the coaches…it’s almost inexplicable to me.
“I just think that every young kid who’s an athlete should have an opportunity to live the Nebraska experience because you’ll walk away smiling like I did. I can absolutely guarantee it.
“In the old days when I was a player, the game started by blowing a whistle and it always ended when the referee fired a gun into the air. The best advice I can give is to be a relentless player. Play every down so that when you’re my age, at 75 years old, I can look in the mirror and say I like the guy I see.
“Play as hard against Iowa State and Kansas as you did against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Those are points that a lot of guys don’t even think about when you’re young. When you reflect as an old guy like I am now, you can look in the mirror and say ‘I gave everything I had’.
“I didn’t cheat my teammates. I didn’t cheat my university and for sure, I didn’t cheat myself. You can’t have that prosperity without building that foundation.”
Not Surprisingly, Hall-of-Famer Bob Brown’s Most Memorable Life Lesson Was a Team Experience
“My most memorable life lesson is that football is a team experience. In order to win or really be successful as a team, you have to respect and give to your teammates, so you can become The Guy. Sometimes, someone may be more talented, but nobody ever walked this planet and worked harder than I did.
“I just never cheated the game. I gave everything I had in me in college and in the NFL. You do not cheat the game. You buy into the principle and give it all up on Saturdays in college and on Sundays in the pros. If you do that, you can walk away with your dignity intact. That is what it was for me.
“I never had the expectation that I would be in the College Football Hall of Fame or the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I never played with that purpose in mind. It can be held in high esteem and get you inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. It is a great honor and gives you a chance to reflect back and say ‘well, maybe I did do it right.’
“When you think about it, you can say ‘Way to go Bob’ and then move to the next level and be celebrated and considered a good enough athlete to make it into the National Football League Hall of Fame. I can imagine that being the dream of every kid who has ever thrown or caught a football anywhere in America.
“It becomes part of a dream that you never think will become a reality. I did not plan on it at all. Sometimes, it is like being in a fog and it’s almost inexplicable. You know that you’ve achieved these things, but never did you have the expectation that you would necessarily reach those goals. It’s such a warm and rewarding feeling to know at the end of your career, you can look back and live out and say ‘wow, I must have done a pretty good job because people are celebrating me for what I’ve done.’ Now that I’m going into my University of Nebraska Hall of Fame, you’ve done it all. It’s reached the height that there’s no other place for me to go.
“When people are very good at what they do, they don’t have to work real hard at what they do, but they work hard anyway. I know that sounds crazy, but it is true. Coach Devaney was a great coach. He came to Nebraska with a concept and he convinced us and me that we have the talent here and we are going to turn this program around fast.
“He had a plan in place and he executed it. We stayed true to the course, and sure enough, he took us to the promise land. He did what he said he was going to do. I can’t say enough loyal things about Coach Devaney. He was my coach and in the later years, he would contact me periodically. He always called me Robert, never Bob.”
Hall-of-Famer Bob Devaney Was an Important Instrument in Bob Brown’s Life in a Very Positive Way
“He would have a little note about what I was doing in the pros. He kept track of me and I can’t tell you how important those notes were to me. I still have letters from him upstairs in the house right now. I even made a scrapbook. I am not the most sentimental guy, but those letters mean a lot to me. Bob Devaney was an important instrument in my life in such a positive way.
“I never, ever thanked him enough for being my head coach at Nebraska. He was a person I could call and lean on whenever I needed to.
“Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne were both winners. They had winning attitudes. They were great teachers who had a great amount of confidence and shared that with others. They knew the direction they wanted the program to go .
“Great men do great things, and we’re talking about two of the greatest college football coaches in history, and they coached back-to-back. How do you explain that kind of greatness?
“I know it’s been almost two decades since Nebraska has won a conference championship. We all ask the same question: How can we get back to the days?”
Bob Brown: We Have the Greatest Fan Base in the Country, and That is Definitely Important
“I think that the program will continue to grow. It will require good management, good coaching and good recruiting. The pool of players has thinned out for schools that can get quality players. We have to stay the course. We have a great program and great history. We had great coaches like Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne. We just have to stay in there and not give up on the program. We have the greatest fan base in the country, and that is definitely important. Sellouts every week for more than half a century. Nobody has that, and everybody wants it. No one else can say what we can say. Our fans deserve winning programs, and we will definitely win again.
“Sometimes, these things are cyclical. We will catch that lightening in the bottle again. The program will rise, and it will not take 10 years or even 5 years. I truly believe we can be in the hunt in the next year or two. I still live in Oakland (Calif). I am the ultimate Nebraska Cornhusker Big Red fan. I really am. I hoop and I hollar, and I twist and turn so much, my wife reminds me to stick to the rules we agreed on.
“Sometimes she asks me if I’m all right, and I tell her I’m okay. I just get excited when it comes to Nebraska football. Any game that’s televised and Nebraska’s playing, I’m always watching for sure, and I’m always excited about it.”
Editor’s note: Bob Brown, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee who also has been enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is unable to attend this weekend’s ceremonies. Brown will show his appreciation via video from Oakland, Calif. Five of six inductees will visit Lincoln this weekend, including Scott Johnson Men’s Gymnastics (1980-83); Karen (Dahlgren) Schonewise, Volleyball (1983-86); Denise Day, Softball (1982-85), Outdoor Track and Field (1985); Rich Glover, Football (1970-72); and Dave Hoppen, Men’s Basketball (1983-86).
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