September 26, 2017

The High-Rise and the Slurpee Cup: An Appreciation of Larry Brown

Where the NFL Hall of Fame is concerned, the past 40 years have been good times for the Washington Redskins. Over the past five years, Chris Hanburger, Russ Grimm, Darrell Green and Art Monk have been enshrined. George Allen was finally elected in 2002; Joe Gibbs in 1999; and “The Diesel”, John Riggins, in 1992. Before that, Charley Taylor was inducted in 1984, and both Sonny Jurgensen and Bobby Mitchell were honored in 1983. That’s a sizable chunk of the greatest ‘Skins of my lifetime. If I have fond memories of each, though (okay, at 50, I have a hard time conjuring images of Bobby Mitchell), none of them evokes the same childhood passion as one who’s not in the Hall, my favorite Redskin of all-time, Larry Brown.

I’m not advocating for Brown’s enshrinement in Canton; I understand that next to the greatest running backs in the game’s history, his totals pale by comparison. And anyway, I don’t really care that he’s not in the Hall of Fame, nor was ever a finalist. His body of work, as they say, was relatively brief, just five productive years, so it makes sense that he wasn’t ever considered one of the greats (although during the same comparative span, over their respective first five years, Brown actually amassed more yardage than did Gale Sayers, whose career was almost identical to Brown’s career). It’s enough that Brown is in the Redskins Ring of Fame, because it’s difficult to imagine any player ever meant more to his team than did number 43.

It may be that my favoritism came from proximity. When I was a kid growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., we lived not far from The Chateau, the high-rise apartment building where Brown lived, right next to the Beltway. Every time I’d pass by the place I’d imagine him inside his apartment; how he lived; the route he’d take on game days to RFK Stadium in the District, where the ‘Skins then played; even envision him at the local Safeway, where I was sure we both shopped. I once saw pictures of his living room in a magazine, with the shag carpets that were so prevalent in a bachelor pad of that era. I remember thinking it must have been cool to be Larry Brown.

I didn’t learn until years later, of course, how Vince Lombardi installed a hearing aid in Brown’s helmet after discovering that the running back, whom Lombardi had drafted in the eighth round of the ’69 draft, the 191st player taken, was hard of hearing. But as I rooted for the Allen-era Redskins (after Lombardi’s death, Bill Austin led the team to one sub-.500 season, then Allen began his legendary run), Brown’s toughness and running style came to symbolize the kind of team those Allen ‘Skins were: tenacious, resilient and tough, just so gosh darn tough. Watching Brown take a beating game after game, it was fitting that he later titled his autobiography, “I’ll Always Get Up.” He always did.

For those five years, Brown was one of football’s best runners. Beginning in his rookie season, 1969, he was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls; twice during that span he was also named First Team All-Pro. As a measure of his durability, Brown never finished worse than fourth in the league in carries, and among his two 1,000-yard seasons, he finished first in the league in 1970 and second two years later, when he rushed for a career-high 1,216 yards. The 1972 season was magical. Individually, in addition to the high-water mark in yards gained, Brown also led the league in both yards per game and yards from scrimmage, and his performance garnered a host of post-season awards, among them the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year and MVP, and the Bert Bell Award as the Player of the Year. Collectively, the ‘Skins finished 11-3 but lost to Miami in Super Bowl VII, although Brown ran as hard as ever in that game, finishing with 72 yards on 22 carries. That season was the pinnacle of Brown’s and Allen’s careers.

That’s probably the year I got the Slurpee cup. Just as with the excitement of finding my favorite baseball player in a package of Topps baseball cards, I remember the same feeling when my local 7-Eleven finally brought out Brown’s cup among the Redskins’ series. I’m sure I filled it with the Coke flavor Slurpee, because that’s just about the only kind I ever gulped. That cup sat on my dresser for years. Eventually, I filled it with pennies. I’m not sure whatever happened to it; for nostalgia’s sake, I wish I still had it.

By 1973, Brown was for all intents and purposes finished. Although he gained 860 yards that season, he only averaged 3.2 yards per carry. He couldn’t overcome debilitating knee injuries after that, and carried his final twenty times in 1976. Then he retired. Allen wore him out.

Man, was Brown tough.

Thanks for the memories, Larry.