With college football set to honor the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner this weekend, we take a look back 30 years ago, when Tim Brown captivated the country’s attention. In the summer of 2015, I spoke with Brown about his life, upbringing, special relationship with Lou Holtz, his remarkable college career and much more for our Shadow League feature story, The Making of Tim Brown.
As we celebrate what he accomplished back in 1987, we’ve re-purposed that story below to give some nuance to who Tim Brown is and where he came from.
Tim Brown was alone in his thoughts, silently staring out of the window through the rain and drizzle on a chilly winter Friday evening in New York City on December 4th, 1987. Five stories above the lip of lower Manhattan, less than a half-mile south of the World Trade Center, he sat in room 522 at the Downtown Athletic Club, looking out onto the Hudson River, transfixed by the Statue of Liberty across the water on Liberty Island.
It was his first time seeing the sculpture that served as a colossal symbol of freedom and the inherent promise of the American dream.
The shifty, speedy, flashy, senior flanker and kick-return specialist from the University of Notre Dame sat there for hours, his gaze uninterrupted by a surrounding, swirling media frenzy taking place below him.
Brown was in New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy back in 87, along with the other contenders for the prestigious award like Syracuses Don McPherson, Holy Cross Gordy Lockbaum, Michigan States Lorenzo White and Pitts Craig Ironhead Heyward.
The Heisman would be awarded the next day, on Saturday evening, and with his mind racing during one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of his young life, he found solace in simply listening to the sounds of the bustling city and looking at Lady Liberty.
I had all of this craziness going on in my head, thinking about whether or not I was going to win, said Brown. And I was just looking out of the window, amazed. I stood there for hours before getting into bed and trying to get some sleep. When you think about winning the Heisman Trophy and being recognized as the best college football player in the country, its pretty overwhelming.
In a recent interview with Fighting Irish Digital Media, Tim Brown looked back on his 1987 season and how winning the Heisman Trophy became a definitive moment in his life. Follow along with 125 Years of Notre Dame Football at 125.nd.edu and #NDFB125.
In Tim Browns case, it seemed nearly implausible as well. A few years prior, while attending Dallas Woodrow Wilson High School, his biggest sports dream was to play point guard for either Duke or the University of North Carolinas basketball teams.
The pragmatist in him, however, before the recruiting letters began arriving during his 11th grade year from some of the countrys top football powerhouses, simply envisioned attending a local junior college, and then finishing up with a Bachelors Degree from a nearby university before going to work in the computer field.
Hed never envisioned athletic stardom for himself, even during his first two years at Notre Dame.
But when one coach saw things in the young player that Brown had admittedly never seen in himself, he experienced a paradigm shift in his thinking. His life trajectory would become forever altered.
Tim Brown himself, Notre Dame, college football, and later, the National Football League, would all become the beneficiaries of that altered trajectory.
Browns family roots stretch back to Louisiana. His mother, Josephine, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and the youngest of seven children, was twelve years old when she met Eugene Brown.
Eugene would routinely ride a horse named Chester for ten miles in order to come courting.
By the time they were married, when Josephine turned 18, the young couple already had three children. Eugene, who grew up in Monroe, Louisiana, was the oldest of ten kids.
My fathers mother had a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, so he had to quit high school during his freshman year to help support his family, said Brown.
That meant working long, arduous hours in the unforgiving cotton fields. Eugenes father, in search of better opportunities to provide for his family other than picking cotton, migrated to Dallas, Texas. Once on his feet, he sent for Eugene, arranging for him to work on a construction crew.
Once settled, and with enough savings to rent his own apartment, Eugene sent for Josephine and his children in the early 1960s. Tim was born in Dallas in 1966. For his first seven years, the family lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment in a shabby building located at 4315 Copeland Street.
The neighborhood was not the best, and Eugene made sure to let everyone in the area know that he kept a healthy supply of guns, just in case anyone had any thoughts of robbing him or bothering his family.
Growing up in South Dallas, we were poor, but we didnt know we were poor because we were all poor together, said Brown. I had friends, cousins, uncles and aunties who all lived nearby, so we were one big, happy family that got along as best as we could.
At an early age, Tim noticed the effect that his father had when he walked into a room, and how people deferred to and looked up to him.
My father was not a big man, but when he spoke, not only did people listen, but they didnt talk back said Brown. And Im talking about adults. Id observe him talking to his brothers or other men and when he said something, that was the end of it.
Brown once walked in on his father repeatedly, forcefully slapping one of his brothers in the back of the head while saying, Dont you treat your wife like that. Dont you put your hands on her!
His brother didnt argue or fight back, said Brown. He just kept saying, Okay Gene, alright Gene.
Brown also observed his fathers work ethic, which he would later incorporate into his own adult life. He never saw him miss a day of work, even when he was sick.
I never heard him say, Im not going to work, or I dont feel good, said Brown. Later on in life, one of my mantras simply became, Get out of the bed, put your shoes on and lets see what happens next.
Tim Brown talks through some of his amazing plays he made leading up to him winning the Heisman Trophy.
Every weekday morning, Eugene was out of the house by 6:30am, en route to his job as a foreman on a construction crew. By 4:30 pm, his blue Buick Riviera was pulling up at home. After watching the evening news, eating dinner and taking a quick nap, he was off to his other job, managing a nightclub that he owned on Dolphin Street The Chandlelight.
It was a big hole in the wall that held about 100 people, said Brown. I dont know whether he was smart, cunning, or both, but in the summer, hed turn the air-conditioning off and sell a cup of ice for $2. That was more than he was selling a cup of beer for. On some Saturdays, during the day, wed go there to hang out with Dad and shoot some pool. But never once did I step foot in there at night. That was a no-no.
But a month before his 13th birthday, a relatively minor incident occurred between Tim and his father that would fracture their relationship for years to come.
A MISUNDERSTANDING FESTERS
It was a typical weekend night at the Brown residence. The family was now living in their own two-bedroom home on Culver Street, which was situated on a Hill in East Dallas. Brown was up late, watching television in the den with the lights out while his older brother was in his room in the converted garage. His mother and sisters were asleep.
He didnt hear his father come home from the Chandlelight and was surprised when Eugene turned the TV off, turning the room pitch black.
Hey Pop, Im still watching it! Tim yelled, somewhat startled.
Smelling of alcohol, Eugene began screaming, You coming after me? Im gonna kill you!
His father continued shouting, loud enough to awaken the neighbors, as he went outside to pop the car trunk. Tim immediately knew what that meant. His father was going for one of his guns.
Im getting my gun and Im gonna kill you!
I realized that the man who was yelling at me was a different man than the one I had known, said Brown, who began screaming for his mother to come in and help. My dad routinely came home with alcohol on his breath, but I never saw it make him violent.
Josephine ran out to the driveway, and her quiet words seemed to calm her husband down. Tim cowered in a corner of the den. He was relieved when his father went to bed and thought the misunderstanding would sort itself out the next morning.
I thought, Hey, tomorrow will be ok because hell understand that I wasnt coming after him, said Brown. But instead of him apologizing, I remember him telling me, Youll never amount to anything. When you go to jail, dont call me because Im not coming to get you out.
Hearing this, Tim was dumbfounded. He figured that if he continued to get good grades in school, and if he continued to excel in sports, his dad would come to see the error in his statements.
No matter what I did, no matter how much good I did in school and in sports, it didnt matter, said Brown. It was something that we just lived with. There was direct conversation, but most of the time it was simply, Take the trash out, or something like that. There wasnt any, Hey boy! Whats going on with you?
I had a girlfriend who lived up the street, Brown continued. After school, Id hang out at her house until my curfew time. Maybe because I wasnt coming home, he thought I was running the streets. I hoped that bringing home good grades and excelling in sports would melt the ice. But it never happened.
The incident had one profound, tangible effect on him. Brown vowed, at that moment, to never take a sip of alcohol.
I said, If this will make you threaten to kill your own son, if this will make you treat your son like this, Im never going to touch it, said Brown.
A DOOR OPENS
Sports were not Tim Browns only interest growing up. He played drums in his church and as a freshman in high school, he actually stiff-armed football in order to play the bass drum in the Woodrow Wilson High School marching band.
His older brother Wayne had been an outstanding high school running back. Older sister Gwen was an all-district volleyball player. His other sister Ann was all-district in track, and she went on to become a college All-American in volleyball.
My parents never talked to me about playing sports, said Brown. My mom did not like football and she was very happy when I joined the band and didnt play as a ninth grader. I simply began playing sports because I wanted to be with my friends after school.
During the summer prior to his tenth grade year, while his mom thought he was going to band practice, Brown decided to ditch percussion for high school football.
I was really good when I played football in the 7th grade and realized then that I was fast and had the ability to make people miss in the open field,” Brown said. But I didnt know that I would make the varsity when I tried out.
After scoring some exciting touchdowns during his first few games as a sophomore, he appeared in the local paper and was labeled a Sophomore Sensation.
My mom didnt know that I wasnt still in the band, said Brown, chuckling at the recollection. Somebody called her and told her that I was in the paper. She hung up the phone and asked me what I had done to get into trouble. I didnt even know that I was in the paper.
Despite his talent, the football teams at Woodrow Wilson were atrocious. During his three-year varsity career, the most games they ever won in a season was two.
But during a Thursday night game as a junior, he had no idea how much his life would soon change. Against Skyline High, he scored four touchdowns on a punt return, kickoff return, a long pass and a long run from scrimmage.
In the stands was a Notre Dame coach who came to scout Skylines Dante Jones, who would go on to play in the NFL for eight years, mostly with the Chicago Bears. The next morning, the Notre Dame scout was asking Woodrow Wilsons head coach, Whos this Tim Brown kid and why dont I know anything about him?
When the recruiting mail started arriving from Notre Dame, I figured everybody was getting the same letters, said Brown. I thought, I guess everybody gets these. I remember telling my teammates, Hey, did you guys get your letters from Notre Dame? And they were like, No, we didnt get one.
Highlights of Notre Dame WR/KR Tim Brown from his award-winning 1987 season.
Once Notre Dame got into the recruiting mix, all of the major football powerhouses followed suit. Before long, Nebraskas Tom Osbourne was sitting in his living room. Barry Switzer made a visit as well. As did Texas A&Ms Jackie Sherrill, Iowas Hayden Fry, and a host of others.
Some renegade programs were offering much more than a football scholarship, too.
I really didnt know the rules in terms of what you could or couldnt do in recruiting, said Brown. When they told me that they could get my mom a new house, that my girlfriend could come with me and that they would give me X amount of dollars every month, I was like, OK, this is how it is.
After one coach filled his head with promises of cash, cars and a new home, he told his mother, Hey mom, this school said theyre gonna get you a new house.
Josephine Brown didnt know anything about football or college recruiting, but she hadnt been born yesterday. Tim, that does not sound right, she told him.
It took Notre Dame to tell us that if a school offered anything more than a scholarship, that was illegal recruiting, said Brown. We were like, Uh-oh, weve got an issue. But that simplified things for us. My mom felt disrespected that some schools would jeopardize my college opportunity, so all of those schools that were offering stuff under the table were out of the running.
After his last high school football game, his future was still in limbo. Hed idolized SMUs phenomenal running back Eric Dickerson, and even went so far as to wear a neck-roll and sprint down the sidelines while lifting his knees high in imitation.
The school had a great football team, strong academics and the campus was only five miles from his home, but the whispers of impending NCAA sanctions (the Mustangs eventually received the Death Penalty in 1987) took SMU out of the picture.
He visited Notre Dame in late January of 1984 as the campus was blanketed in snow. Walking along Notre Dame Avenue and seeing the famous Golden Dome awash in sunshine, the scenery and schools history of football excellence overwhelmed him.
At that moment, I knew that I was going to Notre Dame, said Brown.
During his first two years at Notre Dame, Brown was content to be a role player. The coaches didnt seem very confident in him. His playing time was sporadic. And yet, during his first year, he set the schools freshman record for receptions, snagging 28 passes for 340 yards. He also averaged 17.3 yards on seven kickoff returns.
During his sophomore year, he caught 25 balls, led the squad with 14 kickoff returns for 338 yards and scored five touchdowns. But he often felt like the coaching staff did not trust him.
After his second season, Head Coach Gerry Faust was fired, and the University of Minnesotas Lou Holtz was hired to replace him. During spring practices prior to his junior year, Holtz pulled Brown out of a wide receiver drill.
Son, tell me the story, Holtz told him.
What story? Brown queried.
Was it grades? Discipline issues? Why werent you playing more?
Coach, they just didnt play me.
Dont lie to me, Holtz said as his voice got louder. Theres no coaching staff in America dumb enough to not play you.
Convinced that Brown was being honest with him, Holtz walked away after saying, Son, unless the other team intercepts the snap from center, you will get the ball. You could be the best player in the country.
I was initially overwhelmed by that and thought he might have been blowing smoke, said Brown. I really didnt take him seriously, but those conversations and his encouragement continued. But once I bought into it, it was like, OK, let me see how good I can be. Lets work as hard as you can work. And by the end of spring practice, I began to believe what he was saying. I realized that I had the ability to be special because when the ball was in my hands, no one could touch me.
Tim Brown keyed Notre Dame’s legendary come from behind victory at USC in 1986 with a punt return late in the 4th quarter. Here’s an incredible giveaway for our alumni and fans. Switch to Sprint, and they’ll throw in a Tim Brown autographed mini-helmet. Supplies are limited. http://bit.ly/18bxxHU
In the Fighting Irishs 1986 season finale, he accumulated 254 all-purpose yards. Hed finished the year with 1,847 all-purpose yards and proved to be electrifying as a dual-purpose threat, shredding opponents as a runner, pass catcher and kick-returner. The Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist, Jim Murray, approached him after the USC game and said, Youre going to be my frontrunner for the Heisman next year.
My brother was there for that game, and afterwards I asked him, You think somebody might want me to play for them in the NFL? said Brown. And we both just laughed because that sounded so hilarious.
But during his senior year, there wasnt anything funny about that statement.
After upsetting Michigan on the road in their opening game, Notre Dame played Michigan State, and their Heisman candidate Lorenzo White, at home. His back-to-back punt return touchdowns within a two-minute span, along with his 275 all-purpose yards, placed him at the forefront of the Heisman discussion.
Listed as a flanker, Brown also took handoffs as a running back and was vicious, delicious and nutritious as a punt and kickoff returner and averaged 167.9 all-purpose yards per game. He finished his career as the school’s all-time leader with 2,493 receiving yards while also returning six kicks (three punts, three kickoffs) for touchdowns. Opposing coaches saw him as the most dangerous weapon in college football, and proved it by doubling and even triple-teaming him. And yet, he still could not be contained and went on to win the Heisman.
As part of the celebration of the 125th Year of football at the University of Notre Dame, 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown sits down for an exclusive interview with Fighting Irish Digital Media about his back-to-back punt returns against Michigan State in 1987.
Lou Holtz saw something in me that I didnt see in myself, said Brown. My first two years, mentally, Id been beaten down. The previous coaches never seemed excited about me being in the huddle. And I had become comfortable with just playing a little bit. I wasnt doing any extra work or doing anything harder than I needed to.
But Lou Holtz inspired me and gave me a vision, Brown continued. I cant even express the impact he had on my life. When someone comes into your life and shows you something that you didnt know was possible, its pretty remarkable. He made me believe in myself.