A sight to behold: Orlando Brown—who battled for nearly four years to get back onto the field after suffering a major eye injury in 1999—exemplifies the power of perseverance

Tom Worgo

BALTIMORE RAVENS RIGHT TACKle Orlando Brown was gone so long, some people forget he ever played in the NFL. Before September 2003, Brown had been away from the sport for nearly four years, ever since a freak accident in December 1999 in which a penalty flag thrown by referee Jeff Triplett caught the then-Cleveland Browns player in the right eye and caused a succession of serious vision problems.

Now? It’s as if he never left. In fact, he’s one of the greatest stories going.

Brown had serious doubts he would ever play again. And the fact that his father, Claude, lost his vision to glaucoma only heightened his fears. “That flag humbled me, but I have gotten a second chance and I have taken advantage of it,” Brown says. “It was a blessing from God to get hit by that flag.”

Brown’s return after such a long layoff amazed his teammates and coaches. After the Ravens signed him last March, the second-guessing began: Would he be in shape? Did he still have the desire to play? Had his skills eroded?

“If it was me, I don’t know if I could have made it back,” says Baltimore’s perennial Pro Bowl left tackle, Jonathan Ogden, a close friend. “It wasn’t like he was in his second year when he was hurt. He was in his seventh year. To sit out years eight, nine, and 10 and then come back in your 11th, that’s impressive. It’s a testament to how much he really wanted to play.”

For his part, Brown never seriously considered walking away from the game, even after receiving a reported $25 million settlement from the NFL over his eye injury. Though he struggled with blurred vision and white spots as recently as 2002, Brown worked relentlessly to stay in top physical condition.

He needed to work even harder to convince the doubters he still could play, including Ravens offensive line coach Jim Colletto. Eventually, though, Colletto changed his mind and even called Brown a better player now than he was five years ago.

“I didn’t think he moved very well [prior to his injury], and I told him that,” Colletto says. “I was skeptical when we invited him in. He surprised me dramatically. He wasn’t fat–he wasn’t out of shape. He had really taken good care of himself. He had done a lot of physical work.”

Brown’s readjustment to the NFL went more smoothly than anyone could have possibly anticipated. It wasn’t long before he became a valuable contributor to the Ravens and took the starting job away from five-year veteran Ethan Brooks.

“I can’t think of anyone else like him,” St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz says of Brown. “He’s quite a story.”

Brown played two quarters in the 2003 season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, rotating with Brooks, who had started 13 games the previous year. They split time over the next two games, but by the fourth week, against the Kansas City Chiefs, Brown had established himself as the Ravens’ fulltime right tackle.

It truly was an amazing journey for Brown. At one point in his rehabilitation, he was deemed legally blind in his right eye, but his vision has improved to 20-25 with glasses. Even though Brown’s eye was permanently damaged by the injury, he somehow has found a way to do his job on the field.

“My vision isn’t what it used to be,” says the 33-year-old Brown, who wears a was a formidable tinted shield on his facemask to protect his eye and block the sun. “I don’t have to adjust my style of play, though. I have my good days and had days. Sometimes the sun bothers me and my eyes can be blurry from the light, but it’s not that bad. My peripheral vision is good. I can see a blitzing linebacker or cornerback. I can see the slot receiver.”

The financial details of Brown’s return areas surprising as the comeback itself. According to his agent, Tom Condon, Brown turned down a four-year, $14 million offer from the Minnesota Vikings to sign a one-year, $1 million deal with Baltimore.

See, this was about more than money for Brown. While he was out of the game, Brown remained close with Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome. His teammates also say he has an affinity for the Ravens, who (when they were the Browns before moving to Baltimore) signed him as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State in 1993. Moreover, Brown, who is divorced, wanted to be close to his three children in Baltimore and his elderly parents in his hometown of Washington D.C.

“This was just a natural place for him to come,” Ogden says. “He is close to his family. He enjoyed his first few years here, and he obviously didn’t like leaving. He gave up a lot of money to play here. You don’t see that a whole lot.”

The path Brown traveled to become an NFL starter also is somewhat uncommon. Scouts didn’t have much use for him, partially because he ran a snail-like 5.6 in the 40-yard dash. But Cleveland gave him a shot, and Brown spent six years with Browns/Ravens before the expansion Browns signed him to a six-year, $27 million deal, including a $7.5 million, bonus after the 1998 season. Not long after that, of course, Brown’s career was derailed by the eye injury.

During his first tour of duty in the Sports Illustrated named him the dirtiest player in the league. He received that label in 1998, after the magazine conducted a poll of players. Even his teammates voted for him. Brown never has protested the dirty-player charge, saying he developed his style in high school and college.

“I always fought in high school and college,” Brown says. “When I came into the league, I had to get their attention. I made the team by fighting. I tried to hurt everybody, I remember one day hitting a guy in the throat. I used to be mad all the time. I would leave the huddle pissed.”

Brown says that age and adversity have mellowed him a bit, though. He doesn’t fight nearly as often as he once did, and he has attracted far less attention from officials, who used to regularly penalize him.

“I used to play more out of control,” Brown says. “That flag [to the eye] has humbled me a little bit. I still play with an attitude, I am still Zeus, I still cuss–but I do a lot more thinking. Now I am not a crazed guy out there.”

Ogden, however, begs to differ. “Maybe he’s a little milder, maybe his kids have softened him up a little bit, but taking it down from a 10 to a nine is still pretty high as far as intensity goes.”

Indeed, flashes of the old Brown still occur from time to time. The league fined him $5,000 in 2003 for leg-whipping Kansas City defensive end Eric Hicks. Says Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Tony Brackens: “He’s still nasty. He’s still Zeus. Same cat.”

Colletto loves the toughness Brown brings to Baltimore’s offensive line, which paved the way for running back Jamal Lewis’ 2,064-yard season in 2003. As solid as Ogden, guards Bennie Anderson and Edwin Mulitalo, and center Mike Flynn had been, the line still lacked an element of nastiness prior to Brown’s return. That had been missing from the Ravens since Brown started alongside guard Jeff Blackshear from 1996 through ’98.

“We don’t have a more physical, tenacious, or tough guy,” Colletto says of Brown. “He is a tenacious, determined individual. He loves to play football and his comfort zone is playing football. You really wouldn’t know he missed that much time.”

Says linebacker Ray Lewis, who is the heart and soul of the Ravens: “He has an attitude that we needed. He is a gladiator.”

The other Lewis, Jamal, adds: ‘He wears a defense down with his attitude.”

Ironically, the injury Brown suffered may wind up extending his career. For a man his age, he says his body feels remarkably fresh. In fact, he feels his best years may be ahead of him.

“When guys turn 32 or 33, they are on their way out of the league,” Brown says. “Their bodies are beat up. I have been off for three years, and I got a chance to rest up.”

Given what he has overcome, Brown is an inspiration to players all over the league, even those who are charged with shedding his blocks on Sundays. Says Brackens, “He still has years left in him, and I am glad to see him back. He is an asset to our sport.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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