Orlando Brown Jr., son of 'Zeus,' was built for the storm
Meet the man who'll keep the Cincinnati Bengals' season alive. Orlando Jr. learned everything he needed to in football, in life from Orlando Sr. He knows one fact: "The mentally tough will survive."
CINCINNATI — This mansion of a left tackle isn’t going to compete with the seismic rap music inside the Cincinnati Bengals locker room, no, the 6-foot-8, 345-pounder with a freakishly vivid memory strides into the concourse area of Paycor Stadium and takes a seat.
He texts his massage therapist that he’ll be late. He has a box of dinner with him, but eats exactly one forkful this entire conversation.
His stories are hilariously raw and each time stadium-crew members motor by in ATVs, Orlando Brown Jr. pauses so no word gets lost in translation. From his WWE-like breakthrough in the sport to the infamous, uh, laptop story to why he chose these Bengals. His impersonations are uncanny. From his high school coach (Mark Fleetwood) to his college coach (Bob Stoops) to Ray Lewis to Dad. Of course, Orlando Brown Sr., the aptly named “Zeus,” was a Marvel character himself for the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, 1993 to 2005.
And Zeus outright outlawed his boy from playing this sport. It was torture. On the weekends, Orlando Jr. spent hours at Barnes & Noble reading everything he could on the history of the sport. He watched NFL Network, nonstop, never missing one “Top 10” show. He consumed every possible documentary. At a very early age, he gained a deep appreciation for the history of pro football. As in, its roots in the 60s and 50s. And while everyone else could only watch Lewis and Ed Reed on TV, the future Hall of Famers passed through his home on the Baltimore harbor.
He remembers Ed Reed telling his father how he’d deploy the slightest tweak in pre-snap body language to hoodwink Tom Brady into an interception.
He remembers Lewis explaining why he needs to physically touch his teammates during pregame. A gentle hand on the shoulder, Lewis said one night, is profound.
Here, Brown squints his eyes to harness his inner-Lewis. His voice is raspy, dramatic.
“I want ‘em to feel me,” he recalls Lewis saying. “I want my teammates to feel me. I want my brother to feel me. That’s why I go touch Ed and I say, ‘Ed, we going to do this shit.’”
Orlando Jr. only fell deeper, and deeper, in love with a sport he wasn’t even allowed to play.
Orlando Sr.’s intentions were pure — he was trying to shield his son from the chaos that rewired his brain for the worse. He thought he was protecting his son when, in truth, he was holding him back. Fighting human psychology. Admittedly living a “rich kid” lifestyle, his son was craving hard times. After ballooning to 450 pounds in eighth grade, enough was enough. Orlando Jr. told his father he was playing football and that he refused to take “no” for an answer. It was then that his father finally relented… with one caveat. If his boy was going to strap on the pads, he could not stop until he had played 10 seasons in the NFL and punched a ticket to Canton as a Pro Football Hall of Famer. No problem, pops. Orlando Jr. had just finished a book on Walter Payton and told himself that if the Chicago Bears running back could earn a gold jacket, hell, so could he.
Dad used to joke that playing football is no different than dealing dope. All the sport did was beat him down mentally. Mo money, mo problems, as the proverbs go.
Son, however, never wanted to hide from this world.
“It is mentally challenging,” Orlando Jr. says. “For me though, and I’ll tell my kids: I find the beauty in that. That’s what makes football so unique and so special. You’re able to separate yourself from men in different ways. And the mentally strong, the mentally tough will survive. And not only will they survive, they’ll thrive.”
Which brings us to the 2023 Cincinnati Bengals. A tragic tale.
Quarterback Joe Burrow has been lost for the season due to a torn ligament in his right wrist. Nobody expects anything out of a 5-5 team currently in last place. The Bengals have officially been erased from the national consciousness because Burrow is the one who revitalized the entire organization. Burrow earned every penny of the richest contract in NFL history. Burrow is the primary reason Orlando Brown Jr. even chose Cincinnati in free agency. This behemoth signed here to serve as the missing piece, as the protector of Joey Franchise. He’s well aware that the Bengals were one block away from winning the Super Bowl in 2021, then one block from reaching another in 2022.
He delivered a Super Bowl title to the Kansas City Chiefs and chose Cincinnati to do it again, to inch closer to fulfilling that promise to his Dad.
The timing of his arrival may now seem completely off.
He’s exactly what the Bengals need.
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Son did defy his father’s no-football mandate. Once. With an assist from his mother.
His parents were divorced, which made it easy to sneak into Baltimore’s youth football scene.
Orlando Jr. was only in second grade. But since Baltimore organized teams by weight (not age), the chubby 150-pounder played against eighth-graders. When Orlando Sr. found out they disobeyed him, he lost his mind. He took one look at his son’s jersey — “00” — and tried scaring him into never wanting to play again. “They don’t give a f--k about you!” Dad told him. “They put you in double zero!” (Note: Prepare yourself accordingly for Zeus’ language.)
Still, that brief appetizer of blocking and tackling only made Orlando Jr. yearn for more. Considering his own father was one of the best linemen in the NFL and he only grew… and grew… and grew himself, he became an easy target of mockery in school. Nobody could understand why the fattest kid in every room wasn’t on a football field. All this kid did was sit around, eat, play video games and swim in the pool with his brothers on the weekends from second to eighth grade. Orlando Jr. calls himself “a big kid doing nothing athletic.”
Looking back, he gets it.
Dad’s NFL climb was grueling.
Growing up in the streets of D.C., Orlando Sr. saw peers shot and killed. Often. He originally attended Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio and, his freshman year, returned to D.C. for the funeral of a 14-year-old cousin because his mother insisted on attending despite his warnings of potential violence. As everyone mourned, five men suddenly walked in, kicked the casket over and shot the body up. He was numb to such a scene. Football was more escape than passion.
“When you grow up on the streets in D.C., you have to take the attitude that you were either going to get killed or you were going to have to shoot someone,” Orlando Sr. once told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. “After seeing so many people get killed, I said it’s not for me.”
Orlando Sr. was kicked out of Central State. Son is not sure why. On to South Carolina State, he eventually settled in at right tackle and, thankfully, had a teammate named Robert Porcher attracting NFL scouts. When the Cleveland Browns were in town to work out Porcher, he spoke up. He introduced himself to pro personnel assistant Scott Pioli as “Zeus” and asked if he could join. Pioli declined. Brown asked again. Pioli declined. Finally, Zeus got a yes out of him and, OK, the 40-yard dash was ugly. Orlando Jr. claims Dad ran a 5.7 or 5.8 — if he was lucky. But then Pioli grabbed a bag for a hearty blocking drill. He’d have a chance to block Pioli himself, a chance for this NFL scout to feel his strength. Orlando Sr. didn’t waste this opportunity, knocking a potential employer 10 feet back, directly on his ass. When Pioli said to never do this again, well, he only smacked him harder the second time.
Pioli relayed the intel to Browns head coach, Bill Belichick and Brown earned an invite to Browns rookie minicamp where — son says with a smile — he broke the assistant trainer’s collarbone with another block on the bag.
It took a long time for Dad to learn the NFL game. Footwork. Pass protection. An NFL playbook. Everything was new to someone who began as a defensive lineman in college. But a year on IR helped him figured it out and he started 119 games in all, burnishing a reputation as one of the most menacing players in the sport. You may remember Brown most for referee Jeff Tripplette striking him in the eye with a flag. After initially leaving the field, Brown returned to shove Tripplette to the dirt in a pit of (justified) rage. The flag was weighed down with BBs, temporarily blinded the tackle and it took three years of rehabilitation for Orlando Sr. to return. He sued the NFL and, per reports, settled for a sum between $15 million and $25 million.
At his peak, Brown was also one of the highest-paid linemen in the NFL. But money only created problems with family members.
Only convinced him to push his sons away from football.
“Psychologically, that was hard on him,” Orlando Jr. says. “It was hard to maintain his sanity.”
At age 13, Orlando Jr. finally convinced Dad he needed to play football and he repeats his size back then once more for anyone who’s still skeptical: 6 foot 5, 450 pounds. Pointing to his wrist, elbow, shoulders and hips, Orlando Jr. has the stretch marks to prove it. Many mornings as a teen, he’d wake up in agony. Sore as hell because his body wouldn’t stop growing.
Sick of being sedentary, he put on the football pads. It was not pretty.
“I was so bad,” he says. “I just thought you just pushed a button, like the video game, and you went out there and you were fine. I didn’t realize you had to be in shape.”
He hugged players. Belly-flopped on top of them. Wandered aimlessly. And, worst of all, when he looked up into the crowd he couldn’t find his father. Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3, Orlando Sr. left in the middle of the first quarter. Finally — after that third football game — he asked Dad why.
They were in the living room, seated at their gigantic granite table.
Orlando Sr. was at the head of table. Orlando Jr. sat in the chair directly next to him.
“And he f--king snapped. He snapped,” he says. “Word for word, he’s like, ‘I can’t watch this shit, dog. This shit is f--king soft! It’s p-ssy ass shit. I can’t watch this soft-ass shit. It’s nothing physical. You’re not finishing no f--king blocks. Ain’t no fundamentals involved.’”
Perhaps not the most graceful parenting tactic.
But did not merely roast his own son. He had a solution.
Dad immediately stomped over to the nearby TV, fired up the TiVo and hit play on “The Waterboy.” Yes, the 90s classic featuring Adam Sandler as the stuttering, H2O-loving Bobby Boucher. Dad fast-forwarded to the scene where Boucher’s standing over the ball and the heads of the entire offense turn into “Coach Klein” singing “Water sucks! It really, really sucks!” On-demand, Bobby turned into a bull seeing red. Play to play, hit to hit, he unapologetically smashed through the opposition. “That’s what I need from you!” Dad sniped. “When you get on the field, you’ve got to be somebody else. You can’t f--king be this nice guy. You can’t do this shit because I’m not coming to none of your games!”
Words that Orlando Jr. interpreted as gospel.
The very next game, the very first play, Brown drove the biggest kid on the Southern Maryland All-Stars 10 yards back — it felt more like 50 — and finished with a “DDT” an inverted headlock straight out of pro wrestling. (“The Peoples Champs elbow,” he beams, “right back on him!”) Dad immediately sprinted down from the bleachers and onto the field in front of the 200 people in attendance. Waving a towel in celebration, he screamed “Lando! That’s the shit I’m talking about!” and chest-bumped his son.
Orlando Jr. was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Dad couldn’t have been prouder.
He possesses a true switch now. Orlando Jr. is grateful he began as a docile kid who learned how to turn on his violence. Many NFL players have no choice but to reverse-engineer such an inner switch. Many, like Orlando Sr., grow up in the streets and spend their entire football lives trying (and failing) to temper their violence.
“He was a head case,” his son says. “He always felt like he didn’t have much control over that. And so he always expressed that to me. Being able to communicate with people socially, having the comfortability within my skin — no matter the setting. He wasn’t able to really be himself in certain scenarios.”
The lessons from Dad were endless. And raw. Always raw.
Orlando Jr. points to one childhood summer. He was 9, maybe 10 years old, when he asked Dad if he could stay with his grandfather in D.C. for the summer. Dad allowed it under one condition: “If you’re going to stay down there, you got to be f--king working in the summer!” Son cannot help but laugh while impersonating Dad. Of course, he’d want his 10-year-old son working a job. And back then, Orlando Jr. had no clue that anybody even worked in the summertime. His Mom never had a job and his Dad was a pro football player. “I thought summer hits,” he laughs, “and everybody hangs out!”
This was the rude awakening he needed. At 7 a.m., each morning, he and his brothers joined Uncle LeRoy, their grandfather’s caretaker, to clean the 7-Eleven parking lot. Then, Marvin Gaye Park. Then, they’d sweep up hair at Campbell’s Barbershop. Uncle LeRoy didn’t own a cleaning business. Nor was he a formal employee. Rather, businesses slid him $50 here, $50 there. Toward the end of the summer, they painted a BP gas station. All of this cleaning made Orlando Jr. never want to litter again, but the perspective ran deeper. Dad knew D.C. promised to deliver ghastly sights. Orlando Jr. can still picture people passed out in the street with heroin needles in their palm.
In Marvin Gaye Park, one man’s eyes were rolled into the back of his head.
Suddenly, “don’t do drugs” took on a whole new meaning. Images like this stick with a kid for life.
And, oh. The laptop story.
His freshman year of high school — now a full-fledged football player — Orlando Jr. was exhausted from two-a-day practices. Right there in his bedroom was the Alienware gaming laptop Dad was letting him borrow for school and Dad could not have made his one rule any clearer: “No porn.” A rule that his boy defied this particular day. Sure enough, he suffered the worst Charley horse of his life. “Dad! Dad!” he screamed in pain. Orlando Sr. hustled into the room and… the computer lid was still open, the volume still up. A disaster situation. Under the guise of working out that muscle cramp, Orlando Sr. balled up a fist and treated his son’s hamstring like a punching bag.
“He’s Tyson-slugging my hamstring: ‘I told you don’t be watching that f--king porn! This is your karma!’” Brown says. “I’m like, ‘Dad, the Charley horse is gone.’ He’s like ‘F--k that. I gotta get this shit done.’… It was a life lesson all in one. At least close the laptop or, you know, don’t do it at all.”
Under Maryland law, the children of divorced parents can decide who they’d like to live with at age 13. After spending four weeks on and off with each, Orlando Jr. had settled in with his father. He knows stories like these may sound cruel, but he idolized his father. He knew he was in good hands with “Zeus,” the man Bill Belichick referred to as one of his favorite players of all-time.
Dad would guide him to his ultimate goal: the NFL.
Everything started perfectly. Son attended DeMatha High School, a 60-mile drive from home. During the week, Orlando Jr. stayed in D.C. with his grandfather and Uncle LeRoy. As early as 15 years old, this offspring of an NFL giant started attracting college interest. He made an unofficial visit to the University of Maryland on Sept. 17, 2011, and remembers the details of this week like it was last week. Not 12 years ago. The Terps hosted West Virginia on Saturday and, the next day, father and son headed to Ledo Pizza to watch the Ravens play the Tennessee Titans. Up on the TV screen, the announcers showed a replay of an Orlando Sr. penalty costing Baltimore in an old matchup between the two teams. “That’s you, isn’t it?” one Ledo worker asked. Orlando Sr. cursed and Orlando Jr. busted Dad’s balls. By now, he could give it back to him. That night, he refused to let his Dad off the hook for bragging about something called a “blue collar” award with the Ravens. “This shit doesn’t count!” Orlando Jr. chided.
On Monday, Dad dropped his son off at school in the Phantom, one of his 11 cars. He’d always give him cash for the week. But this morning — with one “You need some lunch money?”— Dad threw $200 worth of one-dollar bills in his face. (“I don’t know if it was a stripper stash or what,” Orlando Jr. says, laughing.) That Wednesday, Brown couldn’t wait to tell his father he got into a fight at football practice. He supplied the full play by play, right down to his victim’s Rec Specs fogging up. Dad loved it. “Keep that mindset,” he said, “keep that mentality.”
Orlando Sr. added that he wasn’t feeling well. Son didn’t think much of it and told his Dad he’d see him on Thursday.
None of Orlando Sr.’s kids had a key to the house because he was paranoid. (“I don’t want your mama in my house!” he’d always say.) So, when Orlando Jr. visited the next day, as promised, he could only knock. And knock. And knock. And knock. Nobody answered. To this day, he’s pissed he didn’t kick the door down. Break a window. Do whatever he could to get inside.
At least then he would’ve been able to hold his Dad — his hero — one last time.
The possibility that Dad could die never crossed his mind. Not once. Of course, Orlando Brown Sr. owned an indestructible nickname. In Greek mythology, “Zeus” is the god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law and order.
But there was also his father’s surreal 9/11 survival story.
He was at Ground Zero. His firsthand account is harrowing.
That day, Orlando Sr. was in the 50th floor of the Millennium Hilton directly across the street. A rock’s throw away from the World Trade Center. When the first plane hit, at 8:46 a.m., the Hilton shook and a voice over the P.A. system instructed hotel guests to remain in their room. Brown looked out of his window and, right before his eyes, saw people jumping to their grisly deaths. A sight unlike anything he witnessed in the D.C. streets. When the second plane hit at 9:03 a.m., he sprinted out of his room, down the stairs and into the streets with no shirt, no shorts, no plan.
It was chaos. Outside, Orlando Sr. told Fox Sports he saw “people bleeding, debris falling, peoples’ heads busted open. People hollering and crying.”
The first three taxis declined to welcome this massive 6-foot-7, 365-pound tattooed African-American into their car. The fourth driver also refused. Brown warned that he’d need to take the cab himself if the driver didn’t let him in, and then did exactly that. He placed the driver into the passenger seat — gently as a man of his size can — welcomed a panicked woman into the backseat and sped off toward the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel with four passengers in all. That’s when he learned on the radio that America was under attack. Every entrance and exit onto the island of Manhattan was closed. So, he did a U-turn, smashed through orange barricades, stopped at a hotel uptown and gave the car back to the trembling driver. Inside, the hotel clerk didn’t exactly want to admit a half-naked colossus claiming to be an NFL lineman. Not until that same colossus physically picked him up and demanded a room.
So, no, Orlando Jr. could never see his father dying. He’s a survivor.
“I looked at him like Superman,” he says.
Nobody answered those knocks on the door and, back in D.C., Uncle LeRoy tried calming his nephew down. Told Orlando Jr. his Dad was probably busy or something.
The next day, Sept. 23, 2011, son called… and called… and called… and, on what felt like the 15th ring, a family friend named Harriet finally answered. Told Orlando Jr. his father was sick and that Mom was on her way to school to pick him and his brother up. Inside the principal’s office, the 10th-grader checked his newly created Twitter account and saw the words: “Rest in peace, Zeus.” He didn’t believe it. When he asked the principal if his father died, the principal walked out of the room and his brother, Justin, started crying.
Mom arrived a few minutes later with their youngest brother, Braxton.
Their father had, indeed, passed away.
Orlando Brown Sr. died from diabetic ketoacidosis, a shortage of insulin in the body.
A medical examiner later concluded that he likely didn’t even know he had diabetes.
Immediately, Justin went to his football locker and cleared it out. Quit on the spot. The only reason the ninth-grader played the sport was to honor his father. So, it didn’t matter that Justin was the far, far superior athlete. (Orlando claims it’s not even close.) Didn’t matter that he could’ve had his own NFL future as a box-safety type of enforcer. He never put the pads on again. As for Orlando, losing Dad hurt more than all of those “Tyson” haymakers to the leg. He started spending all day inside his own football locker. Alone. Fiddling away on his phone for six hours straight. He attended just enough classes to avoid being expelled and occasionally chatted with a counselor.
Says Brown: “It was definitely lowest, I had ever been.”
He moved to the Atlanta area with his mother, Mira, to start anew. To play for Peachtree Ridge High School under head coach Mark Fleetwood.
His father died decades too soon. He could’ve ditched the sport like his brother.
Neither of his parents had good grades. He could’ve stopped going to school entirely.
Instead, football snapped him back because football is what always allowed Orlando Brown Jr. to be “free-minded” and “free-spirited.” He realized that this father prepared him for such a life-defining fork in the road. All of the answers were within him. After heavy self-reflection, he stopped pointing fingers, released all emotions on the football field and turned himself into a legitimate college prospect coveted by programs across the country.
It wasn’t easy. Those grades were ugly.
When the University of Tennessee took one look at his transcripts, they were mortified. Vols head coach Butch Jones told Fleetwood he had never seen anything like this. Brown owned a 1.7 GPA, a 13 on the ACT and, the morning of his SAT test, Brown needed to play Superman himself. His brother, a Type 1 diabetic, woke up with zero body function and zero ability to speak. Totally “comatose,” Brown says. He raced into the kitchen, found some Aunt Jemima maple syrup and fed him a spoonful. The heavy dose of sugar jolted his brother back but Orlando Jr. missed the SAT. Looking back, he wonders if Tennessee interpreted this tale as a dog-ate-my-homework excuse.
Either way, the coaches were not pleased.
“They probably did think that shit was a lie,” Brown says. “I probably would have in that situation if a kid told me that. … I missed that damn test, but I’m glad it happened. If it didn’t, there’s no telling. I might’ve done well enough to get into University of Tennessee.”
With 33 commits and only 31 scholarships, Jones tried setting Brown up at a junior college. Which pissed Fleetwood off. On the phone, he reamed out the former Vols coach for deploying such a tactic, knowing full well Tennessee could still find a way to get Brown in. Then, Fleetwood sat down with Brown to map out a new plan. He had previously coached or recruited the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, Terrell Owens and was determined to get Brown to the NFL, too. They weighed all options and Brown couldn’t shake one school from his mind: Oklahoma. Call it intuition. Sooner coaches never visited his high school. Hell, he thought Oklahoma was nothing but “tumbleweeds and cowboys and horses.”
Next thing he knew, he was on the phone with Bob Stoops. In a “mob voice” he imitates here, Brown recalls Stoops telling him he’d better sign if he sends a letter of intent.
And nearly three years after his father’s death, on July 24, 2014, he arrived on campus.
He wasn’t ready. This felt like playing football for the first time in eighth grade — “times 20.” Brown knew precisely nothing about college football before arriving on campus. As a teen, all he did was watch the NFL.
“I got my ass kicked for 30 days,” Brown says. “I was just like, ‘This is the hardest shit I've ever done. I don’t know if this is really for me.’”
Again, he blasted through self-doubt.
Orlando Brown Jr. beat out seniors for a starting spot as a true freshman and morphed himself into one of the best offensive linemen in the country. In 2017, he was a finalist for the Outland Trophy. The success was bittersweet. Not one day passed where Brown didn’t think of his Dad. But he says his life changed when another man was conveniently placed in his life: ex-Sooner Jammal Brown. The longtime Saints/Redskins offensive tackle served as a crucial mentor, reminding Orlando Jr. often to look in the mirror. He echoed many of the same lessons Zeus did.
So, nothing is a coincidence. Brown was drafted by the hometown Ravens 83rd overall in the third round of the 2018 draft and has made the Pro Bowl in four of five NFL seasons. He has only played for title contenders, blocking for a league MVP (Lamar Jackson), a Super Bowl champ (Patrick Mahomes) and, now, Joe Burrow. At least… that was the plan.
The Bengals season is officially on the brink.
Brown won’t let this team make any excuses.
The human mind only grows through struggle. We innately need resistance. Back to begging his father to play, Orlando Brown Jr. is living proof. And chatting the Friday before Cincinnati’s 24-18 win over Buffalo, the left tackle says he’s been studying who Leonard Floyd is off the field as much as who the Bills edge rusher is on it.
He takes a “militant” approach to his job because, he adds with bite, that’s the key “to breaking a man’s will.”
Now, the will of the entire Cincinnati Bengals team should effectively shatter. It won’t. When they face the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paycor Stadium this Sunday, veer your attention to No. 75 beforehand. You’ll see him put an arm — stretch marks ‘n all — over a teammate’s shoulder. He’ll be in their ear. He may even speak up at halftime like he did in Baltimore’s playoff win over Tennessee three years ago. Back then, Brown told everyone to look around the locker room, to realize this is a team full of players who’ve dug themselves out of a hole in their lives. The Ravens won, 20-13, with Brown earning eternal validation from the calloused Calais Campbell. “Young buck,” Brown recalls Campbell saying in his baritone voice, “you’re going to be something special!”
Bengals players can toil in their proverbial lockers for six hours straight.
Or they can fight. Or they can look within exactly as Brown did. It’s true that Burrow is a generational quarterback, but it’s also true that this Bengals team is strong at its core. Last postseason, Go Long spent time with that swaggering pack. The Bengals are full of angry “villains” who’ll find slights, use slights and dance atop an opponent’s grave when the deed is done. Now, this dismissed team has every reason to grow a very real chip on the shoulder.
Brown and Burrow hit it off from Day 1. As soon as the top tackle signed with the Bengals at $64 million over four years, the quarterback contacted him. The two realized they were both in New York City and Burrow asked to meet up for cheeseburgers. He describes “Shiesty” as unlike any human being he has ever met. Calls the QB genuinely hilarious without even trying to be funny.
The rest of this 2023 season, though, it’s Jake Browning’s show. The Bengals remain sincerely confident they can win with the former undrafted QB out of Washington. Brown’s perspective is more valuable than ever. His Chiefs triumphed over these Bengals in an emotional conference title game at Arrowhead Stadium last January before then knocking off the Philadelphia Eagles. All the daily habits that go into becoming a champion, he lived it. His entire life, honestly. Ray Lewis’ voice still loops in his mind.
Asked pre-Burrocolypse what this team’s mantra would be, Brown doesn’t mention any specific player.
He refers to this entire roster as a “mob” that opponents loathe.
“The Gotti family,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Man, these f--king guys get on my nerves. But they get shit done. They do it right. Everyone respects ‘em.’ That’s the best way I can put it: A group of made men.”
A group that was bound to change last offseason with Burrow’s looming extension and so many free agents cashing in elsewhere. When Frank Pollack was told to take a look at the prize of the free-agent class (See: Brown, Orlando) around noon that March day, the Bengals’ offensive line coach was stunned. “Are you serious?” It was a no-brainer. Cincy inked the free agent in the middle of the night and what stood out to Pollack first was how Brown could fit in with literally any pocket of the locker room. Any position, any background. His personality was special. Pollack, who played for the 49ers himself from 1990- ’97, was then blown away by Brown’s knowledge on the history of the sport. How this 27-year-old could go back to the days of Marion Motley steamrolling through defenses in 50s and chat about the Bengals’ founding in the 60s.
He’s obviously massive and has nimble feet for a big man, but the lineman’s “awareness” was equally impressive to Pollack. He anticipates an edge rusher’s next move, next step.
Adding a player with Super Bowl experience was important. Ted Karras (Patriots) and Alex Cappa (Buccaneers) won rings, too.
Players who’ve been to the mountaintop, he believes, know what a winning team is supposed to look like every day.
“I don’t care who the head coach is, who the position coaches are, who the owner, the GM,” Pollack says. “If you don’t have the right character in the locker room, none of that matters. No matter how good the scheme is. You’ve got to have football character because the league is a meat grinder and there’s going to be ebbs and flows. It’s never smooth sailing. You’re going to hit rocky patches and you can't be pulling each other apart at the seams from the inside. You’ve got to have guys that get tighter and rally the troops and say, ‘Hey man, we’re good. We’re going to come through this.’”
He lived it with Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. The standard they created “permeated through the building.” Everyone knew what it meant to be a 49er. “Now,” Pollack adds, “it is, ‘This is what it means to be a Bengal.’” With that, he dusts off of an old Paul Dietzel quote from the 60s. The former Army coach once said that it’s “a short trip from the penthouse to the outhouse.”
Burrowless, outsiders expect the Bengals to herd toward that outhouse.
So when Pollack insists two weeks back that it takes everyone in the locker room to win, all 60, he’s prophetic.
Maybe these Bengals can work their way back to Arrowhead for a third straight playoff game. That’d be fun.
Granted, Brown hoped to be a Chief forever. He was comfortable in KC. He imagined his son growing up with Patrick Mahomes’ kids. But he says their contract offer was not fair, citing the outs and lack of guaranteed money. He believed the Chiefs were trying to take advantage of him, and the fact that he sincerely wanted to stick around.
There were also aspects of the culture he frankly did not enjoy.
“It’s an organization that’s old school,” Brown says. “You’re going to have to play through injury. You’re going to practice through injury. It is old school and it’s not for everybody. And I would’ve still had a ton of success there if I was still there. It’s crazy how God works.”
Asked for more detail on this “old school” world and Brown points to the Chiefs’ strenuous practices — they go hard every day — and the fact that it’s not very “rah-rah.”
“Every game is the Super Bowl,” he says. “It’s different, but that’s what makes it special.”
Upon signing, he realized the Bengals, unlike the Chiefs, were adamant on taking care of players’ bodies.
He already had a strong sense for this team’s fight. As a spectator, he watched Cincy rally from a 14-point deficit to win a 2021 regular-season matchup. He then gained even more appreciation in the trenches during those back-to-back AFC Championships. This rivalry quickly became as 80s Lakers/Celtics as it gets in modern sports. “I hated, Cincinnati,” Brown assures. “Hated them.” He could’ve signed for more money elsewhere. Both the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers wanted him. Yet even through all of the vulgar trash-talking with Bengals end Trey Hendrickson — even as the Chiefs acted as if Mike Hilton referring to Arrowhead as “Burrowhead” was a declaration of war — Brown harbored immense respect for the Bengals.
Those 138 combined snaps in those two title games were different.
“As much as I hated these guys from afar,” Brown adds, “I always appreciated and valued how hard they played. You can always feel as a player — in those big games — I can tell you, playing the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship, I could feel the will of Joseph Ossai, of Trey Hendrickson, of a B.J. Hill. I can feel the will of a DJ Reader. They wanted it. They wanted it.”
To save this season, that exact feeling must become contagious throughout the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster.
They’re content letting the outside world completely count them out. Go right ahead.
They’ll start with one game: With Sunday, with the Steelers. An opponent Orlando Brown Sr. became quite familiar with one generation ago. Names like T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith have replaced the likes of Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene. Football may be softer than it was in Zeus’ heyday but, hell no, he won’t expect his son to change his play style.
Somewhere, Dad will be watching closely.
He’ll stick around for this game, too.
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