The last time I talked at length with Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Brown, who died Tuesday, was in San Diego at the Super Bowl in 2003. Brown was coaching the defensive backs of the Oakland Raiders who were about to play Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Most of our conversation was about Super Bowl XI, 26 years before, when Brown made one of football’s most iconic plays, intercepting the legendary Fran Tarkenton’s pass and racing 75 yards into the end zone, into NFL Films’ zooming camera lens, and into pro football history.
We talked about the most famous play of his amazing 16-year NFL career – and about his growing up in Yazoo City on Mushroom Street, which in 1978 became Willie Brown Street.
Brown could not have been more cordial, more genuinely happy to see someone from his home state, and ready and willing to talk about old times back home he certainly had not forgotten. We’ll get to Yazoo, but first about the play that has been replayed and replayed thousands of times since it happened in 1977.
“The funny thing is, I knew it was going to happen, I just knew it,” Brown told me. “I visualized it just the way it happened the night before. In fact, I told my roommate, Gene Upshaw, exactly what was going to happen.”
Brown’s assignment on the play was to cover the Vikings’ dangerous young receiver Sammy White, who was a Grambling man just as Brown.
“I knew what was coming,” Brown said. “I knew Fran was going to throw to Sammy on the quick sideline pattern, so I gave a look like I was going to stay back, and then I broke on it.”
Brown had clear sailing to the end zone for the Super Bowl-clinching touchdown. In the end zone, NFL Films cameras zoomed in on Brown’s face, a study in fierce determination as he ran into history.
“They show it over and over on ESPN, especially during Super Bowl week,” Brown said. “I guess I have seen it about a million times.”
Which led to the next question: Did he ever tire of watching it?
Brown smiled, and then chuckled. “Would you?” he said.
“That’s what I’ve been telling our guys this week,” Brown said. “You have to visualize what you want to happen to make it happen.”
Brown was 60 years old that day when we talked. He remained trim, muscular, fit as could be.
“It’s so good to see somebody from Mississippi out here,” is the way Brown began our conversation. So, naturally, we talked a lot about the Magnolia State.
I told him about my late friend Willie Morris, the splendid writer from Yazoo and about how Willie Morris sometimes referred to himself as “that other Willie from Yazoo City.”
Invariably, someone would look at Willie Morris funny as if to say “What are you talking about?” And Willie Morris would respond, “Well, they named a street in Yazoo City after Willie Brown. He’s only the greatest cornerback in football history!”
Understand, Morris was partial to Yazoo City people, but he wasn’t far off when it came to a pecking order for NFL cornerbacks. Brown was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984 the first year he was eligible.
Brown grew up in a segregated Yazoo City, the same as Morris. Nevertheless, Brown told me he had mostly fond memories of his childhood lived on Mushroom Street.
“I had six brothers and two sisters, a good mama and a good daddy,” he told me. “We were raised right. We had to be home by the time the sun went down, and we always had to do our chores.”
Against his mother’s wishes, Brown played high school football at all-black N.D. Taylor High School, or as white Yazoo Citians used to call it, “Yazoo No. 2.”
Morris wrote about those segregated days of his childhood often. In My Dog Skip, he wrote of working the chains at those Yazoo No. 2 football games. Wrote Morris, “I’d be the only white boy there and Skip would be the only white dog.”
Said Brown, “Yes, the schools were segregated but what a lot of people don’t know is that we played pick-up games with the white kids all the time. We played and we didn’t think a thing about it. At first, it was us against them, but then we began to choose up sides and play. We just played ball.”
Brown played both ways for Coach Peter Boston (Olympic track champion Ralph Boston’s brother).
“Coach Boston was a great coach, he taught me so much about football,” Brown said. “The funny thing is, I played both offense and defense but I scored more touchdowns on defense.”
Eddie Robinson, the legendary Grambling coach, successfully recruited Brown out of Mississippi and eventually made a full-time cornerback out of him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Brown intercepted a then-record 54 passes as a pro. He was named to the all-time all-AFL team. He has been named to various all-time All-Pro teams. He really might have been the greatest cornerback of all-time – another example of Mississippi’s remarkable contributions to pro football history.