Orlando Brown, D.C.-born player who sued NFL over injury, dies at 40


Orlando Brown warms up for a 1998 preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Baltimore. (Richard Lipski/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 27, 2011

Orlando Brown, 40, a mammoth offensive tackle who sued the National Football League in 1999 after he was struck in the eye by an errant flag thrown by an official, was found dead Sept. 23 at his home in Baltimore.

Rescue workers were called to Mr. Brown’s home when he was found unresponsive. Determination of the cause of death is pending an investigation by the Maryland medical examiner.

Mr. Brown, who grew up in Northeast Washington, was a bruising 6-foot-7, 360-pound behemoth who played 10 seasons in the NFL, despite missing three years because of his eye injury. He earned a reputation as one of the toughest and most aggressive players in the league.

During a game in Cleveland on Dec. 19, 1999, referee Jeff Triplette threw his flag while calling a penalty on another player. The flag, weighted with a small bag of metal pellets, passed through Mr. Brown’s face mask and struck him in the right eye, causing immediate partial blindness.

An angry Mr. Brown pushed Triplette to the ground and was ejected from the game. He was led off the field by four security guards.


Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Orlando Brown shoves referee Jeff Triplette to the ground during a game against Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 19, 1999. (RICK WILSON/AP)

Mr. Brown, whose father had lost his sight because of glaucoma, issued a public apology. He spent six days in a Cleveland hospital with impaired vision and bleeding behind his eye and was suspended for the final two games of the season.

Nine months later, when he still couldn’t take the field, Mr. Brown was released by his team. In 2001, he sued the NFL for $200 million for negligent supervision of its officials. He received a settlement reported to be between $15 million and $25 million.

After missing three seasons, Mr. Brown returned to action with the Baltimore Ravens in 2003, helping to anchor the team’s offensive line.

“He relished playing the bad man’s role,” Baltimore Sun sports columnist Mike Preston wrote last week, “and he helped give the Ravens their tough-guy image.”

Former teammate Tony Pashos told the Sun: “He told the young guys throughout practice to try hard and work on technique but then when it comes to games, it’s about taking the other guy’s will. And he was the apex of that.”

Orlando Claude Brown was born Dec. 12, 1970, in Washington. He spent summers on a family farm in South Carolina and, by ninth grade, had grown to 6 feet 4 inches and 268 pounds.

At H.D. Woodson High School, he played under coach Bob Headen, who has sent more than a dozen players to the NFL.

Mr. Brown played college football at Central State University in Ohio and South Carolina State University before joining the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 1993. In 1996, the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens.

“Orlando improved as a player as much as anyone I have ever seen,” his former coach in Cleveland, Bill Belichick, now the head coach of the New England Patriots, said in a statement. “Orlando was a true throwback player who loved football and was as tough as they come.”

After Cleveland received a new franchise, Mr. Brown signed a $26 million contract in February 1999. He reportedly sent a check to his mother the next day to pay for a new roof on the family home in Washington.

Mr. Brown retired from football after the 2005 season and, four years later, opened a Fatburger hamburger franchise in Elkridge. He sometimes worked behind the grill.

He was arrested for burglary and destruction of property in 2009 after allegedly breaking into his former wife’s home in Cockeysville, Md. The charges were dropped.

According to public records, Mr. Brown had been in a custody dispute over a young daughter, and he had three other children. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Mr. Brown’s nickname was Zeus, after the thunderbolt-throwing god of Greek mythology.

“On game day, Zeus was the meanest, nastiest, most foul-mouthed player on the field,” Preston wrote in the Sun, “but off it he would give you his last penny and the shirt off his back.”

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Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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