His right thumbnail, blackened and cracked after being caught between a teammate's helmet and shoulder pads during practice early this season, hurts the worst. Yet pain still shoots from Ray Brown's right ring finger, which he fractured in an NFL game 10 years ago, causing stitches and wiring to be snaked through it so he could continue playing.
"I had to wear that only a couple of weeks," Brown recalled.
After turning 42 last Sunday, Ray Brown became the first offensive lineman in the modern era to play the position at that age.
(John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
The 6-foot-5, 318-pound Redskins offensive lineman uses a specialized clip to slightly expand his wedding ring before wearing it on his finger, where swelling has made the ring impossible to slide on naturally. Brown's middle fingers are mangled, the knuckles enlarged from calcium buildup.
After turning 42 last Sunday, Brown became the first offensive lineman in the modern era to play the position at that age. Coach Joe Gibbs considers Brown's story worthy of a Hollywood script about eternal youth. Brown's athletic ability gives him flexibility and allows him to run faster than most of Washington's offensive linemen. Teammates heap the 18-year veteran with superlatives for his status as one of the most durable players in league history. He is only the fourth NFL player over the past two decades to start a game at age 42.
"Nobody can say you can't play forever," linebacker LaVar Arrington said.
Nonetheless, Brown's age shows in his hands, his fingers gnarly from dislocations left to heal on their own. Offensive linemen typically have the ugliest hands in the NFL. And Brown's hands have suffered such extensive damage from his NFL career, which began in 1986, that he has a habit of keeping his fingers from plain view.
"I'm a 42-year-old guy, I feel 42. That's no big deal," Brown said at Redskins Park this week. His hair is a short-cut Afro with no discernable gray. He wears a diamond stud on his left ear. "The wear and tear, you will see it in my hands," he said. "Those are the hazards of this game. That's why I keep them in my pockets as much as possible."
The tradeoff has been a storybook career that remains riveting if only because it hasn't yet ended. Washington's starting right tackle -- who has played mainly guard during his NFL career -- is on his second stint with the Redskins; he previously played in Washington from 1989 to 1995. Brown's first team, the St. Louis Cardinals, now plays in Arizona. He was drafted in the eighth round from Arkansas State; the NFL draft no longer lasts eight rounds.
The former college tight end has fond memories about today's road opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, where he played from 1996 to 2001 before joining the Detroit Lions. Brown made his only Pro Bowl appearance while a 49er, after the 2001 season, at age 39. Brown was among five teammates who garnered the honor, including wideout Terrell Owens, but Brown was the only one to receive a standing ovation in the locker room when the names were announced.
"It was great," remembered Brown, who didn't give up a sack in the 2000 season but didn't get the nod. "I probably had played better before, but I was just grateful."
Brown is the NFL's second-oldest position player by one day less than two months to Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jerry Rice. Brown's first child, a 22-year-old daughter, is older than Redskins rookie safety Sean Taylor. Brown is the only Redskins player to have attended a racially segregated school, in his home town of Marion, Ark. It became integrated after Brown, who is black, completed first grade.
A few current Redskins were on the club in 2002, when cornerback Darrell Green started four games at age 42. But the memory doesn't diminish their awe of Brown. "It's amazing that a guy can play that long, especially an offensive lineman," said left tackle Chris Samuels, 27. "You would think that maybe a punter or a kicker can play that long."
Brown hasn't garnered kudos merely for being an NFL senior citizen. Brown initially was expected to be a reserve; he was signed after right tackle Jon Jansen suffered a season-ending injury during Washington's preseason opener. Brown will be making his ninth consecutive start and 11th in 13 games. (Kenyatta Jones started at right tackle in Washington's season opener, then was replaced by Brown.)
"You could do a movie on him," said Gibbs, who also coached Brown from 1989 to 1992. "A guy that comes in at that age, and he winds up playing guard and tackle for us. To play that long is phenomenal."