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Washington Redskins tackle Jammal Brown looks for a fresh start in D.C.

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010; 12:02 AM

In what should have been the biggest game of his life, Jammal Brown stood on the sideline and wept.

"Just cried like a baby," he said.

Everything was supposed to have led up to this, the Super Bowl. That's why he battled through everything. When his mother passed away while he was still in high school. When his college coach made him switch positions. When a storm welcomed him into the NFL - taking his home but not his rookie season. He kept going.

But there he was in February, his New Orleans Saints team in the Super Bowl and Brown could only watch. Injured and wearing street clothes, Brown could only watch and cry.

"It was like being at somebody else's birthday party," Brown said. "It's not your birthday, but you're still there celebrating. So you're part of the moment, you're at the party, but it's not your party."

He vowed that if his team won the Super Bowl, he wouldn't dare touch the Vince Lombardi Trophy. And when the Saints did, beating the Indianapolis Colts, he stayed true to his word.

A two-time Pro Bowler, Brown came to the Washington Redskins in a June trade, an important cornerstone of the Redskins' remade offensive line. Though his best years came at left tackle, he's moving to the right side of the offensive line in Washington, chalking up his lost 2009 campaign - the one that began with a season-ending injury and ended with bittersweet tears - as another hurdle in a life filled with them.

"I just got stuff I need to prove to myself. I don't got to prove nothing to nobody else," Brown, 29, said. "I've been to Pro Bowls, I've done this, done that. I've been through everything. But I want to prove to myself that I can come back from this injury. And I want to get back to the Super Bowl."

Growing up quickly

Born in a military family, Brown was always bigger than his peers and always dominant on the football field.

"I could tell that he would be something special, but no one knew how far it would go," said his father, Charles Brown.

And no one was certain whether Brown would get in his own way. His family relocated to Lawton, Okla., when he was young, and high school coaches knew they'd have a good player in a few years - if he made it that far.

Both of Brown's sisters dropped out before reaching high school. His brother was in a federal prison for drug trafficking. And Brown was disruptive inside the classroom and out of it.

"I remember an assistant principal at the junior high called me one day, and he said, 'Coach, I have Jammal Brown in here. Can you come in for a visit?'" says Ernie Manning, Brown's coach at MacArthur High. "Jammal had been acting up again. He said, 'Jammal doesn't seem to want to behave.' I said, 'Well, if you don't mind, step out and let me talk to him for a second.'

"I told him, 'You're not playing for MacArthur High School if you act like this. That's not how we act and if you don't straighten up, you'll never play football for me.' "

Brown eventually did make it to MacArthur and starred as a defensive tackle. But focusing on football wasn't always easy. His mother, Zola, had contracted lupus when Brown was only 12, and she couldn't leave her bed to watch Brown's games.

At home, Brown would carry his mother from room to room, helping around the house, doing whatever he could to make life seem normal.

At the beginning of Brown's junior year in high school, he became a father to a baby girl. At the end of his junior year, his mother died. Zola Brown was 53. Jammal was 17.

"He didn't like mourning, he didn't like attention, so many people around him, trying to comfort him," Manning said. "He didn't care for that at all. He just wanted to be by himself, mourn in his own way.

"I went to his house and he said, 'I don't like this, Coach.' I said, 'I know, Jammal, but listen, people just want to help.' "

Brown threw himself into football. He says he knew that was his ticket to college, and he'd promised Zola that he'd someday earn his degree.

"I had built-in excuses. Out of everyone in my town, I had all this stuff that stood in my way," Brown said. "I had all these excuses, but I also had faith."

"My life, it's kind of like 'The Blind Side,' " he said, referring to the book and movie about Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher. "But I was never lost like Michael Oher. I knew who I was and I knew what I wanted to do. But that made it tougher because I had a dream, and everything that was happening seemed to be keeping me from that dream."

An angel's assistance

When Brown lost his mother in 1999, another woman entered his life.

Years later, you need only study the ink to understand. The tattoos across Brown's chest memorialize his mother. His right arm is dedicated to Charles Brown - "My father, my hero" - and his left arm, which features Spanish and Mexican flags and the words "Angel of God," is reserved for Yolanda Shorter.

"She did the stuff that a mother would do. She filled that role when he needed it," Brown said. "You take one angel and bring in another one."

Shorter is a guidance counselor at MacArthur High and Brown found himself in her office daily, talking about academics, but also his mother, his college plans, his football dreams.

Soon, Shorter was taking Brown shopping, offering hot meals, and clearing an empty room in her home for him to use. Shorter had a husband and a daughter. She had always envisioned herself having a household full of sons. Instead, she had four miscarriages.

"We just clicked," she said. "The color of our skin didn't matter. It wasn't about what you had or where you're going. We just had this relationship. We cared about each other, we loved one another unconditionally and we were there for each other."

As his high school years wound down, Brown had college coaches eager for his services on the defensive line, but he was having trouble with his test scores. He accepted a scholarship to Oklahoma University but couldn't qualify academically. Shorter led a campaign, appealing to the NCAA for a waiver.

"I was always told that when God takes something out of your life, he puts something back in," Brown said. "I guess it's that way for me and her."

He practiced as a partial qualifier, and midway through his freshman campaign, Brown was granted an academic waiver. He redshirted that year, though, and watched from the sidelines as Oklahoma won the national championship in 2001.

Then, the following year, Coach Bob Stoops and his staff decided they had too many talented defensive linemen and wanted to move Brown to the offensive line. It wasn't long before Brown was on the phone with Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee and Butch Davis at Miami to discuss transferring.

"I remember Jammal calling and he had so much anger, anxiety and aggravation in his voice," Shorter said. "He said, 'You'll never guess what they want me to do.' "

But after talking and praying, Brown stayed put and learned to play on the offensive line. He took the field each Saturday wearing a special wristband.

The wristband is usually worn by quarterbacks but instead of displaying offensive plays, Brown slid in photos of his mother and daughter, Halle.

"It just reminded me what I was playing for," he said.

He started for three years, allowing only one sack in his final two, and won the Outland Trophy in 2004 as the nation's best interior lineman.

The NFL was in his future, but he couldn't simply walk away from Oklahoma. He'd promised his mother he'd graduate.

Brown left Oklahoma 15 hours short of a bachelor's degree, but with Stoops's encouragement, he kept chipping away. In Spring 2009 - nine years after he first enrolled at the school - Brown was back in Norman, Okla. He'd barely qualified coming out of high school, had millions of dollars sitting in the bank, but he upheld his promise and graduated with a degree in multidisciplinary studies.

A stormy career start

The Saints knew exactly whom they wanted in the 2005 NFL draft, and they traded up to get Brown with the 13th overall pick.

"He's mean. He's nasty. He's athletic," said Jim Haslett, the Saints' head coach at the time who's now the Redskins' defensive coordinator.

But Brown's rookie year hardly went as planned. In fact, it was among the most unusual seasons in league history. Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf coast and derailed the Saints' season before it started.

Brown was the only Saints' player to lose a home in the storm. He'd just bought a large house at the Golf Club of New Orleans at Eastover and spent thousands of dollars decorating it.

As the 2005 preseason wound down, he still remembers getting the phone call.

"They said don't worry, this happens every year," Brown said. "It was like the boy who cried wolf, but we didn't know this time it really was the wolf."

Brown packed some clothes but little else. Just to be safe, he took his prized wristband, the one that held photos of his mother and daughter and put it high on a closet shelf.

The storm destroyed his home, his car and many of his possessions. What wasn't ruined was taken by looters. "But I wasn't worried about those things," he said. "I just wanted my picture back."

Brown couldn't enter the house for nearly a year, and when he finally went inside, he sprinted past the rubble and headed straight for the closet, relieved to see that he'd placed the wristband high enough to escape water damage.

"This may sound odd because I was the only guy on the team who lost my house, got all my stuff destroyed, but I felt blessed," Brown said. "I told myself, I better not be upset.

"I'm in position where I had insurance, very financially stable, a top-15 pick. I took it as, 'Wow, look how blessed I am, look at the position God has put me in.' "

The Saints played their home games in New York, San Antonio and Baton Rouge. They finished 3-13 that year and Haslett was fired at the conclusion of the season. But Brown had established himself as an anchor on the line. The following season, he moved from right tackle to left, and in 2006, he was named to his first Pro Bowl.

Brown finally sold the damaged home earlier this year, and he's retired the wristband.

"For other people, it ruined their lives forever," he said. "They lost houses, family, friends; I just lost material things."

Watching a championship

In 2009, Brown was coming off his second Pro Bowl appearance, but he never made it beyond the preseason. He'd played through a torn labrum the previous year but in overcompensating, he damaged his groin.

As New Orleans opened its season, Brown had two surgeries in two weeks, the first a sports hernia operation in Philadelphia and the second on his hip in New York.

The Saints placed him on the season-ending injured reserve list after Week 3.

His teammates, meanwhile, won the first 13 games of the 2009 season. While the entire city enjoyed an emotional resurgence of sorts, just four years after Katrina, Brown was living out of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, going through rehabilitation.

The Saints finished the year 13-3, beating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game. Along the way, Jermon Bushrod, a tackle who'd played only three NFL games prior to 2009, replaced Brown in the starting lineup and made many forget about the injured two-time Pro Bowler.

Brown was still part of the organization, but he didn't feel like a part of the team.

So when the Saints arrived in Miami for the Super Bowl, Brown was there and took part in the celebration. But he couldn't hold back the tears in the moments before the kickoff against the Colts.

After the win, as the city of New Orleans erupted into a giant party, Saints players sprayed champagne and took turns groping the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"I said, 'Not me,' " Brown said. "My teammates were all, 'J, you were part of this. You helped build this.' But I still wanted to have something to look forward to. When I play in the game and then we win, then I'll hold that trophy up high. Higher than anyone."

The Saints held a ring ceremony on June 17 at The Roosevelt Hotel in downtown New Orleans. Hoping for a trade, Brown skipped the event, just as he'd skipped the team's offseason workouts.

Two days later, he signed a one-year tender for $3.62 million and was traded to the Redskins in exchange for a conditional draft pick.

He did receive his championship ring from the Saints but didn't once slip it on his finger. Instead, he gave it to his father, who also has the Oklahoma national championship ring.

"It's him, how he's built," said Charles Brown. "Everyone else knows what he meant to the team and to the city. But it's him. He didn't think he contributed. It's like he got a sip of it, but didn't get the full drink. So he's still thirsty."

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