Larry Brown wishes we could look at him in his charcoal pin stripe suit, with the understated tie and horn-rimmed glasses, and see the Larry Brown of today -- not the Larry Brown in burgundy and gold, Larry Brown taking jersey number 43 off tackle again for six, seven, eight of the hardest yards any running back ever earned, the Larry Brown who gave up his body for the Redskins.
Sorry, Larry. It is impossible to forget.
Brown walks with short steps today. It's been five years since he quit football. In the Redskins' Super Bowl season, 1972, he gained 1,216 yards -- almost more than he gained the next three years put together. Everything hurt at the end. Sunday's pain lasted all week. His knees came unglued. Surgeons tried to put them together again. They couldn't fix what football broke.
He's 34, but he can't play basketball. He can't play racquet ball. Once a great running back, he can't take a lateral step today without first asking his knees' permission. He can, like old men, play golf.
"I haven't played any sports other than golf since I retired," Brown said yesterday. "I could run straight ahead, but I'd be miserable the next day. I'd irritate my knees. If I did anything, I'd be spending 95 percent of my time in the tub."
The tub. Another name for the whirlpool. The football player's healing waters. Five years out of the game, Larry Brown yet is on a first-name basis with the tub.
We had lunch yesterday to talk about Larry Brown's business. He is the Washington business and community relations manager for Xerox Corporation. Along with Redskin kicker Mark Moseley, Brown is cochairman of a Xerox charity project on behalf of Children's Hospital. Xerox wants local corporations to donate $500 for a Redskins' autographed football, which can be raffled off to employees. Proceeds go to Children's, and Brown hopes to raise $40,000.
"I want people to think, 'Larry Brown of the Xerox Corporation,' " he said, "but all they say is, 'Larry Brown, football player.' It leaves a bad feeling sometimes, like you've never done anything with your life."
Quickly here, add this: There is no bitterness in Larry Brown, nor is melancholy part of him. He knows football was, and is, important to him. Even today on Capitol Hill, the New Jersey senator named Bill Bradley is more famous for his jump shot than his oratory. Xerox likes Brown for its job because Washington likes Brown. And Washington likes Brown because he was one helluva runner who had a good word for everybody he touched.
So it's a push, with Brown the businessman and Brown the old player teaming up in this new life at 34. What bothers Brown, probably, is the idea anyone would think this is a "new life." Because, unlike most pros, Brown thought about Life After Football long before his knees could carry his heart no further.
Runners live with pain. At Dallas on Sunday, Joe Washington went down with cartilage ripped from his ribs. Taking a breath became an act of courage. Tony Dorsett was down, too, with a twisted ankle. Dorsett came back quickly, but Washington could play no more. Theirs is a violent life. Their careers can end with a snap. Like pebbles slowly ground to powder, a running back's knees can last only so long.
Brown carried the ball 1,250 times his first five years with the Redskins, beginning in the Vince Lombardi year of '69.
Let's say only two behemoths hit him every time. And let's say Larry Brown, who weighed 195, tried to run over these behemoths, not around them. Right there we have 2,500 high-speed collisions of men in suits of armor. Now let's say George Allen is the coach, preaching that to lose is to die, and you have Larry Brown running 285 times in a single season -- 24 times a game for four months.
"Lombardi never told anybody to play hurt," Brown said. A smile played at the corner of his mouth. "But you just felt uncomfortable on the bench or in the tub. You could kinda feel that if it was Lombardi that was hurt, he'd jump out of the tub."
It was a job, too, Brown said. He owed it to his employer to be running, not sitting.
And then he began to notice what the collisions meant.
"It's like a new car you get," Brown said. "At first, the engine is really burning. It's a fine-tuned machine, everything humming along just right."
He was talking about his body.
"After a while, though, you have to get a new part here, some other part there."
He raised his right arm, as if to unscrew it.
"And pretty soon, when everything is rattling, you have to junk it."
Brown said this real loud, to show you it didn't bother him. He says that when Sunday's pain stayed until the next Sunday, then he "began to see the end of the tunnel."
On first hearing, the metaphor seems mixed. The end of the tunnel means deliverance. But here Larry Brown, football hero, seems to be using the metaphor to say he saw the end of his career. As it happens, though, Brown used precisely the right words, for in fact he used the awareness of his rattletrap body as the starting point for delivering himself from the trauma that has touched so many pros when the cheers go silent.
He made himself into Larry Brown, businessman in a pin stripe suit.
"I made a clean break. No hanging around the stadium. The key is knowing where you're going before you leave."
Pain was the price he paid for his trip. Was it worth it?
"Yes," he said without hesitation. He never asked George Allen to use him less. He wanted the ball those 24 times a Sunday. "You've only got three, four good years, anyway. Let's go ahead and get it over with. If you don't touch the ball, you don't get the publicity. If you don't get injured, then there's the other side of the coin, people saying, 'He's not tough enough, he won't play when he's hurt.' Anyway, all it takes is one play and you can be done forever."
It was worth it, Brown said, because he earned the attention of a city he loves.
"I wouldn't have done anything differently," he said. "I met a lot of wonderful people, and the football has a lot to do with the respect I get now. People ask me, 'Do I miss the game?' No, I don't miss the game. This real life is a new ball game, with a new stadium, with a different set of rules, with a different set of men and women. I'm happy."