He is massive, almost like a small building. Walking close behind him on the grounds of the Baltimore Ravens' headquarters in Owings Mills, one finds it impossible to see over him or around him. There is simply nothing on the horizon but him and him alone.
Orlando Brown, known as "Zeus," is back in the NFL after a three-year absence caused by a freak injury. During a game on Dec. 19, 1999, when he was playing for the Cleveland Browns, the offensive tackle -- he is 6 feet 7, about 365 pounds, one of the largest players in the league -- was felled when a referee threw a penalty flag weighted by BBs that flew past the face bar on his helmet and accidentally struck him in his right eye. Brown literally didn't know what had hit him.
He staggered from the field, but almost immediately returned and pushed the referee to the ground. The impression was that Brown was retaliating. His story is a different one. He said that once he had gotten to the sideline, he had decided he could play "with one eye" and that he was trying to get back into the game only to find the official in his way. Brown's description of events doesn't absolve him from touching a game official -- for that he expressed regret. And when they meet up this season as expected, he wants to thank the veteran official, Jeff Triplette, for banishing him from the game because that might have saved his sight.
"I thank God I did push him because if I did finish that game, I would have lost my eye," he said. "That's what they told me when I got to the hospital. That's the only reason I'm glad I pushed him. I didn't mean to push him. I didn't know he had hit me with a flag. . . . I can't wait to see him."
This week, Brown wore tinted glasses as he prepared to report Sunday to the Ravens' Westminster, Md., training camp. In games, he will wear a face shield because, even though he dislikes it, he has no choice. He has to protect the eye.
He described the pain at the time of his injury as excruciating. He had been temporarily blinded.
"I didn't know I got hit by a flag until I got inside and the doctor told me," he said. "I thought I got poked. The doctor was like, you've got to be in great pain." Brown said the doctor then mentioned his getting hit by "that flag." "I said, 'That flag? What are you saying, that flag?' He said, 'Yeah, that flag hit you.' I said, 'A flag?' I said, 'Are you telling me a flag hit me in my eye?' "
His fear at the time was heightened by his familiarity with blindness; his father, Claude, who lives in Northeast Washington, is blind as the result of glaucoma.
Following the incident, Brown was beset by "hate mail." He was hospitalized briefly, he was suspended for a time by the league. His marriage broke up. While his vision gradually improved, he still had blurriness and saw white spots. His football career remained in serious doubt even through last year, and while there's still some question as to whether he can fully regain his form, he is in good physical condition as he begins his comeback.
A standout at Washington's H.D. Woodson High, Brown came out of South Carolina State as an undrafted free agent. He began his career with the Browns in 1994 and moved with them to Baltimore for the 1996 season. After the 1998 season, he signed a six-year deal with the expansion Browns that included a $7.5 million signing bonus. The contract reportedly could have been worth $27 million, but the last five years of it were not guaranteed. With the injury, he no longer could play and was out of football. He hired Johnnie Cochran and filed a $200 million lawsuit against the NFL. (It was settled last year, reportedly for about $25 million).
Now Brown, 32, is trying to become the Ravens' starting right tackle. The left tackle is another Washington product, Jonathan Ogden. Brown said he turned down a better offer from Minnesota to sign for one season with Baltimore so he could be close to his three sons, Orlando Jr., 7, Justin, 5, and Braxton, 3.
He also would like to overcome his reputation for having a bad temper.
As recently as a Ravens minicamp last month, he got into an on-field scrap with a teammate and had to be pulled away. That was nothing new. He said he likes to stir things up in practices because he wants teammates to keep on edge and work hard, but that he doesn't believe in behaving that way in games because he doesn't want to have the team penalized.
"I don't talk that much trash on Sundays," he said. "I just want to do my job, and I'm going to pancake him [his opponent] if I can, but I don't go out there running my mouth.
"On that field, I'm 'Zeus.' But I'm going to be under control."
Ravens Coach Brian Billick has urged him to be just that.
"He basically tells me to make sure I channel my aggression," Brown said. "Just don't let it out, don't be out of control on the field or off the field, learn how to be disciplined. Stuff like that. I always tell him, 'Coach, you don't have to worry about me losing it.' "
To underscore his intention of being under control, he tells a story of an incident that happened in the midst of all his woe. It's a story of a small man and an onion ring.
Brown had ordered something to eat in a restaurant when a man appeared at his table. Brown still has no idea where the man came from, or why he acted as if he were looking for trouble despite a huge disadvantage in size.
"My food comes. He took an onion ring right off my plate and put it down and put it back and looked at me. At first I drew up. Then I said, 'Nah.' I said, 'Who sent you? I can't believe this.' " Brown thought someone, for some reason, was trying to goad him into losing his temper. He realized he'd better back off.
"I just left the restaurant," he said. "I've got a lot of common sense."
Brown grew up in a modest brick duplex home in Northeast Washington, near Burroughs Avenue. One afternoon this week, his mother, Catherine, and his father, Claude, sat in their living room and recounted for a visitor their son's formative years and longtime love of football. They expressed gratitude to his high school coach, Bob Headen, and thankfulness Orlando is able to play football again.
"This is something he likes to do," his mother said. "I prayed on it. I gave it to God and hoped for the best and hoped that God would send His blessing to him. I felt God would bring him out of this."
Brown credited his parents and Headen for helping him avoid trouble as a youth and said he is returning to football more determined than ever as the result of observing his father's positive attitude. "He can't see at all," Brown said. "He can't see his grandkids. He can't see me. But he gets up in the morning. He washes the dishes. He feeds the dogs. Sometimes he goes out and starts my mother's car. If it's snowing, he goes out there and cleans the snow off the car. He never folded up."
Over the years, the Browns have traveled to their son's games. Claude Brown could still see him during his early days with the Browns. "I wasn't seeing that good, but I could see him a little," the father said. By 1999, he could only listen to reports about the flag incident before journeying with his wife to Cleveland to be with his son. Claude Brown said he wasn't surprised that Orlando's eye had swollen badly. He told about starting to chase Orlando, then a youngster, for getting into a tussle with another youth only to have Orlando slip and hit his head on a car parked in the back yard, resulting in a badly swollen eye.
Headen said yesterday he counseled Orlando "to start your life" after the eye injury but that Brown replied, "Coach, I really want to play."
"He came down to school. He began working out," Headen said. "He was always working out."
"In the time that he was off, he kind of improved himself as a player," Ravens offensive line coach Jim Colletto said. "Athletically, he did a lot of agility work and quickness drills and flexibility. From the aspect of playing the game, that's going to come with practice and preseason. He'll get a lot of opportunity in the preseason to get his feet on the ground."
"He's going to get that starting job," Headen predicted. "He's determined."