While NFL players around the country were gathering at colleges and practice facilities in late July for the start of training camp, offensive lineman Ray Brown was preparing alone for what he hoped would be his 19th season in the league. Brown did not have a contract with a team and perhaps, finally, at age 41, one was not coming.
So as he waited for a call from a team in need of a lineman, Brown kept running hills in his home town of Marion, Ark., lifting weights and contorting his 6-foot-5, 341-pound frame around in Pilates positions (he is now a svelte 318). During the second week of August, Brown got the word that some old friends wanted to see him again: The Washington Redskins needed reinforcements after tackle Jon Jansen was lost for the season with an injury and Coach Joe Gibbs, for whom Brown played during his first tenure in Washington, invited him and a handful of other veterans to Redskins Park for a workout.
"I knew I wanted to play another season," said Brown, who was released by Detroit at the end of last season when the team opted to go with younger players. "My family had committed to supporting me and encouraging me to play, so I tried to take care of myself and prepare, and that's what I did, basically. I came in a little heavy, but I felt good. I knew my legs were good and I knew I had good strength and I knew that would kind of sustain me for a couple of weeks until I really got into football shape."
Brown was signed on Aug. 11, worked his way up the depth chart and started at right tackle last Sunday against the New York Giants, silencing pass-rushing behemoth Michael Strahan for four quarters. Brown, who was named the Detroit Lions' top offensive lineman in 2002 and shared the club's leadership award last season, could very well start again Monday night against Dallas as he pushes toward 20 years in the trenches of the NFL, causing his coaches and teammates to marvel at his durability and productivity.
"It's amazing," starting right guard Randy Thomas said. "Last year when we were playing in Detroit watching him on the other side and playing against him, you watch how he goes out there and still competes like it's his third or fourth year in the league. And Strahan, holding Strahan in check, he's just a pro. A lot of guys look up to that. It's good to have a guy like that on the team. . . . It's amazing to sit back and look at that. I won't be playing no 19 years. He's old school. He's so smooth with his hands and his feet. Ask Strahan."
Kenyatta Jones started in Jansen's place during the preseason and in Week 1 -- snapping Brown's streak of 160 straight starts dating from 1993 -- but aggravated an ankle injury in the opening win over Tampa Bay. Jones wants to play Monday -- "I feel like I'm definitely ready to play with it," he said of the injury -- but Gibbs indicated that a decision on who will start this week has not been made. Brown did nothing Sunday to discourage the staff from going back to him for the big game with the Cowboys, however.
"Ray Brown is super smart," Gibbs said. "He's a big man, he's played a ton in this league and you know he played good in there [Sunday]. I'm sure glad we had him. . . . Kenyatta missed some work in there [last week] and had a little bit of a fat ankle, and the more we worked Ray we said, 'Hey, we want to play him.' "
Brown came into the NFL not too long after Gibbs became a head coach. He was selected in the eighth round of the 1986 draft -- the draft is now limited to seven rounds -- by the St. Louis Cardinals, a franchise that later moved to Arizona. He was a depth player his first three years in the league before signing with Washington in 1989. Brown appeared in all 16 games in 1990 for the Redskins, missed the 1991 season with an elbow injury (Brown departed Washington for San Francisco in 1996), and has not missed a game since, playing in 194 straight regular season contests.
He regularly leaves Redskins Park with huge ice bags wrapped around both knees, but even then Brown has a smile on his face. Somehow, his body has survived all of those years and all of those collisions. "I don't feel too bad physically," he said. "But obviously, having played 19 years, I'm going to have some aches and bruises, but I just manage; it seems like I just manage. It seems like when I get here I've got the desire and I know when I hit the door here I'd better be ready to work and that's generally the mind-set I take."
The coaching staff hopes more than just Brown's inspired play rubs off on the younger men around him in the locker room. His personable nature and friendly demeanor are contagious and he is renowned for his charity work, having been active in the Special Olympics program. He also opened a community center and gymnasium in his home town.
Brown said he usually waits until the offseason to decide if he will continue to play, but his love of football and the game-day butterflies are still there. When he does give up playing, Brown could still find himself in Washington, however, with his attitude and intellect lending itself to a long career in coaching.
"He's a sharp student of the game," said running backs coach Earnest Byner, a former teammate of Brown's in Washington, "and he's a guy who really appreciates what we do [as coaches]. We talked about it and the thing I really appreciate about Ray is his true understanding of the game and also how he understands the guys and communicates with the guys. I think he'd be a hell of a coach and I think we would be remiss and he would be remiss in not actually trying to see if there was something there."