Not once in all these years -- 19 and counting, to be exact -- has a coach ever run a play for Ray Brown to touch the football. Not Gene Stallings, not Joe Gibbs, not Richie Petitbon, not George Seifert, not Steve Mariucci. Not one tackle-eligible play near the goal line, not one fumblerooski in which the lineman snatches the ball from the turf and runs, not one jumbo fullback play in which the 325-pounder gets to flatten some linebacker while rumbling into the end zone. For 19 seasons, Brown has blocked. For the Rams, Cardinals, Redskins, 49ers, Lions and now the Redskins again, a kid from a little Delta town with no NFL aspirations has done the least glamorous work the NFL has to offer . . . and has loved every second of it.
"I don't want to be around the ball unless I'm recovering it," Brown said yesterday morning after the first of two training camp workouts at Redskins Park. "I have no problem with not touching the ball. I don't want to run with the football. . . . They tackle guys with that thing."
Ray Brown, on the verge of beginning his 20th season in the NFL at the age of 42, has as tight a handle on who he is and how football fits into his life as anybody in the NFL. "The only thing I want to do," he said, "is block. I'm good at that. . . . Nobody would have picked me to play 20 years. I wouldn't have picked me to play 20 years. I've got a lot of ex-teammates watching the game who are saying, 'Can you believe Ray Brown is still playing football?' . . . I've got some family members who are probably saying, 'Why is Uncle Ray still playing?' I pack a lunch every year and say, 'Can I do it?' . . . Everybody who mentions my name will say that number."
That number is 42 now, and as of Dec. 12, it will be 43.
He's five years older than Bill Musgrave, the Redskins' quarterbacks coach. Only kickers Gary Anderson (46) and Morten Andersen (45 next week), punter Sean Landeta (43), quarterback Doug Flutie (42) and wide receiver Jerry Rice (42) are older than Brown among players who were active at the end of last season. But not one of those players is in the game for as many plays or engaging in as much contact as Brown, who started 14 games last year after Jon Jansen got hurt and will probably be a much-used and valuable backup this season.
The Over-40 Club in the NFL has had 43 members all-time, and it's populated mostly by kickers and quarterbacks. The signature member of the club is a quarterback-kicker, George Blanda, who played until he was 48. The last time a lineman as old as Brown played in the NFL was 1921, when 45-year-old John Nesser played guard and tackle for the Columbus Panhandles.
It's not like Gibbs is just keeping Brown around for setting milestones. In Saturday's scrimmage with the Ravens, Brown was winning most of his battles with younger linemen, causing assistant coach Joe Bugel, who might know more about line play than anybody, to begin screaming at the other linemen to look at how well Brown was playing the position, his technique, his passion for a scrimmage. And remember, Brown is coming off surgery on his left knee and his right ankle, and says he's still trying to "center up" and find his balance during this camp. "I don't ever," he said, "want to look old on film. . . . I want to be good every day when I put on these pads. I don't want to be a fraud when I come out here. I've seen some veterans who at the end of their careers were callous."
And as a result, Brown winds up asking himself virtually every day, if not every practice: "Do I have it? Can I still do it?" He says there is no tendency at any time to "break out the fireworks" and start celebrating 20 NFL seasons because "if I do, I'll get my [butt] handed to me." It's as if he's back in college, at Arkansas State, where he said his obsessions were, "Can I pass my political science exam? Can I get into grad school?"
He has just missed playing on Super Bowl teams at least twice. Brown spent the entire 1991 Redskins championship season on injured reserve, practicing but not playing. In 1996, when it looked as if the San Francisco 49ers were going to go to the Super Bowl, they lost the NFC championship game at home to the Green Bay Packers, which is one of the rare football topics that can turn Brown's mood notably downcast.
Otherwise, he practices and plays and goes about his business with the demeanor of a man who feels he's the luckiest person on the face of the earth. Not only does he not regret spending two years on injured reserve with the Redskins, "I really benefited," he says, "from the old injured reserve rules. I spent two years [on IR], but I never missed a practice."
He's almost too good to be true, except Brown has been going about his life in football the same way for going on 20 years now. It's not like he has to prove he can be this balanced, this sensible and this grounded over a period of years. He's done it. He has children in their early twenties from his first marriage, young children under 10 now, yet is driven in part by a feeling most players in their twenties now probably can't understand. "I never had," he said, "this big dream that I was going to be the one. I do it for my mom and dad. . . . I want to please my dad and I want to make my mom proud." And he says it in a way that is neither corny nor disingenuous.
He came into the NFL as an eighth-round draft pick by St. Louis the same spring, 1986, that Len Bias died. And it isn't lost on Brown that his NFL draft class included, to use his word, "dirty" players who had their own drug issues, whether those issues were steroids or recreational drugs.
You can't talk to an active player with this much perspective and think he won't become a coach, though the game clearly needs Brown more than he needs it. Asked if coaching is calling him, he said, "It might be, but I might not be listening. I have total respect for that profession," but he probably wants to take some time away from football's regimented schedule to attend his alma mater's homecoming or go to the Bayou Classic. A 21st season, he says, holds no interest for him whatsoever.
Brown uses the words "grateful" and "blessed" and feels there's something more divine than the Pilates classes he began taking in 2001 that have helped him stretch his career over three decades. "I've had some moments," he said. "I guess I've had a lot of moments to add up to 20 years. I've been pretty fortunate."