The early morning Acela Express had been heading north toward New York for nearly an hour when James Brown opened his eyes again.
First, there had been the thank-yous to the men who had helped with his bags. “God bless you, gentlemen.”
Then the hugs for the women who had helped with his tickets. “Thank you, Miss Cynthia.”
A call to his wife, Dorothy. “I appreciate you for getting me out of the house this morning.”
And an affirmation reading he called up on his iPad. “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield,” read the selection from Psalm 33.
Then Brown closed his eyes, put his hands together and sat for minute after minute, as the train approached Baltimore. The first-class passengers around him sipped their coffees and talked into their phones. Eventually, Brown opened his eyes.
“It’s how I give thanks and center myself,” he said, punctuating the thought with an, “Mmm-hmmm.”
On Sunday, Brown, 67, will host the Super Bowl pregame show for the ninth time, between his current employer, CBS, and his former employer, Fox. For years he has served as the buttoned-up straight man on fall Sundays — on Fox he was opposite Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long; at CBS, it’s Boomer Esiason and Bill Cowher. He’s one of the most ubiquitous presences in sports television — he’s hosted the Super Bowl pregame show more than anyone other than Brent Musburger — and also one of its longest tenured.
Brown is the rare person in TV whose personality gets bigger once the cameras turn off. An ordained minister and motivational speaker, he is a walking, talking appeal to our better angels. The earnestness that spills out of Brown befits someone who has, as he puts it, “been blessed over and over again.”
“He’s like how you would imagine Santa Claus,” said CBS co-host Nate Burleson. “He’s Black Santa.”
On this January morning, Brown was traveling from his home in Bethesda for a news conference promoting CBS’s Super Bowl coverage, a train ride he takes every weekend during the fall. As the train pulled out of Baltimore, Brown ticked off his almost Forrest Gump-like biography: growing up in Northeast Washington and starring for DeMatha Catholic High’s basketball team; choosing Harvard despite scholarship offers from basketball powerhouses such as North Carolina and UCLA (Ted Kennedy helped talk him into Harvard); getting cut by the Atlanta Hawks during training camp but quickly pivoting to a career in sales at Xerox; beginning his broadcasting career as a side gig, calling Washington Bullets games for $250 a pop.
CBS gave Brown his first shot calling football; he fondly recalled his first attempt, announcing that a player was running from the “40-yard line to the 50, to the 60.” In the 1990s, he transitioned into the studio with Fox, hosting the Sunday morning pregame show that revolutionized sports studio programming — one that emphasized laughs and a backslapping camaraderie. “They told me I was supposed to be the adult in the room,” Brown said.
In 2006, Brown returned to CBS to helm the network’s version of the same show. Brown remains the broadcasting pro on a set full of ex-jocks. “My job is to make everyone else look good,” he said.
“He’s salt of the earth, he reminds us we’re lucky to be here, doing what we do,” said Cowher, the former coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “He makes every single person feel special.”
Cowher added: “We look up to his professionalism. He does this thing before the show — he opens his mouth wide to do these vocal exercises. He goes, ‘Yah, yah, yah,’ So I did the same thing — ‘Yah, yah yah.’ ”
Arranged on the table in front of Brown’s first-class seat were three water bottles, each in its own Ziploc bag. One was filled with an organic coffee drink, the other two with water mixed with vitamin supplements.
“I’m in a reduction phase,” Brown explained. “It’s all about hydrating.”
Several years ago, Brown was approaching 300 pounds when he experimented with a new diet that helped him shed around a quarter of his body weight, much to the marvel of the Internet.
The diet remains all-consuming. He brought two large cooler bags packed with eight prepackaged meals for his four days in New York. Each meal includes eight ounces of chicken breast or halibut and healthy sides such as asparagus, strawberries or apple slices, all of it made and packaged by his nephew, a chef.
“I’m on 700 calories each day — and I’m counting,” Brown said. “One big apple is the equivalent of 95 calories. A medium-size apple is 62 calories.”
There is an anodyne quality to Brown. Several times, he reiterated that he did not want to say anything controversial. Of the NFL’s dearth of black head coaches, he said it was a problem for the league but one that he believed Commissioner Roger Goodell was working on diligently. Of former NBC announcer Bob Costas’s decision to walk away from broadcasting football because of his concern about head injuries, Brown said the issue was serious but one the league was making strides on.
Brown, though, is also proud of the work at CBS beyond football. He has served as a fill-in anchor on the “CBS Evening News” and is a special correspondent for the news division. In 2017, he traveled to Lahore, Pakistan, for a piece about an evangelical missionary, filming one stand-up in the city’s center, surrounded by a group of armed guards.
“I’m the biggest Negro in Pakistan,” he said. “You’ve got insurgents on the rooftops, they’ve got rocket launchers. You don’t think they know I’m a Western journalist?”
Last NFL season, amid the controversy sparked by NFL player protests, Brown and former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy spoke to people in the ministry — many of whom were boycotting the NFL — in an effort to explain that the players were kneeling during the national anthem not with any animus toward the flag but to draw attention to racial inequality.
In the days after President Trump criticized the protesting players, calling on owners to cut them, Brown appeared on “Face the Nation.”
“Engaging in vulgar, profane references to a group of young professionals who have been peacefully exhibiting their First Amendment rights is not the way to engage in civil discourse for the purpose of resolving long-standing, well-documented problems in their communities,” he said.
Asked on the train about Trump’s attacks on the league, Brown said, “I am constrained to pray for those I disagree with, too.”
As the train rumbled into Penn Station, Brown gathered his binder full of his notes, packed his thermoses and retrieved his coolers. He tugged his pile of bags toward the escalator.
Brown has two more seasons remaining on his contract. When asked how long he’d continue making the weekly treks to New York, he mentioned the relationships he’s built through the years and the lives he’s been a part of. Bradshaw once asked him to sit in his car and pray with him when he was going through a divorce. Burleson, new on the CBS set this season, said: “He goes to the bathroom when we’re doing highlights and says, ‘Nate’s got this.’ Being a young, African American [broadcaster], I think he looks out for me.’ ”
When Burleson’s comment was relayed to Brown, he said: “I think about Ephesians: ‘Every joint supplieth.’ Everybody’s gift is a success for the whole.”
He added, “I appreciate that that’s Nate’s view, but I would like to think that I offer myself to all, black and white.”
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