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12-26-2012, 03:23 PM

Members of 1988 Irish mourn loss of teammate Dean Brown
Starting tackle on last Notre Dame championship team died Nov. 29 amid celebration of 2012 team's success

By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune reporter
9:11 p.m. EST, December 25, 2012

From the back of the ambulance, Dean Brown sounded normal. The trouble he had breathing that morning was due to either a nasty cold or a respiratory infection, so he would go to the hospital, maybe get some antibiotics and get out of there. He couldn't believe he was even in the ambulance. He could have driven himself.

It did free him to work out important logistics with his brother, Mike, who had just called. Dean was a member of Notre Dame's last national championship team, a 330-pound starting offensive tackle, his mass matched only by his ebullience. I love all y'all mugs, he would bellow at teammates all the time, shoulders back, eyes smiling, his voice foghorn-deep and warm.

These days, he wore his title ring only when speaking to youth groups or high school teams, as proof of where hard work could take them. Otherwise he didn't want to be known as Dean, the Football Player. Truth is, he wasn't a believer in his alma mater for a while in 2012. But he did believe long before Notre Dame was back in the national title game, back in position to do what hadn't been done since 1988.

In the ambulance on the way to the Cleveland Clinic, it seemed as good a time as any to make big plans.

"Look," Dean told Mike, "get the hotel room, get the flight, I got a line on the tickets. And we out of here, going to South Beach, to be with Notre Dame."

"Cool," Mike replied. "Just call me when you come up from out of there and let me know everything is OK."

By nightfall, Mike Brown had listened to a doctor explain how his brother walked a lap around the emergency room, passed out about three-quarters of the way through, recovered to return to his bed and then took his last breaths a few moments later.

True believer

Until the evening of Nov. 29, members of Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team devoted all energies to the abiding hope that by the end of Jan. 7, the day the current Irish players meet Alabama in the BCS title game, they no longer would be members of Notre Dame's last national championship team.

"Here's the truth: For a while, we had that feeling of the (1972) Miami Dolphins, but that's not the case anymore," said former Irish running back Mark Green, alluding to the NFL's last unbeaten team, which celebrates every year when no teams remain undefeated.

"We're 24 years out. And we want them to win."

Then Dean Brown died. They had lost teammates, five before this, from Bob Satterfield's fatal seizure and cardiac arrest on the day the team returned from its 1989 visit to the White House to Andre Jones suffering a brain aneurysm in June 2011. When they got together, they did what anyone else does: They told stories, laughed, remembered good times, and life carried on and time buffered them from the acute sense of loss in those moments.

Meanwhile, what they saw in 2012 rocketed them back to 1988, the recall invigorating and frighteningly precise. The last Notre Dame championship team won with a gravel-knuckled defense, a stout running game and a starting quarterback from South Carolina. The current iteration has won 12 of 12 games with a ferocious defense, a stout running game and a starting quarterback from South Carolina.

Both seasons featured validating mid-October victories: over Miami in 1988 and Stanford in 2012. After the latter, Frank Stams sent an email to his former teammate Wes Pritchett, saying they probably should book tickets to Los Angeles for the season finale at USC. I think they can go all the way, Stams wrote. Pritchett wrote back: I think they can too.

"I can tell you," Pritchett said, "we haven't said that since '88."

The whole thing coiled upon itself week after week, and the memories raged back, and once again they were seeing Lou Holtz wear a Smokey the Bear hat to practice to break tension, once again they were hearing Holtz pour sugar into the media's ears about West Virginia before the Fiesta Bowl while telling his team the Mountaineers didn't stand a chance.

"You might call it winning ugly, but it's not a beauty contest," said Pat Eilers, a flanker on the '88 team. "You're finding ways to win. And that's what the '88 team did. That's what has kind of defined this team."

Dean Brown wasn't sold early on. The Irish indeed were winning ugly — barely grinding by Purdue, surviving against Michigan despite intercepting five passes — and the ugliness gave him pause. But the wins kept coming, and suddenly the ugliness faded into a soft-focus glow.

These guys have a chance, Brown said.

Now a true believer, Brown called or texted his brother after every win with the same message as the Irish crawled toward the first undefeated season in a quarter-century.

One more week, he'd say. One more week.

'Makes me smile'

They called him Big Happy. Dean and Mike Brown grew up in a single-parent household in the projects of Canton, Ohio, and the neighborhood's ills didn't swallow them whole because the neighborhood respected them as the brothers who had the wherewithal to get out. Mostly this was because of Dean, whose athletic gifts dwarfed the grimness of the place.

He was the glue that kept the family together, his brother said. Anything Dean did, he insisted Mike come along. Football games, dinners, basketball games, whatever.

"If I couldn't go, then he nine times out of 10 declined going," Mike said. "At an early age, he taught me the importance of family and sticking together and being responsible for one another."

The buoyant personality gave way to a severe, gristly on-field demeanor that had Brown leaning toward playing at Ohio State before his official visit to Notre Dame swayed him. He would start the last 25 games of his Irish career, win the national title in 1988 and log more minutes than any Irish player as a senior in 1989, but the essence of him was too big to be confined within chalk lines on grass.

His smile basically composed his entire, monstrously cherubic face. His gait was slow and easy. That one pet phrase of his — I love all y'all mugs — rang out in meetings or tense moments to lighten the mood. Not surprisingly, Brown said it just before members of the '88 team walked into Notre Dame Stadium for a 20-year anniversary celebration.

At a recruiting dinner — whether Brown was a recruit or already at Notre Dame, former linemate Andy Heck can't remember — Brown spontaneously began a human beat-box session. That particular talent endured during his career. "Hey, Dean, give me a beat!" teammates shouted, and Brown produced the rhythm or rap or both.

During that memorable 1988 game against Miami, Eilers received a rare carry and wound up scoring a touchdown with Brown as his lead blocker. In the post-victory delirium, Brown made sure he made his way to Eilers. It's a good thing I'm as good a tackle as I am, knowing that Coach called your number, Brown deadpanned.

No one was immune. Once, while in the doldrums of two-a-days, Brown called over to Holtz.

"Coach Holtz, I just saw a picture of the Kent State football team," Brown said, referring to Holtz's alma mater. "Coach, I thought you played for them. It looked like you were the water boy in that picture!"

"Aw, Dean, you're a funny guy," Holtz replied. "I don't know if you're right or not, but you're sure going to look good at third-team tackle."

A little while later, Brown lined up at third-team tackle.

"If I'm blessed to be alive at 80 years old, I'll remember that day," former Irish linebacker Ned Bolcar said. "Certain people you know make you smile. Not everybody does. Dean, the thought of him, even now, makes me smile."

If there was one moment even Brown couldn't smile through, it was a jolting confrontation with the comedian Bill Cosby before commencement in 1989. Cosby spoke to a small congregation of black graduates and their guests and singled out Brown — unaware he was a student-athlete — asking him what his grade-point average was, telling him it wasn't good enough, bringing Brown to tears in the exchange.

The scene went unaddressed between the Brown brothers for years, until it came up while they dined on chicken wings and Dr Pepper at a Canton restaurant not long ago.

"It was at that point that he shared with me that helped fuel his desire to be a better person," Mike Brown said.

In 2003, Brown entered the education field, serving as dean of students at Friendship Public Charter School, the largest such school in inner-city Washington. In August, he moved back to Ohio and began work as principal at Nexus Academy in Cleveland. He was happy to be back. His mother, suffering from health issues, was happy to have her son and granddaughters just miles away.

He and his brother had plans, too. They wanted to put together a Saturday school for boys, and a blended learning academy, and programs centered on camping for at-risk youth. These were the next Dean Browns, the boys he wore his championship rings for, and he wanted to nurture them on their way to something bigger.

In People's Baptist Church on Dec. 6, at the funeral service for Brown, a friend told a story of how he would do that: Not long before he left Friendship, Brown came across a boy who, like other boys, had lived a hard life. The boy gave him angry, dismissive looks every day. Mean-mugging, Brown called it.

One day, Brown approached the boy. What is your deal with me? Brown asked.

The boy went berserk. He began swinging fists wildly at the giant man before him.

Then that giant man, all 6-foot-4 and 350 or so pounds of him, dropped to his knees.

Dean Brown reached out, and his massive arms pulled the boy into an embrace.

The boy stopped swinging and started to cry.

Saying goodbye

By late afternoon on Nov. 29, Brown was ready to be discharged from the Cleveland Clinic. He had passed all his tests. Doctors were preparing to prescribe antibiotics, but one asked Dean to stay just a while longer to monitor him. If everything is OK, Dean said, then there's no reason for me to stay.

They asked him to walk around the emergency room to check his oxygen levels. He passed out before he finished the lap. In a matter of seconds, Dean came to. He returned to his room and lay down on his bed. He was dead moments later. The autopsy revealed that a blood clot passed through his lungs.

The first emails among the 1988 team members went out that night. Mark Green was headed to a golf outing in Orlando to join three former teammates: George Streeter, D'Juan Francisco and Corny Southall. Southall got the news before his flight left. The rest learned upon their arrivals.

"We haven't even made our way to the hotel," Green said. "We were all in the airport in Orlando, just looking at each other."

So began another of the rounds of mourning that had occasioned this team over 24 years. This, though, was the only one juxtaposed against wild celebration and runaway hope. Notre Dame was playing for a national championship again, finally. It was very literally the moment they'd all been waiting for. And Big Happy was gone, leaving a hole in the middle of all the joy.

"It's certainly bittersweet, absolutely," Pritchett said. "The loss of Dean is more important to me than Notre Dame winning a national championship. Notre Dame winning the national championship is important, but this is a loss of a teammate; he left behind kids and family.

"Yes, I wish nothing more than for this team to win the national championship and beat Alabama. It would be great for Notre Dame. I've been pulling for them with all my heart all year. At the same time … this is the death of a teammate."

Said former linebacker Stan Smagala: "To lose Dean Brown — I'd rather have Notre Dame go 0-8, 0-9 and not lose that individual."

A good number of the 1988 squad gathered at the McKinley Grand Hotel in Canton the night before the services for Dean Brown and slung stories about their beloved teammate. Tony Rice talked about how Brown kept him out of trouble more than once. They filled the room with laughter before they said goodbye.

And many of them will travel to south Florida, on similar itineraries to the one Brown planned in the back of an ambulance in late November. There are plans in the works to gather as a team, along with Holtz and former defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez, and even if they can't get tickets to the title game they'll tell still more stories long into the night.

"Dean would want us to go out and enjoy what's going on," Stams said. "There's going to be a little bit of a somber moment or two, but that's not what Dean was about. Dean would want the guys to get together, tell the stories and share the laughs and enjoy the moment for him. To me, that's the best way to reconcile it."

The memorial program handed out at Dean Maurice Brown's funeral service featured a picture of his warm, hulking face in a wide smile on the cover, with a short obituary inside. It mentioned that he was an all-star football player and a member of Notre Dame's 1988 championship team, which the memorial described as one of the best undefeated teams in college football history.

On the back was a poem: Chief Tecumseh's words of wisdom. It was included because it was an inspiration to Dean. It speaks of enjoying life and serving others and abusing no one. It speaks of not being afraid to die. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home, the last line reads.

The email about Dean Brown's death circulated late on Nov. 29. When he received it, Michael Stonebreaker absorbed the news and then hit "reply all."

"I just want to say," Stonebreaker wrote, "I love each and every one of you mugs."