Notre Dame's Tim Brown: Like Smoke Through a Net

Michael CollinsAnalyst IMay 19, 2009

Tim Brown was to become a Pentecostal minister. His mother, Josephine, wanted him to play in the band rather than play football at Woodrow Wilson High in Dallas. SMU, which was close to home, nearly gained Brown’s commitment. While Tim Brown may still end up in Christian ministry, his football choices were all the right moves.

At Notre Dame, Tim became a football legend—an All-American two years, the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy, now the newest member of the College Football Hall of Fame and lock for the NFL Hall of Fame. Any Irish fan knows who “81” refers to. Meanwhile, SMU suffered the NCAA’s death penalty the year Tim was earning his Heisman trophy.

After a couple of years under Gerry Faust that showed promise, Tim caught the eye of new coach Lou Holtz in his junior year. “After three days of spring practice, I made the comment that Tim Brown may be the best football player I’ve ever seen. He just grasped things. He has an awareness on the field of what he needs to do. He knows the down and distance and when to try to outrun someone and when to cut it back. It’s nothing you can teach or coach.”

Tim exercised an unparalleled athletic ability that Holtz utilized in his passing attack, on punt and kickoff returns and even in the backfield. The new Irish head coach vowed, “The only way we’re going to keep the ball out of Tim Brown’s hands is if they intercept the snap from center.”

Brown had a talent of exploiting a defense’s weakness and an acceleration that could turn a five yard pass into fifty. Tim breezed through defenders like smoke through a net.

In the last game of 1986—his junior season—Tim left the Southern Cal Trojans strewn over the field in a remarkable display. The Irish were down 37-20 with 13 minutes to go in the game when he returned the kickoff 57 yards to set up a touchdown. His 49 yard pass reception from Steve Beuerlein was instrumental in a second Irish touchdown march, capped by a two point conversion. With the score now 37-35, the Irish defense forced a Trojan punt. Tim dodged the USC gunner and streaked past two defenders to reach an Irish wall, gaining fifty-six yards. John Carney kicked a 19 yard game-winning field goal as time expired.

With 252 all-purpose yards against USC, Brown finished 1986 with 1,937 all-purpose yards (910 receiving, 215 rushing, 75 on punt returns and 698 yards on kickoff returns)—a single-season Notre Dame record. His senior year’s 1,847 yards ranks second in Irish record books.

Tim Brown scores against No. 9 Michigan.

Tim Brown scores against No. 9 Michigan.

In his senior year, against Michigan, he had his most spectacular catch, a leaping grab between two defenders for the winning touchdown in the Big House.

Michigan State coach, George Perles, described him this way, “Like a draft when he goes by you.” Perles had a front row seat to two of Brown’s more remarkable punt returns for TDs—consecutive returns of 71 and 66 yards. The Irish had rushed ten men to block the punt on his second touchdown. Tim created his own holes instead of calling for the fair catch. Brown was the first player in college football history to score touchdowns on consecutive punts.

In fourteen touches, Tim had amassed 275 all-purpose yards in a 31-8 Irish victory (highlight reel).

Leon Hart, Notre Dame’s Heisman winner of 1949, said, “The important thing with Tim Brown is, he affects the game so subtly that anybody with a trained eye can see what’s occurring when the other team doesn’t kick to him and they loft the ball on a punt so that the teammates can get down under it. They only kick a 25-yard punt instead of a 40-yard punt, and Tim gained 15 yards just by standing there. So he signals for a fair catch and actually gains yards.”

Hart added, “But the important thing is what Holtz does with him. His talent is such that they double and triple-cover him, they put him out wide to the right and then run the option opposite Brown, and the defense doesn’t have enough men left over to cover what ends up as the QB and the pitch man.”

While Air Force and Southern Cal chose to kick punts out of bounds or make squib kicks, Brown had a career day against Boston College—294 all-purpose yards. Behind 25-12, Tim helped lead a comeback with five receptions or returns that set up scores that day as the Irish won 32-25.

81 left Notre Dame as their all-time leader in receiving yards (2,493), and with 5,024 total yards, averaging 116.8 yards per game.

Brown finished his NFL career with 1,094 receptions—only the third player to reach that mark. His receptions gained 14,934 yards. second in NFL history only to Jerry Rice. When he scored his 100th touchdown, he was only the seventh wide receiver in history to accomplish this. Tim was chosen All-Pro nine times in his seventeen year career. He has the most consecutive seasons with 50+ receptions in NFL history (11). When eligible in 2010, he will become the fifth Notre Dame player in both the College Football and NFL Halls of Fame.

Since 1995, Brown has been the National Chairman of Athletes and Entertainers for Kids and 911 for Kids, an organization which has helped five million children and teens through mentoring and educational programs. Brown’s motivations are clear, “I was fortunate to grow up in a wonderful, supportive and loving family. I realized early on that many children are not as fortunate and just finding a meal is a daily fight for thousands of youth.”

Tim has explored the idea of coaching with Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. As one of the captains for the Irish spring game in 2005, Brown reflected, “This was probably one of the biggest thrills I’ve had in a long time. It almost makes me think about coaching. Being on the sidelines and having young kids come up to you and say, ‘Teach me your stance,’ it was a blast for me.”

Or he may follow his mother’s words at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, “I love my son. I’m proud of him. But one day, he will give up football and become a minister. I really believe that.”

Whatever the future holds, Tim Brown will continue to make the right moves.

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