Mike Brown’s Forgotten Playing Days

How the Bengals owner’s time on the gridiron explains his much-maligned career on the sidelines.

Mike Brown studies the quarterback.

The Bengals owner is sitting in his corner office at Paul Brown Stadium on a sunny offseason morning. Outside, the Ohio River glints and glitters through his floor-to-ceiling windows; inside, Brown has agreed to review some old game film of a 1950s college matchup. In black-and-white footage, a slender quarterback takes the snap and fakes the handoff, first to his right halfback, then to his left, before spinning away, planting his feet, and heaving the ball 40 yards for a key first down. The footwork and throw are perfect, and there’s plenty for Brown to praise. But he declines to say much of anything, because the quarterback is Mike Brown himself.

Illustration by Veronica Fish

Brown answers personal questions with a modesty so relentless it would feel contrived if not for his sheer repetition. He speaks softly, avoids eye contact, and hates attention, even in the form of being asked to nostalgically analyze his college highlights. “I guess I threw the ball downfield,” Brown says when pressed. But he stands by the evaluation he offered earlier that morning: “I was a mediocrity as a football player, everywhere except in my own mind.”

This is the fakest news you’ll ever read. Brown was a record-setting college quarterback who started for a good team and had a real shot at playing professionally. It’s a fact likely to shock even diehard Bengals fans, all of whom can recite the long and rigid rap against Brown: that he’s too stubborn, too old-fashioned, too focused on buying team shares (or bilking Hamilton County)—and, most of all, too lucky, a team owner not because of any natural football acumen but because he happened to be the son of a true gridiron savant. The intensity of these criticisms may change based on last year’s wins and losses, but they have defined Brown’s entire tenure running the team.

That tenure seems to be winding down. At 82, and as his franchise enters its 50th season, Brown has spent the past few years delegating more and more to others in the team’s front office. (A minor health scare even forced him to fly home before a preseason road game in 2014.) Watching the grainy game highlights, his biggest reaction is to the receiver he threw to, Monte Pascoe. “I’m an old man,” says Brown. “When I see it, it makes me emotional. Those are people I’ve held dear my whole life. Monte’s gone now. And it just, uh, makes me pause and think.”

Still, Brown’s forgotten playing days debunk at least one of the longstanding criticisms against him. Far from a legacy admit, he knows and played more football than just about any other NFL owner. But that same experience also explains the fairer criticisms Mike has earned over the years—and how those criticisms trace back to his father, Paul Brown. The complex relationship between a coach and his son still shapes the complex relationship between an owner and his city. And the best place to understand all of it is the last place one would expect when it comes to Mike Brown: out on the field.

Brown has a deep roster of football memories, many of which feel universal. He was born in 1935, in the small, steel-making town of Massillon, Ohio. He grew up in a loving, bustling home—playing sports with his brothers, chasing Suzy Q, the family terrier, and eating his mother Katie’s homemade chocolate cake. More than anything, Brown obsessed over football. His toys were miniature players. His grade-school entertainment was playing pick-up games at recess—tackle ball on a gravel lot. “I don’t think anyone ever got hurt,” he says with a small smile.

But some of Brown’s memories are unique. As his father climbed the head-coaching ladder—from Massillon Washington High School to Ohio State to the Cleveland Browns, dominating at every step—Brown learned the sport from the inside. Cleveland’s coaching staff would review film and design game plans around the family’s dining-room table, and in grade school Brown started sitting in. “No one invited me,” he says, “but no one kicked me out, either.” Like a lot of kids, he tossed a pigskin in his backyard, pretending to be the Browns’ star quarterback, Otto Graham. Though only Mike got to listen as his dad discussed the game plan for Graham’s next start.

Paul Brown was an exacting coach, and in Cleveland his methods won multiple titles and modernized an entire sport. He implemented things football now takes for granted: full-time staff, the 40-yard dash, facemasks on helmets. He believed in discipline and hierarchy. He was the first coach to give his players formal playbooks and the first to call plays from the sideline, an innovation that irked his quarterback, Graham. Brown didn’t just invent the tools of the modern head coach; he invented the archetype: the self-serious, omni-everything control freak.

It was no surprise that Mike Brown fell hard for his father’s sport—it was all he knew. “I did love the game,” says Brown. “I did love throwing the ball.” He organized his entire adolescence around it, with the gridiron dictating his most important decisions.

Brown began playing organized ball first in junior high and then at Cleveland’s Shaker Heights High School, where he enrolled as a Red Raider in 1949. As a teenager, he already had the broad face and bashful eyes fans recognize today. But football forced him to be more outgoing. He started out as a blocking fullback—until one pivotal game during his sophomore season against Cleveland Heights. (Like so many ex-jocks, Brown can recall long-ago outcomes and opponents in genealogical detail.) Shaker Heights was down by a lot, so in the huddle Brown announced he was commandeering the quarterback position. “I said, Center the ball to me,” he remembers. “I described pass patterns for our receivers.” Brown led the team on a thrilling comeback, though they fell just short of victory. Afterward, his coaches told him to never do that again.

A year later, those same coaches made Brown the varsity quarterback. During one game against Elyria High School, Brown received a vicious, concussive hit. “When I regained consciousness, I was in the training room on a gurney,” he says. “My mother was hovering above me.” Katie Brown must have barreled through the locker room to find her son—a tender moment if not for the fact that he was surrounded by other boys in various stages of undress. It was a bit of a scandal in mid-century Ohio, but that was the kind of mother he had.

Paul Brown was less of a presence. He didn’t attend any of his son’s high school football games—they tended to overlap with Cleveland’s busiest period. “He did go to a basketball game I played in one time,” Brown recalls. “It was a state playoff game. We lost, and when I came home he suggested I try some other sport.”

Mike didn’t argue. He was already focused on football by that point, realizing he was good enough to play in college. His father didn’t seem to have much interest in that, either, so on his own, Mike began surveying the Street & Smith sporting yearbook to learn about various programs. “When I came to Dartmouth,” he says, “I discovered that their quarterback was graduating. So I saw this opportunity.” Brown understood that Dartmouth offered a fine education, but football was the key. When one of his dad’s Cleveland assistants heard him discussing his aspirations, he wrote to Dartmouth’s coach and recommended Mike. The young quarterback got an offer to play soon after, and in the fall of 1953, Katie took him to the train station and shipped him off with a trunk of belongings. When Brown finally arrived in Hanover, New Hampshire, it was the first time he’d ever seen the campus.

College football in the 1950s was a radically different sport than it is now. Athletes couldn’t play varsity as freshmen, and once they were eligible, they lined up for both offense and defense. The game was far more conservative, with an emphasis on power formations and field position.

Another difference was that a talented, ambitious player like Brown could go to a school like Dartmouth. The Ivy League still took the game very seriously, and each of the eight schools boasted a deep tradition. (The Heisman Trophy, for example, is named after John Heisman, who played at Brown and Penn and coached at Penn.) For many years, those schools supplied some of the country’s best teams and most rabid fans, and while that era was slowing down, it wasn’t finished. The Ivy squads were still covered in sports sections across the country. Princeton had just produced a Heisman winner in 1951, and it wasn’t uncommon for multiple Ivy Leaguers to get drafted to the next level.

It made sense, then, that Brown chose Dartmouth as part of his football-first strategy. “He’s a pretty good prospect,” the team’s longtime head coach, Tuss McLaughry, once told reporters. “Not too big, but he throws a nice pass. And he likes to play.”

McLaughry said he thought Brown could grow into a starter, but as the reporters scribbled down his quotes, he smiled. “You know, I can’t help wishing Paul had sent us that other boy of his,” the old coach added.

The reporters were confused. “What other boy?” one finally asked.

“Otto Graham,” McLaughry replied.

The coach had other plans for his son. And with that, Mike Brown’s playing days came to an end—not because he wanted them to, or because he wasn’t good enough, but because his father said so.

His father’s legacy followed Mike everywhere. He acquired the nickname “Son of” around campus—because every time his name appeared in a newspaper, it was followed by the fact that he was the “son of Cleveland coach Paul Brown.” While Mike had a good sense of humor about it, he never brought that background up himself, concentrating instead on ascending the depth chart. “He was serious about football,” says Bob Adelizzi, an All-Ivy star who played all four years with Brown at Dartmouth. “He was serious about everything.”

Brown ran the offense on the freshman team during the 1953 season. (He also sacrificed a front tooth, in a rough game against Boston University.) The next year, he expected to back up two upperclassmen, but both got hurt six games into the season. Brown entered his first varsity game down 13–7, facing a nasty Yale defense and backed up on his own one-yard line. “I remember being petrified,” he says. “The referee struck up a conversation with me. He said, ‘Is this your first game?’ It was pretty obvious, I guess, that I was nervous.”

No one in Dartmouth’s huddle seemed to notice. Brown appeared cerebral and calm. “He was not a firebrand kind of leader,” remembers John Donnelly, another teammate. “He left that to others on the team. But he was self-assured.” While most fans expected the young quarterback to fold, he ended up driving Dartmouth out of danger and keeping the game close. He showed a good arm; a great head; and, even at a mere 170 pounds, an ability to scramble around—or simply run over—defenders. He was a quarterback who carried himself like a lineman, and Dartmouth’s fans, players, and coaches were quickly impressed.

Brown continued to earn spot duty as a sophomore, but his junior year was a lost season. He struggled with injuries; the team struggled with a new coach. Dartmouth had limped along for years under McLaughry, whose final season was the 1954 campaign. To replace him the school hired a creative young coach named Bob Blackman, and he installed a new offense that empowered the quarterback to run and throw, though it also required him to possess an exhaustive understanding of football tactics. Dartmouth finished the year with another losing record, but plenty of optimism for 1956.

That was Brown’s senior year, and he finally claimed a spot as the starting quarterback. Mike’s mother drove from Cleveland to New Hampshire to watch him play an early season game against Holy Cross, though his father continued to keep his distance. When Dartmouth’s administrators asked Paul to recommend potential coaches, he’d studied film from three candidates and ultimately endorsed hiring Blackman. But he never made a trip to see his own son in action. One time, a reporter asked him about Mike’s success as a quarterback. Paul dismissed it: “Oh, he just plays at it,” he said.

“I think Paul was tough on Mike,” says Donnelly. “My dad was tough on me, and it takes one to know one.”

On the field, Mike adjusted brilliantly to Blackman’s offense—so brilliantly that before long he was crafting the game plans and calling the plays. Dartmouth’s drives featured an ingenious, off-kilter rhythm, with Brown ordering up smart and cautious plays, only to unveil a trick pass or reverse when least expected.

Some sorcery seemed necessary given Dartmouth’s injuries, as starter after starter went down that year. Eventually Brown got hurt as well. “I remember it very vividly,” he says. “It wasn’t exactly a heroic occurrence.” In yet another matchup with Yale, a backup running back collided with Brown and knocked him out. It was his second major concussion, and when Brown woke up he teetered around the field, unsure of where he was or what had happened. “I remember sitting in the locker room—that’s when I came to,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Coach, I’m ready. The only problem is I don’t remember any of the plays. But if you give me the playbook I can learn them.’ ”

Brown ended up at the hospital instead, and the game ended in defeat. No one knew when Dartmouth’s quarterback would return—or whether a once-promising season could be revived—but Brown managed to return for the next game and rattle off two more wins heading into the season’s final contest. It was a road game against a heavily favored Princeton, and a victory would ensure Dartmouth’s first winning campaign in seven years.

More than 30,000 fans jammed into Princeton’s Palmer Stadium, but Brown kept them quiet. Dartmouth won 19–0, with Brown running for all three touchdowns himself. That gave him 10 rushing touchdowns for the season, the most in the Ivy League (and a Dartmouth school record). He also finished among the league leaders in passing yards, attempts, and completions. The New York Times even coined a new sobriquet for him—not “Son of” but rather “Mike Brown, Dartmouth’s ace quarterback.”

The Dartmouth football team in 1955. Mike Brown (top row, third from left) is number 16.

Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.

NFL teams took notice of Brown’s success as well, though professional football in the 1950s was more of a hobby than a multi-million dollar career plan. The money was terrible, with locker room chatter focusing not on games and gossip but on securing a second job to pay the bills. Unlike the modern-day ESPN orgy, the drafts of yore resembled a convention for CPAs, a two-day event hosted in two separate hotel ballrooms, with 12 teams drafting for 30 rounds.

The 1957 draft took place in Philadelphia, with the second day starting at 10 a.m. and dragging until nearly midnight. During the final round, someone from the Chicago Cardinals walked over to the table occupied by the Cleveland Browns. It had been a good draft for Cleveland. Paul Brown had hoped to find a quarterback to replace Otto Graham, but when his top choices went early, he settled on a running back named Jim Brown. Now the Cardinals wanted to inquire about another quarterback: his son. “They said they were thinking they might draft me with their last pick,” Mike recalls, “and they wanted to make sure that was all right with my dad if they did.”

Paul Brown offered the Cardinals a deal: “I won’t take him if you don’t.”

The implication was clear. The coach had other plans for his son, so the Cardinals drafted a lineman instead. And with that, Mike Brown’s playing days came to an end—not because he wanted them to, or because he wasn’t good enough, but because his father said so.

Mutinous fans, 1-percent wealth, lopsided leases, losing, winning—it often seems like nothing can change Mike Brown. He is who he is, for better or worse. He works each day in a sumptuous office at Paul Brown Stadium, but still drinks his coffee out of a ratty Styrofoam cup.

One thing did have an obvious impact on him, however: his father. It’s important to stress that while Paul was hard on Mike, he loved his son fiercely. Once, while still at Dartmouth, Mike traveled to the old Polo Grounds to watch Cleveland play the New York Giants. After the game, he found his father boarding the team bus. Paul gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, which earned a few heckles from the Giants fans filing out of the stadium. “He looked at them,” Brown remembers, “and said, ‘He’s my son, fellows,’ and with that he got on the bus.”

Mike always obeyed his father. In order to play football, Mike attended an unfamiliar college 600 miles from home; he battled two nasty concussions; he even considered enlisting in the Marines so he could play on a service team. Yet when his father said enough, he quit. “It wasn’t something I debated,” says Mike. “I just did what I was told. And I accepted it. I didn’t have regrets about it.”

Mike went to Harvard Law School instead. He still missed football, and during his first year he coached the freshman team and called plays for the varsity. “I was happier doing that than anything I’ve ever done,” he says. When his father told him to stop coaching, though, he stopped that too. “He didn’t think that would be best for me,” says Brown. “I think he was right about that, in hindsight.” Mike became a lawyer at a tony Cleveland firm and was there when the Browns forced his father out in 1962. Five years later, he played a vital role in helping Paul Brown secure a new team in Cincinnati and went to work for the Bengals on the business side. Mike had finally entered the world of professional football—not in defiance of his father, but in service to him.

None of this seems ironic—or tragic, or comedic—to Mike Brown. It seems simple. Sensible, even. In his view, the world should run on loyalty and hierarchy, on kept promises and clearly defined roles. That’s how Mike saw his father, and it’s how he sees the Bengals. There’s a reasonably straight line that runs from the Browns’ father-son dynamic to the most vexing things about their Cincinnati franchise, especially since Mike officially took over following his father’s death in 1991.

That family dynamic restricted the Bengals’ ability to adapt as the NFL entered the freewheeling Free Agency Era, in which an owner who knew football was no longer enough of an asset to maintain stability (and an occasional winning season). It led to annual draft busts and incestuous coaching hires. It drove Brown’s decision to keep Carson Palmer, his frustrated star. (“Carson signed a contract,” the owner once said. “He made a commitment.”) It motivated his refusal to renegotiate the most team-friendly stadium deal in sports. (“We made a deal with the county,” he once said. “We expect them to live up to their end of it.”) These mistakes have long come across as stubborn, greedy, and smug. But they’re also the product of a philosophy rooted in obedience and authority—in doing things the right way, according to Brown’s own narrow and inflexible definition.

As he has gotten older, Brown has made some small adjustments. He ultimately traded Palmer; he agreed to tiny concessions with Hamilton County. Most important, he empowered Marvin Lewis and others to make more football decisions. But at the same time, it took Lewis years to wrangle that power, and Brown has now retained him longer than many fans would like. Brown hasn’t helped the county as much as a generous (and fabulously rich) citizen should. In an era when most NFL teams strain to resemble Fortune 500 companies, the Bengals still operate like a mom-and-pop shop.

Mike Brown’s philosophy, in other words, endures, just as it did in 1991 and 1967 and even 1956, when he was a Dartmouth star. “I want to make it very clear that I was a very limited player,” says Brown. “I was just fortunate and I loved playing. It wasn’t very complicated.”

But if you can keep Brown talking about the old days, if you can get him to watch just a few more black-and-white highlights, he’ll eventually open up and say something that does sound a bit complex. He’ll tell you a story like this: In the summer of 1957—a few months after he wasn’t drafted out of Dartmouth, and a few weeks before he would head to Harvard—Brown visited Cleveland’s training camp. Paul Brown had swapped his fedora for a ball cap, but he still ran those preseason sessions as strictly as any game. One day, after practice had finished, Mike found himself on the field with a new player, a rookie from Auburn named Bobby Freeman.

Freeman was a third-round pick, a 202-pound quarterback who paced the SEC in total offense as a senior and who would last six years in the NFL. Freeman and Brown ended up throwing a football back and forth from various distances, but their duet soon began to feel uneasy. “It was clear that I could throw the ball better,” Brown remembers. “I could see it registering in his mind that this was getting to be embarrassing.”

Still, Freeman kept going—maybe because the practice field had mostly emptied, or maybe because he just loved playing football, because he’d spent his whole life thinking about little else. So Mike kept going too. “It was him and me,” says Brown, “and nobody else.”

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