Derek Vernon Brown, the legendary tight end on Notre Dame’s 1988 national title team, spent most of his childhood on the move. His father, who worked for IBM, was often forced to relocate, with Brown following suit. In fact, he had lived in California, Texas, Washington DC, Georgia, and even England (the country!), all before he was eight years old. He is a man of many firsts — a first team All-American and a first round draft pick, Brown took his Notre Dame triumphs with him to the NFL where he had a successful nine-year career with the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals. Brown now lives in Clifton Park, New York with his wife, Kristin, and their two children Sydney (13) and Reece (11).
Q. Finishing your childhood in Florida and being heavily recruited by the University of Miami and the Florida Gators, how did you become interested in playing football at Notre Dame? How hard was it to leave the warm state of Florida and head north to South Bend?
A: “My dad worked for IBM and before I was eight years old we had already lived in California, Texas, England (the country), Washington DC and Georgia. I’m not exactly sure how Notre Dame crept into my decision pool, but smooth-talking Irish recruiter Vinnie Cerrato most definitely had something to do with it. I didn’t know much about Notre Dame football or its history, and I didn’t really have a favorite football team either. If I had to pick one, I probably would have picked the Steelers because I was a big fan of Terry Bradshaw, but that was obviously a professional team. I was very athletic growing up and played whatever sport was in season; football basketball, baseball and track and field. In high school I narrowed it down to basketball, football and track. The baseball team wanted me to pitch, but it interfered with spring football.”
“By my junior year in high school I had narrowed my choices down to the University of Miami, University of Florida and Notre Dame. Where I lived in Florida, the area was split half Gator country and half Hurricane country. Five or six guys from my high school went to Miami and were playing for the Hurricanes when we (Notre Dame) played them in 1988.”
“What it basically came down to was me being tired of people telling me where I was going to school. Everyone kept telling me, ‘Oh, you know you’re going to be a Gator.” My junior year I dreamt I was going to go to UF, but then everyone tried to push it on me and it got really annoying. Because of that I started to take a real hard look at Miami. I started going down there quite a bit. I loved Miami. So then it was down to Miami and Notre Dame. Ultimately, what I was looking for was a football team like Miami had with an academic program like Notre Dame had, but I had to make a decision.”
“Back in the 1980’s Miami was known for being a little rough around the edges, but I loved it — those were my guys. Perception isn’t always reality, and the “thug” reputation was NOT all that Miami was (it is a private university after all). That being said, when it came down to it I decided I didn’t want to be misunderstood and perceived in that manner.”
“I took my official visit to Notre Dame in the middle of December. I got off the plane wearing my Ray Bans, Miami Vice sport coat, t-shirt, slacks, loafers and no socks … greeted by one and a half feet of snow. Welcome to South Bend. My host that weekend was Andre Jones.”
“One Saturday morning during the winter of my senior year of high school I popped in this video tape that I had that was called “Wake up the Echoes.” No one was home and I started watching it and the video gave me goose bumps and at that moment I thought, ‘Screw it. I’m going to Notre Dame.'”
“It was tough saying no to Jimmy Johnson not just once, but twice in my living room, but I did and I am so glad I made the decision to attend Notre Dame.”
Q: What is it like to be one of the few players to have 1.) Won a National Championship (1988), been 1st Team All-America (1991) and 1st Round NFL Draft Pick (1992 – New York Giants Pick #14). What did being on that 1988 national title team mean to you?
A: “When you are in the middle of the kind of successes you don’t really think about it. But looking back at everything, it is truly amazing. No disrespect to the 2012 team but when I played college ball you couldn’t compare our team to anyone else — we were that much better. There were 63 combined guys from the Fighting Irish and Hurricane teams that went pro after that (1988) season. The most amazing thing about that Notre Dame team was how deep our lineup was. In front of me was Frank Jacobs. My backup was Irv Smith. His backup was Oscar McBride. Any of us could have stepped in at any moment and been good to go. And it was like that at every position, not just tight end. Coach Lou Holtz and his recruiting staff did an amazing job of keeping the talent rolling in.”
Q: What was it like to see yourself on the cover of Sports Illustrated?
A: “I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated during the 1991 football season and I didn’t believe it when I heard about it. Chris Zorich came in and said to me, ‘You’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated.’ … and when I said he was crazy he went and got it, and there I was! The issue was called, ‘One Wacky Season,’ and the featured article was about how many times the number one spot had changed hands during the football season. I was stunned that I was the one they picked for the cover. That just didn’t happen to guys like me.”
Q: What do you think about the evolution of the tight end position since you played the game?
A: “Man, I wish I could have hung around and played tight end in college and the pros today. I would have had a field day with these west coast offenses. I love watching Tyler Eifert. What a great kid –big hands and the top of his peer group. He should do very well in the NFL.”
Q: What is your favorite Notre Dame football memory?
A: “I would have to say beating Miami 31-30 in 1988 (the “One Shining Moment” game) was probably the most memorable game of my collegiate career. It meant a lot more to me than most of the guys on that team, being from Florida, and having been told during the recruiting process that we’d never beat them. It was a great feeling to walk off that field with a victory.”
“Another memory that sticks out for me was after we beat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl game for the national title. After the game I stood there on the field with Todd Lyght and looked at him and said, ‘Now what do we do?’ And Todd replied, ‘Alright, let’s go out!’ It was like it was no big deal to us. We had just won the national title and it was just another win to us. I guess because our coaches made us feel like there was no doubt in their minds that we would win, it was kind of anticlimactic.”
“Coach Lou Holtz had told us, you don’t win a national championship, you wake up to it.”
Q: What do you think made that ’88 team so special?
A: “It was a good mix of old-school guys and new-school guys. We had great senior leadership: Pat Eilers, Tim Grunhard, Mark Green; and then we had a group of young guys who came in with a chip on their shoulders. Quite frankly, we didn’t give a crap what anyone thought. We were coming in and if you didn’t play up to your expectations we were taking your spot. We were there to win games and we had some serious swagger.”
Q: What is your favorite Lou Holtz memory/story?
A: “My favorite Lou Holtz memory was when he was getting us ready for the 1988 “One Shining Moment” game against Miami, that we won 31-30. This has to be the best Lou Holtz quote ever.”
“In Lou’s pregame pep talk he told us, ‘You have an afternoon to play, a lifetime to remember. But I want you to do one thing: You save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me.'”
“Of course it sounded great and we were all about delivering Johnson to Coach Holtz, but honestly, there is no way Coach Holtz could have taken Jimmy Johnson (laughs).”
Q: What are your memories of the day you were drafted?
A: “I was in Florida on my draft day. I had a hotel suite in Cocoa Beach with a large group of my family and friends. I had been invited to come to New York City to be at the NFL Draft but I didn’t want all of those cameras in my face just in case something went wrong. I was expecting to go to Cleveland in the number nine spot, but when they took Tommy Vardell I know it would be a bit more of a wait. Then I got a call from Ray Handley, the head coach of the New York Giants saying that they were going to select me as the next pick (14) to play for the Giants. I remember walking out to the hotel balcony and reflecting on everything that had just happened.”
Q: What were the highs and the lows of playing in the NFL? What was the highlight of your NFL career?
A: “Just the exclusivity of it all — being a part of something that very few people have to opportunity to do was one of the biggest highs for me. Being in that NFL locker room, in the huddle, is something that I’ll never forget.”
“As far as the lows go, I didn’t think that my NFL career panned out the way that I thought it would. If I had played in different systems, had different opportunities, maybe it would have turned out differently. I wanted to be a 10-year pro bowler and to play for 12 seasons. I played for nine seasons, and didn’t make the pro bowl, but I am still happy with all that I accomplished during my football career.”
“The highlight would have to be getting to the AFC championship game in 1996 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was their second year of existence (the franchise had just started in 1995) and we had a players-only meeting and had told each other we have got to start making plays. If we were going to accomplish anything, it was up to us. We had been 3-6 after nine games and then from there we really came on strong. We beat Buffalo at home (30-27) in the Wild Card game and knocked legendary quarterback Jim Kelly out of the playoffs. Then we beat Denver (30-27) at their place in the Divisional playoff game (Denver’s regular season record was 14-2), but then we lost to New England 20-6 in the AFC championship game. Even though we lost that game, we were really only a blocked punt and fumble from going to the show. It was quite a run for a team that was only in its second year of existence.”
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the hit you took from Denver Broncos safety Tim Hauck during preseason? What was rehab like?
Brown missed the entire 1995 season as the result of a hit from Denver Broncos safety Tim Hauck during a preseason game. He suffered bruised ribs, a collapsed lung and damage to his spleen and kidney. He was in the hospital for 10 days and in a wheelchair a few weeks after that.
A: “Steve Beuerlein was Jacksonville’s quarterback in 1995 and this was the last game of the preseason. It was supposed to be my coming out game. This was going to be my year because in the first year of an expansion team our quarterback did not have much protection and I was sure as the tight end I was going to get a lot of balls thrown to me. I had three receptions and a touchdown in that game and Beuerlein had thrown to me two or three other times as well. Then in the second quarter the pass to me was tipped and I was making an attempt to come down with it when I got hit hard right in the back. When I came down I heard a clicking sound every time I took a breath and I knew something was not right. I was able to get up and jog off the field. They took me into the locker room to have x-rays done and I had a broken rib. I took a shower and then the first time I went to the bathroom I peed blood. Our trainer had seen a similar accident in a baseball game and decided that I needed to go to the hospital for further examination. My girlfriend (now wife) took me to the hospital and once I was admitted my condition worsened with every passing hour.”
“I went from having a broken rib, to a collapsed lung, to a cracked spleen, to having air bubbles around my heart. I was in intensive care for six days and then four more days just in a regular hospital room. In those ten days I went from 262 pounds to 247 pounds When I was released from the hospital I was confined to a wheelchair for several weeks because I still had so much internal bleeding that needed to clot. After ten weeks of recovery I started to work out when I developed a pseudo-cyst around my pancreas. Then I had to go in for scans every week to monitor my progress. They had to put a catheter between my ribs to take care of the bleeding in my pancreas. At that point they put me on Injured Reserve and I was out for the remainder of the season. Despite all that I went through that year I played for five more seasons after that. My girlfriend was such a huge support to me that year.”
Q: Where did life take you after football?
A: “In 2000 I was with the Arizona Cardinals (my ninth season in the NFL). Vince Tobin had just been fired and Dave McGinnis was hired as the new head coach. Dave brought be back to play and then four weeks later I was released. The summer prior to that season my wife’s sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer and so we were planning on moving back to be near her anyways so that we could help her out, and that is how we settled in Albany, New York.”
“My in-laws also lived in the area and so my first business opportunity was working for my father-in-law in the food business, working for a food marketing company, Panoply.”
“The next opportunity was with a friend who I had gone to elementary school with. We decided to open up several Quizno’s stores. It went gang busters at first but then we quickly learned that it was not as great as we had initially thought. We ran the Quizno’s stores for two years.”
“Then I decided to get into commercial real estate and I did that from 2007 to 2010. When the real estate bubble burst I took a job with Blue Rock Energy, which is where I am today, but I still do some real estate work on the side.”
“Blue Rock Energy is an energy supply company. We supply commercial business with their energy needs — whether it be electric, natural gas, or green energy. I have been there for two years now and love what I do!”
Q: Can you talk about the charity foundations you are involved in?
A: “I sit on the board of directors for two charitable foundations: Capital District YMCA and the Double H Ranch, a ‘serious fun camp.’ http://www.doublehranch.org/ The Double H Ranch, co-founded by Charles R. Wood and Paul Newman, provides specialized programs and year-round support for children and their families dealing with life-threatening illnesses. All programs are FREE of charge and capture the magic of the Adirondacks. It really is a wonderful foundation. It is amazing what they can do for these kids. In the winter, they have a skiing facility where even kids who are on ventilator machines can ski down the mountain. It really is amazing stuff.”
Q: What advice do you have for current college athletes?
A: “I know when you are young you think you know everything, but the first bit of advice I would give is to have fun and enjoy every moment. When I was in high school I wanted a car really bad. My Mom said that if she could afford a car that she would get me one. She would not let me have a job during the school year because her philosophy was you’re only a kid once, you have the rest of your life to work so you should enjoy yourself now.”
“I can’t imagine all of the information that these kids have to process these days between texting, the internet and social media.”
“My best advice: work hard but play hard too. Try and have a true understanding of what really matters. People so often stress about things that just don’t matter.”
I’d like to give a big thank you to Derek for stopping by the blog. It was an absolute pleasure to walk through his journey with him. Stay tuned for many more great stories in the “Where are they now?” series!