PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Jerome Brown sits on the stool before his locker like an old industrial cast-iron furnace, giving off not heat but noise.
Whistling, singing, shouting playful abuse at a teammate, badgering reporters -- who generally keep their distance -- fixing anyone who comes near with a wicked grin. At the moment, he is forcefully whistling the old spiritual "Amazing Grace."
"What do you want?" he shouts at a reporter who ventures near.
His steamer-trunk frame widens abruptly from the flat top of his haircut to massive shoulders and arms, broad chest widens to waist. This torso is mounted on haunches and calves like cinder blocks. He is 6 feet 3 and weighs about 300 pounds (he admits to 295). Critics unnerved by the Eagles' 2-3 start have tried to pin part of the blame here, saying Brown is too heavy, but anyone who sees the defensive lineman in his tight-fitting T-shirt and stretch shorts knows his square bulk is tightly hewn.
It is also in constant motion, a great ball of nervous energy, and no part of it more so than his mouth. If men could not breathe while talking, Brown would have asphyxiated at birth. In the din of the locker room there is always, above and around everything, his boisterously crude, comical chatter.
Mind you, this is a man who for all of his adult life has been in the public eye. Nearly every day of his life people want to ask him questions, usually the same questions over and over and over. It is one of the enduring annoyances of professional sport that men like Brown, who succeed with physical brilliance for three hours on fall and winter afternoons, must spend the rest of the week's waking hours answering questions about it.
Brown's defense is his menacing manner -- it surrounds him the way German cities in World War II would cloud the sky with flak. Only Brown's flak is all noise (the secret is, he enjoys this stuff).
"You have to really know him before you can tell whether to take him seriously or not," said Brown's cousin Regina Washington, a sixth-grade math teacher who grew up with him in Brooksville, Fla. "I've known him all my life and sometimes I honestly can't tell."
Those who don't know him well tend to give his giant girth wide berth. As the writer approaches, cautiously, Brown falls momentarily silent -- this alone is enough to turn heads in the crowded locker room.
He rolls his brown eyes toward the intruder balefully.
"I have to write a story about you, Jerome."
"What about me?"
"Well, you tell me. What's the most interesting thing about you right now?"
He shouts out an unprintable reference to a portion of his anatomy, which punctuates the exchange absurdly and sets his teammates laughing, but none with so much gusto as the author of the remark himself, who rocks back on his stool and squeals with delight.
The writer persists.
"So, how are you doing this season so far?"
"I've been doin' [a slang term denoting 'very poorly'], no, average."
"Have you been getting double-teamed at all on your rush?"
"Is this the first time you've experienced that?"
"How long has that been happening to you?"
"Just this year?"
zTC "No. Since I been here."
"Really? When you started in your rookie year they were double-teaming you right away?"
Brown leaps to his feet. "---dammit!" he says, and hurls his stool to the center of the room, where it crashes off a large plastic garbage can and rolls across the rug. "Didn't I tell you since I been here!? Goddamn! I said, 'Since I been here.' " Then he mimics the question, " 'Really? Since you been here?' "
He makes an obscene suggestion to the writer, then grins mischievously.
"Excuse me," the writer responds.
Brown retrieves his chair, and sits back down on it before his locker. He composes himself. Then he slowly rolls his eyes back.
"We'll start it over now," he says.
At age 25, he is now a three-year veteran. After being named NFC defensive rookie of the year in 1987, he posted more impressive numbers in each subsequent year -- 50 tackles in '87, 101 in '88, 132 last season; 4 sacks in '87, 5 in '88, 10.5 last season; 17 hurries in '87, 39 in '88, 46 last season. He is playing out the last season of a $1.7 million contract.
He has built a fine home on 10 acres in Shady Crest, a development outside Brooksville, where his parents now reside, where he coaches his son's Little League baseball team in the summer, and where he once broke up a Ku Klux Klan rally by blasting rap music at top volume on his truck stereo. He has assembled a collection of guns and cars, become a television pitchman for "Hungry Man" frozen meals, lectured to high school students about the evils of drug abuse . . . all without surrendering one decibel of his disdain for convention.