MIAMI -- Jerome Brown was a giant man who could scare you with a maniac's snarl and midnight eyes that came at you like drill bits. Jerome Brown was a giant little boy with a big soft smile that laughed some.
Jerome Brown was ... Past tense, and future all gone. Sudden as a dreadful phone call in the middle of the night.
Jerome Brown was. A hell of an awful word to use for a person age 27.
When I heard last evening that Jerome had just died, in an auto accident, they said, memories of his University of Miami football years came at me like random snapshots, and the first one showed those big, ugly black shoes of his. It's crazy what the mind delivers to you.
A muddy practice, I recall. Jerome was the only Hurricane who wore black shoes, bulky and antiquated as high-top sneakers. On this day he high-stepped back and forth like a barefoot man on burning coals. He was raising splashes, eyebrows, laughter.
"Look at those black shoes," coach Jimmy Johnson said, nodding. "He looks like Lou Groza." A big dimply grin stood above Johnson's green rain suit.
Jerome Brown kept doing the same things as a Philadelphia Eagle of star stature as he had as a Miami All-American. On the field he was boisterous every which way, a dominant defensive tackle careening through centers and guards. Intimidating, loose lip, delightfully outspoken, like a child not old enough to have been dulled by the lessons of tact.
At Miami he epitomized the Hurricanes' notoriety of the mid-'80s. Yeah, he wore camouflage to the Fiesta Bowl. Then went out and played like it was war. Got in the backfield, in your face, then jiggled his 295 pounds over your fallen quarterback.
In Philadelphia he was the same, a mirror of the loose-cannon style of the erstwhile coach, Buddy Ryan. Talk now, explain later. Maybe slip an elbow under your chin strap if the striped shirts weren't watching.
All that noise always prevented enough light from showing the other Jerome. I accompanied him and a few other Hurricanes once on one of those visits to Miami Children's Hospital. Those can be shams. Sometimes you catch a player looking at his watch. I caught Jerome cradling a small boy in his arms, gently spinning him like a paddle fan on slow. "I'm gonna drop you now!" Jerome kidded. The boy's giggling laughter pealed down the hospital hall.
Too few years later, Jerome Brown died when he lost control of a '92 Corvette as he left the dealership in his hometown of Brooksville, Fla. It was there, a couple of years back, that he had helped raise money for the family of an 11-year-old girl put in a coma by an auto accident.
Jerome was the son of a mechanic and a nurse, and they must have done a lot of things right. Two years ago he stopped his car and pulled a trucker from the cab of an overturned vehicle on a New Jersey highway. Not long after that, he helped save a neighbor family by knocking on their door when he saw fire. Once, he rented two buses to bring 70 Brooksville kids to a Super Bowl clinic in Tampa.
I have known no other athlete whose on-field style was so at odds with the heart beneath the jersey.
Now, cruelly, he is only memories and another reminder that money and fame insulate our sports heroes from nothing at all.
To many a fan, they are invincible. To the fates they are no different from kings or cabbies, doctors or bums.
There are no pedestals anymore, no protective halos.
Arthur Ashe has AIDS, and Magic Johnson has the AIDS virus. The Detroit Lions lose a player to a paralyzing injury, an assistant coach to a heart attack and, just this week, another player, Eric Andolsek, to a freaky, awful truck accident. Another former Hurricanes player, Shane Curry, loses his life to a punk outside a bar. Sammie Smith has a gun on his neck but gets lucky; only his car is stolen.
Does anybody still believe our rich heroes of the field are above it all?
These athletes don't belong to fans who adore them or to teams that pay them. They belong to families, just like we do. Fans forget. Teams replace. Families never, ever do. Jerome was single. That makes only one fewer mourner among an awful lot in Brooksville today.
Our sports stars are dying from AIDS and auto wrecks, just like us.
I'll miss Jerome Brown, and remember his heart and his smile, and the lesson he leaves:
Count your money if you must. Count your blessings first.