When I first heard the news of Orlando Brown's death, like most people, I was stunned. Not Zeus. He was too tough to die. There was nothing fierce or mean enough to be able to take Orlando Brown away from here.
But as time wore on Friday, I started smiling because Zeus had fooled me again. He always portrayed this image as the toughest guy on the planet, but for those who really knew him, Zeus was a pussycat, one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. He was a huge man with a huge heart.
A lot of the stuff you heard and read about Zeus was contrived. He relished playing the bad man's role, and he helped give the Ravens their tough-guy image. Few know better than I did. The story about his coming after me one day during a practice in 1998 has been well-documented. Because the offensive line was playing so poorly, The Sun had put the pictures of all five starting offensive linemen in the newspaper and their salaries underneath the pictures.
I had no idea that was going to happen, but once I saw it in the paper the next morning, I immediately called Gary Lambrecht, who worked the beat with me at the time, and told him the offensive linemen were going to kill me at practice.
Sure enough, Zeus waited for the right moment, called me everything but late for dinner, took off his helmet and faked one of those Muhammad Ali bolo punches at me from the sideline. From this story, others have grown, but few people know that Zeus later apologized and said his actions were immature and that he needed to grow up.
To me, that spoke volumes about Orlando Brown.
Since then, we have laughed about the incident many times, and even joked about how he had come to the airport in Cleveland to beat me up, except he was really there to pick up his mom.
On game day, Zeus was the meanest, nastiest, most foul-mouthed player on the field, but off it he would give you his last penny and the shirt off his back. He loved his mom and his kids and had a warm smile that could melt butter.
"I was driving when I first heard the news, and didn't know what to do," former Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett said. "You know Zeus, he acted like a hard rock, but I've been in a lot of situations with him where we both cried. If you got with him in a private place and drank a few beers, you'd find out that he was a loving father who had a special relationship with most people. Zeus put on the front because he had a childlike insecurity. Apparently, something happened in his life where he had to play this role all the time. I hadn't seen him in a couple of years, but I wish I could see him now. I raised that boy in the NFL."
Burnett played against Zeus every day in practice, from the time the Cleveland Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State in the early 1990s. Brown was big but had few skills. According to Burnett, Zeus couldn't even get into a pass set. But Brown and guard-center Wally Williams, then a rookie as well, were determined to make the roster because both were from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Williams likes to tell the story of their rookie year in Cleveland. Bill Belichick was then the coach, and he liked going after Brown. For weeks, he had told Brown that he needed to clean out his locker, and when he didn't, Belichick went in and threw away his clothes.
A few days later, according to Williams, Zeus dismantled Belichick's exercise bike and threw it in a whirlpool. A few days later, Belichick went out and bought Zeus a jacket he wanted.
That's what everybody appreciated about Zeus. He was a self-made man, a self-made player who never forgot his roots of growing up on the tough streets of Washington. Zeus' technique wasn't the greatest and he didn't have the quickest feet, but few players will ever play with his intensity. By the time he finished his career in Baltimore in 2005, Brown was a good player.
"Belichick brought in Pat Hill just to work with Zeus," Burnett said. "He was so raw and could break your sternum with a punch. You always tried to outsmart him because you couldn't beat him physically. If he got his hands on you on a passing play or got his body on you on a run, you might as well go back to the huddle."
Former Ravens owner Art Modell said: "We had no idea that Orlando Brown was going to be that good of a player. It was just a guess, and it turned out to be a good find. He became a dependable and trustworthy player because of hard work."
Because he had to work so hard to earn a big contract in the NFL, Brown liked to beat up on first-round draft picks, even those on his own teams. When the Ravens selected Florida State defensive end-outside linebacker Peter Boulware with their No. 1 pick in 1997, Brown destroyed him in Boulware's first two training camps.
"He scared the hell out of Pete," Burnett said. "Pete wanted to call an exorcist to get the craziness out of Zeus."