There is an aura that surrounds Timothy Donell Brown.
The soon-to-be 49-year-old former Notre Dame star, who parlayed his Heisman Trophy-winning collegiate career into a 17-year Hall-of Fame career in the NFL, is Fighting Irish gridiron royalty.
There’s a dignity that befits his status as one of the legendary football players in Notre Dame history. Not that he’s unapproachable on this beautiful early-June day in South Bend, that otherwise nondescript town in northern Indiana.
But when it comes to Notre Dame football royalty – including former head coach Ara Parseghian, himself a visitor to the campus last week – there’s a living-with-grace luminosity that surrounds Brown.
“The fact of the matter is the guys here changed me,” said Brown, alongside his son, Timmy, one of four children of Tim and Sherice Brown.
Brown was a shy, reticent young man from Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas back in 1984 who started off an otherwise spectacular college/pro career with a fumble on the opening kickoff of his first game for the Irish.
As the Gerry Faust coaching era gave way to the Lou Holtz regime, Brown blossomed, averaging more than 20 yards per his 84 receptions during his final two years in the Notre Dame program. Propelling Brown to the Heisman Trophy in ’87 were the three punt returns for touchdowns, including two against Michigan State as defenders sprawled in vain in his wake.
Yet when Brown talks about his days in South Bend, he steers clear of the individual accolades on the gridiron. He redirects the conversation to how Notre Dame changed him, not the Heisman campaign or how he helped set the stage for Holtz’s national championship a year later.
“They made me a different person,” said Brown of his fellow teammates and student body. “When the first snow came here – three feet of snow, I’m talking big snow – my whole deal was, ‘Look, I’m not going to school today.’
“So my roommate said to me, ‘I’m going to class and I’ll meet you over at The Huddle.’ I called four or five guys, and everybody told me the same thing: ‘I’m going to class, and then I’ll meet you over there.’ I was going to be the only one that wasn’t going to class.
“It was reverse peer pressure because the guys who come here don’t come here thinking they’re going to have a great pro career. They come here thinking, ‘Wow, when I graduate, this degree is going to be great for me. I’ll be able to do this, move on, and do that.’”
Brown credits his older brother – Don Kelly – as the driving force behind his decision to attend Notre Dame.
“He’s the one presenting me at the Hall of Fame,” said Brown, referring to his NFL induction in Canton, Ohio, in August – along with former Irish running back Jerome Bettis -- after a spectacular 17-year, 1,094-catch, 14,934-yard, 100-touchdown receiving career with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Don’s the one who came to the house and saw the letter. When he saw the letter from Notre Dame, he said, ‘If they want him, that’s where he’s going.’ And my mom’s like, ‘Where’s it at?’ And he said, ‘It’s 1,500 miles away,’ and she said, ‘Oh no he’s not!’”
Ultimately, Josephine Brown relented, and the rest is Notre Dame history and a blessing in the eyes of Tim Brown.
“I didn’t know anything about Notre Dame,” Brown recalled. “All I knew was that if I graduated from here, my life would be great. My brother had done enough research. He was one of the subway alumni guys. He was one of those guys locked in to Notre Dame and what it stood for.
“Once he broke it down, it became a pretty easy decision. Of all the other schools that were recruiting me, no one was talking about education, and that’s what my parents were looking for. It was a Southwest Conference mentality at that time.
“Going so far away from home was tough, but by making the right decision for my life, they were the best tough four years of my life.”
As former Notre Dame football players often realize, focusing on the next step after Notre Dame can cause one to miss much of the experience in the process.
“It’s impossible to fully appreciate it at the time because you’re whole thing is, ‘I need to get out of here! I need to graduate and get away from here!’” said Brown, looking back on the irony with amusement.
“The one thing that always stands out in my mind was coming into this stadium for the last time as a player. It’s difficult to do without tears in your eyes.”
Notre Dame remains the touchstone in Brown’s life.
“I don’t know if I would have been the same person had I gone to a different university because I would have gotten a different experience,” Brown said. “You don’t realize the whole scope of the University because you’re so focused on moving on with your life.
“Once you get away – I was just telling Timmy, my son, while we were walking around – even the grass smells better around here. It’s amazing. Maybe it’s because of the affinity I have for this place. It’s always special to be back.”