Old No. 86 remembers those Irish football days as fond memories and golden opportunities. He remembers the championship in '88. He remembers the many big victories and still smarts over the defeats. Most of all, he remembers the lessons he learned from Irish coaches on the football field, and now he applies them in everyday life.
Brown also remembers the recruiting process well. He remembers taking a chance on a new guy with a lot of confidence. "I got the typical coach Holtz speech," said Derek Brown of meeting with Holtz for the first time. ‘We're going to win with or without you. We hope you come join us' so I joined him.
"He was a very positive person and very determined—a powerful person. He's the type of guy, when he walks in the room, you know he has it, and he had it."
"I wanted to play football at Miami, but I wanted to go to school at Notre Dame," Brown continued. "At that time, Miami kind of had a bad reputation even though Miami is a good school. There were a lot of good people down in Miami, like Russell Maryland and some others, but at the time, I just went with the gut feeling. I just felt that Notre Dame was a team on the rise and I wanted to be part of it."
Brown took a chance on Holtz and he's glad he did. "Back then, a kid in Florida not going to Miami or Florida--that was a big deal. We only knew Gators, Hurricanes and Seminoles. Nobody left Florida--I'm glad I did.
"It came down to a gut feeling," said Brown on why he chose Notre Dame. "I remember it was about five or six in the evening, nobody was home, I had this "Wake up the Echoes" tape and I popped it in. I started watching it and I got big goose bumps on the back of my neck and I decide that Notre Dame was where I wanted to go."
Derek Brown reported to Notre Dame in the fall of '88 as a hotshot tight end from Merritt Island, Fla. It didn't take long for Brown to live up to the hype as he started as a true freshman on the '88 team. "It wasn't that much of a change," said Brown of his new home in South Bend. "I grew up mostly in Florida, but I lived in the D.C. area a couple of times. The weather wasn't really that big of a deal.
"The first five months I was there I was absolutely miserable. I couldn't wait to get home. Then after two hours of being home, I was ready to get back. From that point on, I very rarely went home."
Brown rarely went home because he was having too much fun—too much fun winning. And the Irish did plenty of winning while Brown was playing for the Irish.
"On my watch, we went 43-7," Brown said. "And really, there's really only one loss that I will accept even though I think we still were in a position to beat them--that was the Miami game where we lost 24-10 down there. The rest of them, we should've never lost. I should've never lost a game in my career. It still bothers me we lost those games.
"I tell people all the time, ‘do you realize that Dorsey Levens was our fifth-string tailback?' Jerome Bettis was on the bench. Reggie Brooks was a backup defensive back. Todd Lyght was our slowest DB at 4.4. Bryant Young was on the bench, Junior Bryant was on the bench. A good number of guys I played with are still playing now. It was special."
Brown also got to experience the ultimate victory at Notre Dame—a National Championship in his freshman year. "I was standing next to Todd Lyght after the game and I looked at him like ‘this is it?,' Brown said of his feelings after the Irish victory in the Fiesta Bowl. "We had expected to win and so maybe it wasn't a huge surprise. It felt great, but it was like ‘alright, let's get a shower and get ready to go out.' It was a big deal but we expected to win--that was the kind of standard we had."
Winning was what Holtz was all about and Brown loved to win. "He was very intense," said Brown of Holtz. "One thing I think he instilled in me as a player, he used to say ‘we know perfection is impossible, but we're going to be so close to perfection that nobody is going to know the difference' and I use that to this day."
Another thing about Notre Dame that Brown loved was the many opportunities he received. Brown turned his opportunity into being selected 14th overall by the New York Giants in 1992 NFL draft.
"My sophomore year, I knew it was going to happen," said Brown of the playing in the NFL. "I just didn't know where or when. I had a great coach. Our tight end coach was J.C. Harper and along with Joe Moore, they taught me so much to prepare me. With J.C. Harper, it was how to practice like a professional. He had that experience and he put us through that pace. He'd tell us when to turn it up and that helped us out a lot."
Brown also remembers the excitement he had when he knew he made it to the NFL. "Graduation was incredible. Literally going from trying to scrape together enough money to buy a pizza, to driving to graduation in a black Mercedes Benz. I had a great job lined up and it felt great."
"I learned a lot in the pros," said Brown of his NFL experience. "Guys like L.T. (Lawrence Taylor) would pull me aside, Howard Cross. We had guys like Otis Anderson, Emerson Walls, Mark Collins, Phil Simms, Jumbo Elliot, Pepper Johnson, L.T., those were some great players and we had a nice bunch of salty veterans that could teach you the game.
"I am very, very appreciative that I was able to play at a time when guys played together for a long time," Brown continued. "You walk into a team now and you won't find 10 guys who've played together for more than four years. Back then, you wouldn't find 10 guys with less than four years experience with a team."
Brown attributes that to free agency and also says that's likely why his NFL career ended. "Salary cap and free agency—I think that is a big reason I'm not playing now. I've got no regrets. I got nine years in and that is nothing to shake a stick at. It was a great experience and I'm just glad I could have that."
With his NFL career in the rearview mirror, Brown has focused his time on his family and his new business venture.
"I live in Rexford, New York," said Brown. "My wife is originally from this area. We were always trying to figure out where we wanted to live for the last few years of my career. We just decided to build here."
"I have a little girl who is 4 ½, her name is Sydney and my son Reece just turned three. They keep you busy. They had Mom and Dad around for the first three years, but I decided I wanted to go to work so that's been a change for both of us."
Brown also said he's joined the working world as his own boss. "I worked in food marketing with my father-in-law for a while. I've recently got involved with Quiznos and now I'm opening up a bunch of Quiznos restaraunts in three states. I'm my own boss so I like that. Football has really helped me in my business. The power of focusing, setting and accomplishing goals, ‘no such thing as can't', they've all helped me with my business."
As for the here and now Irish, Brown says Irish fans just need to be patient. "I think what they're missing now is just a little bit of time," said Brown of the current Irish team. "I think coach Willingham is going to get Notre Dame back on track. I think him having so much success his first year really didn't do him any favors. That was pure luck, when your defense scores more than your offense in the first three games, that should tell you something.
"It's going to take some time. He's got to get his guys in and the older guys learning his system. I think the turnaround is definitely going to happen. I think the kids react positively to him and that will go a long way."
We asked Brown if he was glad he chose Notre Dame over Miami, now some 16 years later. "Nothing can compare to it," he said of Notre Dame. "If I had to do it over again, I absolutely would. I had to say no to Jimmy Johnson twice and I'd do it over again. I had Jimmy Johnson in my living room two times and I said no.
"Players that have a chance to go to Notre Dame to play football will never, ever experience anything like it anywhere else. The things I've seen, the people I've met.
"Ronald Reagan—we were like on a first name basis," Brown continued. "He came out and visited practice a couple of times. We went to the White House when we won the National Championship and these were the types of people you'd meet all the time at Notre Dame.
"Playing out at Air Force and getting to stay the night and go take a tour of NORAD—how many people can say they've done that? Taking pictures after a game with Norm from Cheers, George Wendt—just the people you meet, Regis Philbin, the list goes on and on."
Now that his life has slowed down a bit, Brown says he plans to get back to Notre Dame—hopefully this season. "I'm trying to set up a trip back to a couple of games this year," he said. "I haven't been able to get out to a game. Every time I tried, something would come up. I want to bring my family out to a game and also bring a bunch of guys up to another game."
Finally, we asked Brown for some of his favorite memories while at Notre Dame. "Beating Miami 31-30 and being a big part of that game—the two third down conversions was great," Brown said of his favorite memories while at Notre Dame. "Winning the National Championship my freshman year and being able to start was pretty amazing."
Brown played during the last "golden" time of Notre Dame football. He experienced winning at the highest levels. "I think the book is still being written," said Brown on where his teams stand in Irish lore. "I don't think the book is finished yet. I think there will be many more chapters in the future."