Ray Brown humbly claims he has always been "at the right place at the right time." But it might be more accurate to say that he has always seized every opportunity presented to him.
Although he was a member of the Baltimore Colts' 1958 and 1959 Championship teams, some fans might be more familiar with other players from that era such as Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, and Gino Marchetti. But open up the Colts record book and you'll find Ray Brown's name listed an incredible 17 times despite his brief 3-year career as a professional football player.
Brown was born in a small town in Mississippi and excelled in high school athletics, lettering in four sports. His football abilities led him to Ole Miss where he prospered as a quarterback and defensive back under legendary coach Johnny Vaught, who led the Rebels to six SEC titles and three national championships during his tenure. During Brown's time at Ole Miss, the Rebels played in three bowl games, quite a feat at the time.
"There were only five bowls you could go to for a Division I-A team and one of those was foreclosed from anyone but the Big Ten and Pacific Coast Conferences at the Rose Bowl, which meant there were really only four bowls you could go to," Brown said.
On New Year's Day in 1958, just months before heading to Baltimore to start his pro career, Brown played in the Sugar Bowl and showed off his versatility as a quarterback, running 15 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns against the Texas Longhorns. He electrified the stadium with a 92-yard run that still stands as the second-longest rush from scrimmage in Ole Miss history. He was named the Outstanding Player of the Game.
As one of the top players in the country, Brown earned a trip to the Senior Bowl and a spot on the College All-Star team . That squad of all-stars used to line up against the reigning NFL Champions for an exhibition game.
"We had a great team and beat the champion Detroit Lions in the All-Star game, which was one of the very few times the collegiates ever beat the NFL champs," he said.
Brown's exceptional performances in the Sugar and Senior Bowls caught the eye of former Colts' coach Weeb Ewbank, winner of two NFL Championships, an AFL Championship and a Super Bowl. In fact, the Colts made a trade to obtain the first pick of the second half of the 1958 draft in order to ensure their selection of Brown. At that time in NFL history, the first four rounds of the draft (the first half) took place in December (prior to bowl games and the senior bowl), while the second half resumed in January.
"I really felt that Ewbank and [assistant coach Charlie] Winner had a strong interest in me from having talked with them after the Sugar and Senior Bowls. They may have thought I'd be the one to complete their defensive backfield," Brown said.
How right Ewbank was. Brown solidified the 1958 Colts' secondary, exceeding all expectations as a rookie. He grabbed eight interceptions his rookie season and holds a Colts' single-season record by intercepting two or more passes in three games that year.
Brown helped lead the Colts' to the 1958 NFL Championship Game with his ability to change the momentum to his team's favor. But he wasn't done there.
While "The Greatest Game Ever Played," will always be remembered for Colts' quarterback Johnny Unitas' heroics, Brown played a major role in the victory both as a defensive back -- where he teamed to force a fumble -- and as the Colts' punter. Brown's four punts for 203 yards and an incredible 50.8 yard average helped the Colts win crucial field position battles during their memorable overtime NFL Championship win. His average from that game is still a team playoff record almost fifty years later.
"I round that average to 51 [laughing]. There were four or five punts in that game and there were no bounces and no rolls ... I take great pride in the fact that I was the only rookie starter in that sudden-death playoff game," he said.
Brown remained with the Colts for their 1959 NFL Championship run and, in a further display of his versatility, was told his new role for the 1960 season was as Johnny Unitas' backup.
"The implication, if not the actual conversation, was that they [the Colts' coaching staff] didn't think they ought to have their backup quarterback playing regularly on the defense. It put the quarterback position at risk ... John [previously] had his ribs broken and his lung punctured," Brown said.
In a sad twist of irony, the coaching staff abandoned that decision before the end of the 1960 season, re-inserting Brown into the Colts' secondary as the starting safety. Soon after he got back on the field, he injured his knee during a game against the Rams. He finished the season, but later decided his playing days were over.
"Ultimately, I had surgery on the knee and just decided after that I wasn't making the big bucks and we had just had a disappointing season. After winning in ‘58 and ‘59 we didn't make the playoffs in ‘60, so I just decided I was pretty close to completing law school and that was where I was going," he said.
Brown quickly found himself, as he would say, "at the right place at the right time" and accepted a position as a law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice. He went on to sustain a successful career in law and is happily married with three children and grandchildren.
Fittingly, Brown's success story refuses to end as he was recently informed that he will be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this July, joining sports legends such as Walter Peyton, Dizzy Dean and Don Kessinger.
"It's awesome to me that after all these years someone would reach back and remember what I did as a collegiate and a pro. There have been so many greats and legends of sport that have come out of Mississippi…it really means a lot," Brown said.
ColtPower Insiders can click here to see a full listing of Ray's 17 entries into the Colts record book. And every few days, we'll be presenting a ColtPower Q&A segment with Ray exclusively for our Insiders. Ray will talk about his career in more detail, including what it was like to play in Baltimore, how the offseason was different for players back then, playing with future Hall of Famers, the '58 Championship game, and special insight on Johnny Unitas since the two of them were roommates during the 1960 season.
Note: Article photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts and is used with permission.
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