Brown's job defined throwback football. It was unglamorous and a man-on-man battle to control the line of scrimmage. It was the kind of football John Madden and football traditionalists loved: dirt, mud, blood, snot and big men fighting for dominance in a small space. Let Reggie White or Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila get the glory by making sacks, Brown was content to his job and took pride in the results.
Although originally listed at 330 pounds, Brown's weight often ballooned to close to 400. In fact, his girth and seemingly unathletic appearance made him easier for Packer fans to identify with. What middle-aged former athlete couldn't relate to a guy who loved to eat and was fighting the battle of the bulge to preserve his own career? Brown literally ate his way out of football in 2000. Instead of quitting, he got a personal dietician and trainer and worked his way back to the NFL.
Brown was a throwback in other ways, too. In this day of free agency and player movement, he was loyal to the Packers. Few fans recall that the big nose tackle was originally drafted by the Vikings in the third round of the 1993 draft before being waived during the final cutdown before the season began. The Packers acquired him off waivers and gave him a chance when no other team in the league would have him. When Brown's contract expired after the 1997 season, he became a free agent and was offered significantly more money to play for Jacksonville. Instead, Brown remained a Packer.
"Everybody knew how I felt," Brown told the media after re-signing with the Packers in 1997. "Nobody really gave me a chance once Minnesota let me go. Green Bay gave me a chance to play and my loyalty is to Green Bay. My heart is here." The fans reciprocated the love Brown showed for Green Bay, the Packers and the game of football.
This season, Brown came back from injury in a way that would make Vince Lombardi proud. In the pre-season opener against Kansas City, Brown injured his biceps and was declared lost for the season. The Packers were already weak at nose tackle and had little depth behind him at the time. Most modern athletes would have spent the year on the injured reserve and collected a paycheck, but not Brown. Brown played with essentially one arm for the entire 2003 season, gutting it out for his teammates. While he did not perform up to his past standards, his teammates appreciated what Brown did for them.
Off the field, Brown as amiable and friendly to Packers fans. Even this season, when it was apparent Brown was not able to get the job done consistently, fans reveled in seeing him do his "Gravedigger" move. Whenever he tackled an opponent for a loss and started to "dig" at the air, the Lambeau crowd and the Packer defense were inspired.
Mike Sherman admitted Brown's connection with Packers fans when he released him. "The connection Gilbert Brown had with his teammates and coaches is special, as well as his connection to the fans," the coach said in a statement. "Always the last one to leave the locker room after a practice or a game he savored every minute he was a Green Bay Packer football player."
When the Packers signed Grady Jackson to a two-year contract extension in December, the writing was on the wall for Brown. Still, Brown left his heart on the field at Lambeau and will be remembered for anchoring a defensive line that led the Pack to two consecutive Super Bowls and numerous playoff appearances.
Brown explained how much being a Packer has meant to him. "The thought of playing somewhere else is sickening to me. I grew up with that green and gold and No. 93 on my back. I grew up with that. I grew old with that. I became a man with that. I found out things that I never knew I could do with that, and being around the state of Wisconsin has made me a different guy, a caring guy, an understanding guy. It made me a better father and a better son."
So as Gilbert Brown leaves Green Bay for the final time, we wish him well. We'll eat one more "Gilbert Burger" in honor of the big man – Double beef, double cheese, double everything...except no pickles. Gilbert doesn't like pickles. While Brown may be leaving Green Bay, the affection Packer fans felt for their big nose tackle won't soon be forgotten.
Note: Brad Kurtzberg is a freelance writer from Melville, N.Y.