Thirty-six hours before the official start of the NFL's annual
free-agent auction last Friday, Chad Brown was in Boulder,
Colo., hanging out with his snakes and his agent. (Because Peter
Schaffer, who represents Brown, is a decent guy, the obvious
parallel between sports agents and serpents will not be drawn
here.) Schaffer was visiting Brown at Pro Exotics, his reptile
emporium. After a brief tour of the grounds, on which Brown
keeps more than 1,000 cold-blooded creatures, many of which
recently had been marked down--"Order soon before they all
disappear," a pamphlet commanded--the talk turned to the
imminent enrichment of the league's most accomplished
The 26-year-old Brown, a 6'2", 240-pound All-Pro linebacker, was
the top free agent on the block. In 1996 he had 81 tackles (14
for losses), 41 quarterback pressures and 13 sacks for the
Pittsburgh Steelers, who paid him only $348,000. Never again
would he be such a bargain.
On what, Brown was asked last week, would he spend the big money
from his next contract? He had a tough time with the question.
Brown is renowned among the Steelers for his frugality. His
sartorial motto is If it's free, it's me. His kitchen table is
the same homely oval--complemented by mix-and-match chairs--that
he bought for $65 at a used-furniture store during his senior
year at Colorado. The 1992 Blazer he drives is distinguished by
a four-foot-long crack in the windshield and the stubborn odor
of rodent excreta. ("Sometimes I use this car to pick up mice
and rats to feed the snakes," Brown says.)
Finally he thought of a new toy he desires. "I need a new
computer," he said.
"Hold off on that," replied Schaffer. "Who knows, you may end up
signing with someone who has a little pull with Microsoft."
Schaffer was onto something. Just after 10 the following night
(past midnight, and thus Friday, in the East), he phoned Brown
to say that Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who last April
purchased an option to buy the Seattle Seahawks, wanted to
dispatch his private jet to Centennial Airport on the outskirts
of Denver. (Allen has until July to exercise his option, which
he has said he will do only if there is public funding to help
underwrite the cost of a new stadium.) At about 12:30 a.m.
Mountain Time, the jet soared into the air above Denver,
whisking Schaffer; Chad and his wife, Kristin; Kristin's sister
Kia Pope; and the Browns' six-month-old daughter, Amani, to
Seattle, where the Seahawks would make their pitch.
Actually, the courting began before takeoff. Upon arriving at
the airport--after stopping at a nearby Super Kmart to purchase
formula for Amani and socks and underwear for Chad--the Browns
were greeted by Seattle coach Dennis Erickson and vice president
of football operations Randy Mueller. During the flight the
group made small talk over grilled chicken salad and freshly
squeezed orange juice, of which Chad said, "It was very good,
"I felt like I was back in college, recruiting again," said
Erickson, who won two national championships at Miami before
taking the Seahawks job two years ago. The truth was, this
wasn't a recruiting visit so much as a velvet kidnapping.
Schaffer and Brown continued to consider their options with
other interested teams, paring a list of eight or so down to
four. They figured Chad and Kristin would then play musical
chairs, visiting the other three clubs after leaving Seattle. By
9 p.m. last Friday, however, the Seahawks had made Chad the most
generously compensated linebacker in NFL history by signing him
to a contract worth $24 million over six years, including a $7
million signing bonus. So much for musical chairs.
Before the deal was done, a reporter had said to Schaffer, "I
hear you're asking for a $7 million signing bonus." To which
Schaffer had replied, "Does that make me a bad person?"
Floyd Reese would say yes. Reese is the general manager of the
Houston Oilers, who along with the Carolina Panthers and the
Kansas City Chiefs (who got in the game late last Thursday after
negotiations with their Pro Bowl outside linebacker, Derrick
Thomas, exploded like a trick cigar) were the other teams with
serious shots at landing Brown. When Schaffer called Reese to
tell him Brown was going to Seattle, the Oilers exec filled
Schaffer's ear with invective.
The Steelers had long been out of the Brown sweepstakes, having
decided to focus their limited funds on re-signing running back
Jerome Bettis (which they finally did on Monday). But while
Pittsburgh did not begrudge Brown his nouveaux riches, its
director of football operations, Tom Donahoe, was not without
complaint. Contacted several hours before Brown officially
became a former Steeler, Donahoe railed against the NFL system
that allows teams to prorate signing bonuses against the salary
cap. "Not every team has $7 million sitting around to spend on
signing bonuses," Donahoe groused.
When Donahoe's bitterness was recounted to Schaffer and Brown
last Saturday, Schaffer turned to his client and asked, "Are you
"I'm not bitter," said Brown, who pointed out that he and
Schaffer had been trying to strike a deal with the Steelers
since February 1996. "They could have had me much cheaper," said
Brown, who periodically exchanged high fives with his wife.
Chad and Kristin met at Colorado, where Chad majored in
sociology, played football and kept snakes. Kristin majored in
kinesiology, harbored an abiding fear of snakes--"I used to have
nightmares about them when I was little," she says--and observed
a policy of not dating athletes.
One of her friends, however, was Marcellous (Earthquake) Elder,
the Buffaloes defensive tackle, who one day asked Kristin if he
could give her phone number to a buddy of his. "Quake," she
said, "I don't date athletes."
"But Chad's different," said Earthquake, who gave Brown her
number anyway. Out of the blue, Chad phoned Kristin and asked if
he could possibly...borrow her vacuum cleaner. She assented.
After that, he dropped by her apartment frequently. "We would
have the greatest conversations," she recalls, "but he would
never return the vacuum." By the time she got the appliance
back, she was dating an athlete.
Chad was a junior and was starting at outside linebacker. During
his first two years the Buffaloes had been blessed with other
talented players at that position, so the coaches had put Brown
at inside linebacker just to get him on the field. "I was 215
pounds, taking on these 250-pound fullbacks," he says. "It was
A pattern emerged. Before the 1993 NFL draft, the Steelers, who
had scouted Brown as an outside linebacker, signed free-agent
sack artist Kevin Greene, also an outside linebacker. On the
morning of the draft, Brown took a call from Steelers coach Bill
Cowher. "Are you O.K. playing inside?" asked Cowher.
"I'll kick off if you want me to," said Brown. So Pittsburgh
took him in the second round--he was the fourth linebacker
selected overall--and put him inside.
When Steelers starting inside linebacker Jerry Olsavsky was
injured in the team's seventh game of the 1993 season, he was
replaced not by Brown but by another rookie, Reggie Barnes.
"Chad came into my office the next day, slammed his fist on my
desk and said, 'I'm a football player, dammit--I need to play!'"
recalls Marvin Lewis, who was Pittsburgh's linebackers coach at
the time. In practice that week Brown beat out Barnes and then
started the last nine games of the season, finishing the year
with three sacks and 69 tackles. Brown's talent was obvious, but
with Pro Bowl players Greene and Greg Lloyd manning the outside
slots in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, Brown could start only as an
Besides, the coaches liked having an inside guy who could line
up as a defensive tackle and then drop back and cover a wide
receiver running from the slot position, as Brown was sometimes
asked to do. But in passing situations he was allowed to do what
he does better than all but a handful of his NFL peers: go after
What makes Brown such a terrific pass rusher? Listen to some of
his admirers, and you'll think they're describing a creature of
the sort stalked by special agents Mulder and Scully.
"His joints do things that human joints aren't supposed to do,"
says Pittsburgh linebacker Eric Ravotti. "Chad cuts so hard that
he slides out of his shoes."
"He's got a kind of snakish movement to him," Cowher has said.
"He gets his body into all kinds of different configurations. He
doesn't stay blocked."
"He's an uncanny rusher," says Lewis, now the defensive
coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, who would have made a hard
play for Brown had they not been up against the salary cap. "He
gets all contorted, twisted, turned and still makes the play. We
used to call him Gumby."
In his second season Brown started every game at inside
linebacker. His 119 tackles led the Steelers. Still, he was
frustrated. He would say to Kristin, "If they'd just let me play
outside, I know what I could do."
Finally, last September, he got his chance. In the Steelers'
1996 season opener, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Lloyd
ruptured a patella tendon and was lost for the year. Brown
stepped into Lloyd's slot and at first failed to set the world
on fire, with one sack in the next four games. But in what he
calls his "coming-out party," against the Cincinnati Bengals on
Oct. 13, Brown had 4 1/2 sacks and 11 tackles, intercepted a
pass, forced a fumble and was credited with three passes
defensed. He so dominated Bengals left tackle Melvin Tuten that
in the third quarter Tuten was benched in favor of Willie
Anderson, who fared no better.
Against the Jaguars on Nov. 17, Brown sprained his right ankle.
In Miami a week later, he aggravated the injury. He missed two
subsequent games and, when he played, could rush only straight
ahead. Still, he ended the regular season with 13 sacks. He
added three more--and got another left tackle benched (nothing
to be ashamed of, Jason Mathews)--in Pittsburgh's 42-14 rout of
the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs. By
then every big play Brown made pushed him further out of
Pittsburgh's price range.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, had Allen's cash and were desperate for
a big-name player. Seattle hasn't had a winning record in six
years, and its season-ticket base has dropped from 65,000 (with
30,000 on the waiting list) in the mid-'80s to 37,000 last year.
By sending his jet for Brown and putting up the cash to sign
him, Allen sent a positive message to the citizens who will vote
on the new football stadium he covets.
Sitting at the Browns' $65 kitchen table outside Boulder last
Thursday, Kristin was asked to list the advantages of living in
Seattle. This is what she came up with: "Good sushi." The
following evening, as Chad and the Seahawks moved ever closer to
an agreement in Seattle, it came time to send out for dinner. At
Kristin's suggestion, sushi was ordered. The food arrived--ahi
(tuna) and unagi (a succulent freshwater eel with a teriyaki
glaze)--but no one was fed until the deal was struck. "We could
smell the food, but they wouldn't bring it in," says Kristin.
After spending time with Erickson, who had assured Brown that he
would play outside linebacker and be the focus of an attacking
defense, Brown had called Seahawk player T.J. Cunningham to ask,
as he put it, "the real questions." Cunningham, who had played
with Brown at Colorado, helped alleviate his concerns about
cultural diversity in the Seattle area and about the schools,
the cuisine and how the game's highest-paid linebacker might be
received in the Seahawks' locker room.
The fact that Washington, unlike Missouri and North Carolina,
has no state income tax made the Seahawks yet more attractive.
But Tennessee, where the Oilers are likely to play beginning in
1997, has no state tax on salaries either, and the Oilers were
eager to have Brown, too. "We could string this out another week
and get a little more money," Schaffer told Brown.
"No," said Brown. "This is where I want to bring my family."
Last Saturday evening the Browns flew to Denver International
Airport on a commercial airline. "Betcha we never see the inside
of that private jet again," Chad said with a smile. A limousine
took them to Centennial, the smaller airport where their car was
parked. A limo? Does that mean the newly minted millionaires are
backing away from their fiscal conservatism? "It was on the
Seahawks," said Schaffer. "Otherwise, they'd have taken a cab."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE At his snake warehouse Brown got wrapped up in the merchandise as he contemplated his megabucks future. [Chad Brown holding large snake]
COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/ALLSPORT Brown kept his free-agent stock up by putting the Colts' Jim Harbaugh down three times in a playoff game. [Chad Brown tackling Jim Harbaugh]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE For Amani, Seattle has good schools; for Chad and Kristin, good sushi. [Kristin Brown, Amani Brown, and Chad Brown]