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Original Issue

Always on Sundays

This election week, in the interest of equal time, we give voice
to another kind of professional athlete, one who's never made a
headline, an excuse or a Bentley payment. What he has made,
instead, is every plane, practice and block required of him in 15
seasons of professional football. Ray Brown of the Lions hasn't
missed a start in more than eight years, hasn't missed a down in
more than five years and has quietly accrued a small fortune for
his family on one guiding principle. "It's simple," says Brown, a
right guard who'll turn 40 next month. "My only rule is, Don't
break any rules."

Brown has no publicist, pedicurist or defense attorney; he hasn't
been on Cribs, crack or probation. Indeed, his personal goals
sound kinky in the context of contemporary sports. "I don't want
to be late, I don't want to miss meetings and I want to be
accountable for my actions," he says. No wonder you've never
heard of this guy.

Brown has never pulled a Sharpie from his sock (though, at 6'5"
and 318, he could easily pull a shar-pei from his sock). He
doesn't require validation, except when parking his car. His
turn-ons? "Those 'Good jobs' and 'Well dones' from my coaches and
peers in the meeting room," he says. "I don't need to hear my
name screamed over the P.A. system. Other than introductions,
that's a bad thing to hear if you're an offensive lineman."

So pull up a chair. This is how you play two decades in the
National Football League. Oldest Living Offensive Lineman Tells
All. The main thing to remember? "Don't be anywhere near a
football in the NFL," advises Brown. "Oh, my goodness, no.
Everybody chases that ball."

Who would know better? The other day Brown asked linemate Stockar
McDougle, with more wonderment than vanity, "You know how many
Number 1 picks have come and gone since I've been playing?"
Indeed, Brown was drafted so long ago--out of Arkansas
State--that neither his team (the St. Louis Cardinals) nor his
round (eighth) still exists. Until that draft day, in 1986, he
had no agent, no expectations, no ESPN even. Says Brown, "I came
home from class, and my roommate told me, 'Someone called and
said you were drafted.'" For all either of them knew, it was the
U.S. Army.

As a 237-pound tackle Brown nurtured a vivid if delusional
fantasy. "The dream was to play four years," he says, "and be
vested in the retirement program." Instead he was waived by the
Cards in '87 and brought back as a replacement player during that
season's strike. "In hindsight," says Brown, "if I'd understood
the labor issues, I probably wouldn't have played." But he did,
and coaches got to see his skills, and he wound up in Washington,
doing what the Stamps did toward the end of Elvis Presley's
career: backing up a Hog.

All that time, Brown lifted weights and understudied the best
offensive line of our time and refused to give way to despair,
like a chrome bumper to rust. One day in 1993 he stepped in to
replace an injured Jeff Bostic, and he hasn't missed a single
start in the nine seasons since, with Washington, San Francisco
and Detroit. "My father always told me to be ready because my
time would come," says Brown, "so I always made sure I was
prepared. This game is pretty basic if you don't allow vices in
your way."

Leonard Ray Brown Sr., who died in June, raised eight children in
Marion, Ark., on a truck driver's salary. "He was also a deacon
who opened the church every Sunday morning," says his son and
namesake, "the kind of guy everybody could bring their problems
to." Like Sr., Ray Jr. has been working Sundays all his adult
life and believing in eternal verities: clean living,
perseverance and giving back to one's community. And so last
February, as a 39year-old, Brown was named to his first Pro Bowl.
What was Hawaii like?

"A lot like Marion, Arkansas," he says. "We pretty much brought
the whole town there."

It mattered not that the 49ers released him, for payroll reasons,
this summer. The Lions immediately signed Brown to a one-year,
$750,000 contract. And two weeks ago in Detroit, his wife,
Ashley, gave birth to their fifth child, a son named Ray Brown
III. Six-year-old Miriam Brown told her father just last week,
"You have to play two more years so Trey will know what you do
for a living." Brown can see playing at least one more. "But if I
don't," he says, "I've had a great run. I know I'm on somebody
else's time now."

In fact, the only men Brown has ever envied in 15 seasons of
football are those he passes on his way into the stadium. So,
when he does retire, he plans to get down to some serious
tailgating. "You've seen Lambeau?" he asks. "That's classic: The
brats, those fires in the garbage cans? It's the same way in
Buffalo. I'm very appreciative of the passion NFL fans have for
their teams, and I want to bring that same passion to games
myself, probably on the college level somewhere."

He is warming to the subject now, like a man over a flaming trash
receptacle. "I want to stay long after the games," says Brown,
"barbecuing, having a few beers, in no rush to go home." A rush
to go home? Surely no one would accuse him of that.


Ray Brown hasn't missed an NFL game in more than eight years,
hasn't missed a down in more than five.