The "Welcome to the NFL" moment for many of the Ravens' young defenders over the years didn't come when they first walked into the team's locker room, or donned the purple-and-black jersey. It came during practice, when they found themselves lined up across from Orlando "Zeus" Brown.
"My first image of the NFL was when I first saw Zeus. I thought, 'They're sure a lot bigger here,'" Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "He had that dark visor on his helmet, wearing those throwback jerseys under his pads. He was intimidating and dared you to back down from him. If you did, you were done. He embodied what the NFL, what the Ravens, are all about. His willingness to battle along with you, the way he stood up for his teammates, was special."
Brown, the giant offensive tackle known for his mean streak on the field and his loyalty and gentleness off of it, was found dead Friday at his South Baltimore apartment. He was 40 years old and is survived by three sons between the ages of 9 and 15, according to the Ravens. According to court documents, he also had a younger daughter, and he was fighting for custody of her.
The cause of death hasn't been determined, and an autopsy is pending. City police and fire officials confirmed that they were at the former player's apartment at the HarborView complex in South Baltimore and there were no signs of foul play or suspicious activity, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said medics were called after the player was found unresponsive in his home in the 1200 block of Harbor Island Walk. Medics called police to the scene at about 11 a.m. as a matter of protocol, and police say there were no signs of foul play or any initial indications as to the cause of death. The state medical examiner will perform an autopsy.
Official said "preliminary reports did not suggest a crime scene," though four hours later the street near the home was inaccessible and blocked off by crime scene tape.
Brown, whose size (6 feet 7, 370 pounds) and fiery temperament earned him the nicknamed "Zeus," played for the Ravens from 1996 to 1998 and from 2003 to 2005. He started 80 games for them over parts of six seasons.
"He was one of the great men I know, really a gentle giant away from the game," inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He was the original Raven. He set the tone for how we were going to play tough and physical, backing down from no opponent. When you heard his voice on the field, you knew things were going to be all right."
Brown, a Washington native, was an undrafted rookie who began his career with the Browns in 1993 and became a Raven in 1996.
"There was no better friend, no one more loyal than Zeus was to his teammates and those in the Ravens," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "If he felt that you respected him, that you were willing to teach him or show him care, you had a loyal friend for eternity. Loyalty is one of the first words I think when Zeus pops in my mind."
Outside of Baltimore, Brown was perhaps best known for an on-field incident in 1999, when, while with the Browns, he shoved referee Jeff Triplette to the ground. Triplette had hit Brown in the eye with a weighted penalty flag. Brown, whose eye was damaged, was suspended by the NFL.
A year later, he filed a $200 million lawsuit against the NFL, claiming the incident ended his career. He and the league settled for a reported $25 million, and Brown signed with the Ravens in 2003.
Ravens safety Ed Reed said Brown's energy was part of what got the team going in practice every day. Linebacker Terrell Suggs credited with Brown with accelerating his maturation as a player.
"His first season back in Baltimore was my rookie year. He definitely showed me several 'Welcome to the NFL' moments," Suggs said. "He never went easy on me, and he made me work hard to become better every day. The man you saw on the field wasn't the person who he was off of it. He was definitely a gentle giant who always had a smile on his face. I'm not really sure what to say right now."
After his retirement, Brown went into the restaurant business and opened his first Fatburger franchise in Elkridge in January 2009. Later that year, Brown was arrested and charged with third-degree burglary and destruction of property after he was accused of breaking into his ex-wife's Cockeysville home, but charges were dropped early last year.
Brown had remained active with the Ravens, working with second-year offensive tackle Ramon Harewood to help him develop into an NFL-ready tackle.
"To have a player and man of his stature do that for a young player like myself says all you need to know about him," Harewood said. "He was always upbeat, always encouraging and would never let me get down on myself. We had similar backgrounds, with me only playing football for four years and him having to work his way into the NFL the hard way. He was an inspiration both as a player and as a human being. I will miss him, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family."
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times