Theotis Brown : A Haunting Problem : Eight Months After Heart Attack, Theotis Brown Still Searching for Answers

Times Staff Writer

Eight months after the attack, which struck without warning or respect for an athlete's body, Theotis Brown still searches for answers.

Had his heart been on the outside looking in on that February day, surely it would have reconsidered.

It would have seen a man of 27 who had been kind to the body he had been graced with. Six feet three inches and 220 pounds, not a muscle out of tune or place--that was Theotis Brown. You could have bounced on a pogo stick on his stomach.

Had his heart done its homework, it would have known that Brown didn't consume butter by the stick, or smoke, or drink a six-pack a day.

So he had a weakness for chocolate cookies. For this we should forever worry about Christmas baking?

Brown, a six-year NFL veteran who had found a home in the backfield of the Kansas City Chiefs, felt winded after a racquetball game during a very ordinary off-season workout at Arrowhead Stadium last Feb. 5.

A virus, he thought.

A tightness gripped his chest as he drove home.

Indigestion, he thought.

But by nightfall he lay staring at the ceiling of St. Joseph's Hospital in Kansas City, wife Chris by his side.

Former UCLA star Theotis Brown, indestructible, unflappable Bigfoot himself, had suffered a heart attack.

There had been no mistake. Plaque had formed near a major artery in his heart and created a clot, which fragmented and clogged three major branches of the coronary artery.

Acute myocardial infarction.

To Brown, it seemed, well, so heartless.

"I'm still saying, 'Why me?' Brown said while sitting in his makeshift office in the press box of Arrowhead Stadium. "I know you play the hand you're dealt, but I felt I was dealt a bad hand. There are a lot of bad people in this world and I didn't think I was one of them.

"I was 27, healthy, vivacious, vigorous; you can name all the adjectives for the way I felt. It was very scary, especially for someone that young. Sometimes, young people feel that life goes on forever, but it's not true. I found out that while there might be a guarantee of tomorrow, there's no guarantee you'll be here."

Sure, Brown misses cracking heads with linebackers and would give anything to be with the Chiefs Sunday when they play the Rams (6-0) at Arrowhead Stadium.

Anything but his life.

He knows he may never play football again. And that's OK. Brown has found an almost perfectly normal life without it. He's sitting out the 1985 season, and although doctors aren't ruling out a comeback, Brown is not so sure he needs it.

His days are busy enough as he hurries from one speaking engagement to another. Brown, bubbling with personality, is working temporarily for the Chiefs' public relations department. He has a weekly television show and is co-host of the Chiefs' pregame and postgame radio programs.

Folks around Kansas City say that Brown isn't too bad in front of a camera. And not bad in front of a microphone, either. Before 70,000 fans and a national television audience, he sang the national anthem before the Chiefs' home game with the Raiders Sept 12.

Football?

Well, when you've had a heart attack at 27, as Brown said, things change. You find yourself gazing at sunsets and appreciating the scent of lilacs.

Football again is reduced to the game it really is.

Brown's son, Theotis III, was born two weeks after his father was released from the hospital.

"I could have never seen him," Theotis said. "That's scary."

Brown hasn't decided whether to try a comeback. His doctors, who still don't know what caused the attack, have prescribed a large dose of time for him. They suggest he take at least a year off before they review his case.

Brown has entered a cardiovascular rehabilitation program, is working out regularly and is back to the physical level he had attained before his heart attack.

But no one can guarantee the consequences of meeting All-Pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor head-on at midfield. There are no clinical tests to approximate a forearm shot to the rib cage.

So Brown proceeds with caution.

"If there's the slightest risk, anything other than normal, I don't think I'd do it," Brown said of playing again.

This comes as great comfort to his wife, who would just as soon he took his shots in a television studio.

It's not as though history and irony have stripped Brown of his senses, but would he be so foolish as to tempt fate again?

Could he so easily erase the memories of Kansas City running backs who who had suffered misfortune greater than his.

In 1965, Chief running back Mack Lee Hill died of complications during knee surgery.

In June 1983, Chief running back Joe Delaney drowned while trying to save three children who had fallen into a construction pond in Monroe, La.

The Chiefs, looking to shore up their running attack after the loss of Delaney, signed Brown, a free agent, five games into the 1983 season.

But the thought that will never escape Brown's memory occurred as he was being wheeled through St. Joseph's Hospital last February. He couldn't help thinking of former St. Louis teammate, J.V. Cain.

Brown was a rookie with the Cardinals in 1979 when Cain, the veteran tight end, collapsed before Brown's eyes on a practice field in training camp.

Cain died of a heart attack.

"That haunted me while I was in the hospital," Brown said. "I remember it like I'm talking to you today. He (Cain) came up to me, Ottis (Anderson) and Roy Green and said, 'You guys are the young, aggressive football players we need on this team. You run behind me and we'll have a great year.' He went out and ran a curl pattern and then he collapsed and died. That fast.

"He was 28. It was one of the most frightening things I've ever experienced, to watch a teammate die right in front of you. He's been an inspiration in my life. All the things he did, all the things he stood for. People respected him. And I hope when people think of Theotis Brown, they think of respect."

It's something he's always had on the field. Brown will never be remembered among the greatest of football players and has spent much of his career dodging shadows. Once a punishing runner at UCLA, Brown found himself sandwiched between the high-gloss careers of Wendell Tyler and Freeman McNeil.

He went in the second round to the Cardinals in 1979, only to find that St. Louis had used its first pick on a franchise player, running back, Ottis Anderson.

From there, Brown jumped on the NFL roller coaster, bouncing from the Cardinals to the Seattle Seahawks during the 1981 season. He fared just fine there until the Seahawks drafted star running back Curt Warner in 1983.

Exit, stage left.

And so it was that Brown ended up in Kansas City, where he could not have been happier.

Brown helped ease the pain of Delaney's loss on the field, anyway, becoming the team's most versatile back the last two seasons. Wash away an assortment of injuries and Brown's statistics would be something to toast.

Brown embraced Kansas City and soon had his hand in various local charities. It was Brown who organized the Chiefs Corps, nine Kansas City players who each served as role models and counselors for selected inner-city schools.

In Kansas City, Brown could also hone his skills as a broadcaster, getting some valuable on-the-air experience without taking the heat of big-city critics.

It seemed so perfect. Until Feb. 5.

There is little history of heart disease in the Brown family. An uncle died of a heart attack, but he was 75 and a heavy smoker, Brown said.

Brown had been on a low-cholesterol diet for five years and ate very little red meat.

"I didn't smoke or drink," he said. "A pretty boring life, huh? There's no way I can put my finger on what happened."

When Brown was told he had suffered a heart attack, there was instant denial.

Seventeen days later, when he finally left the hospital, Brown was a believer.

The night of his attack, an enzyme called streptokinase was infused directly into his coronary artery and eventually cleared the arteries of clots.

After his release from the hospital, Brown entered a rehabilitation program at St. Luke's Health Institute, which he still attends.

"Most of people there are elderly men, in their 70s and 80s," Brown said. "It was strange. When I first got there, they thought I was the instructor. I had to say 'No, my name's Theotis and I had a heart attack.' They said 'A young man like you?' "

Brown slowly regained his stamina. At first, he was allowed only to take walks at 20 minute intervals. Gradually, he increased his workouts and now rides 10 miles on a stationary bicycle and puts in three miles on the rowing machine.

The rehabilitation provided a time for much soul searching. It was a time to be remorseful yet at the same time, grateful.

Brown remembers a call from UCLA Coach Terry Donahue. He remembers a kind letter from UCLA's legendary basketball coach, John Wooden. There were dozens more.

"I was at the lowest point in my life, physically and emotionally," Brown said. "It's so nice that people care about those who are less fortunate than you.

"You know, we wake up in the morning and say, 'God, I've got to go to work.' But then I look at South Africa and I look at Israel, where they're having so many problems. You never know how good you have it until you go somewhere else. That's what happens when something bad happens to you physically."

Brown stared down at the field where the Chiefs will be playing Sunday.

It hasn't been easy being a fan.

"My heart is out there with them," he said, unaware of his choice of words. "But the toughest thing would be for me not to do anything. Still being part of the organization helps my sanity. If I had to take a job selling insurance, it would drive me up a wall."

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