Tim Brown's mother, who does not approve of football but is rethinking her position on Tim Brown, has never seen her son, the Heisman Trophy candidate, traverse a field. On her occasional weekend visits to the Notre Dame campus, she prefers to sit alone in his room while a stadium full of utter bedlam follows the progress of this triple threat who doesn't know there's only one of him.
Josephine Brown sat just so last weekend as her son returned first one punt for a 71-yard touchdown and then, two minutes later, took the next one for a 66-yard score. The result of his scarcely believable performance against Michigan State was that the resurgent Fighting Irish (3-0) were ranked No. 9 and that Tim Brown is recognized as quite possibly the most devastating little darling in the country.
"All I know is what they tell me," she said. "That when he's running with the ball he's going to make a touchdown."
Others are learning the same of Brown, a running-receiving-returning inspiration that Notre Dame unassumingly labels a flanker but sometimes lines up in the backfield. In just the first two weeks of the season, Brown has scored three touchdowns (half the team's total) and gained 357 all-purpose yards to establish himself as the most audacious of all the Heisman candidates mentioned thus far, overwhelming Michigan's Jamie Morris and Michigan State's Lorenzo White in direct confrontations.
In doing so, he has helped Notre Dame recover some honor that was lost during the tenure of Gerry Faust and last season's 5-6 record under new coach Lou Holtz. With victories over the Wolverines and Spartans and what looks like a third victory coming at Purdue this weekend, Notre Dame is in a state of panicked joy. The latest shirt being sold at the campus bookstore presumptuously lists Notre Dame's, uh, seven Heisman winners: Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, John Lattner, Paul Hornung, John Huarte and Tim Brown.
"I tell you what, it sure makes the parties around here more fun," Brown said.
All this comes from a 6-foot, 192-pounder out of Dallas who won just four games in three years at Woodrow Wilson High School, where he was vice president of his senior class and sports editor of the school paper. Forbidden by his mother to compete as a 5-4, 150-pound high school freshman, Brown settled for carrying the bass drum in the band, considered by his mother a nicer place to play.
A devout Pentecostal who objects to competition, Josephine Brown thought her son was staying late all those afternoons for the gentler purpose of band practice. But Brown had gone out for the team as a sophomore, getting his father, Eugene, to sign his permission slips. That sham lasted until the band leader called to ask where he was.
"He told me he couldn't burn off enough energy just beating that drum," she said. "I didn't know he was that good."
How good Brown was became evident when Nebraska, SMU and Notre Dame all romanced him. His choice was SMU, until the first indications arose of the cheating problems that eventually led to the suspension of its program this season.
"If you say you're a football player at SMU, people go like, 'Oh,' " he said. "But if you say you're a football player at Notre Dame, they have respect for you; they know you're up to something good."
So he went to Notre Dame, where he promptly fumbled his first kickoff, against Purdue in front of 60,672 fans. "If I could have, I would've packed my bags right then and gone back to Dallas," he said. But Brown stayed, although for some time he was a minor character in Faust's running back offense.
When Holtz arrived last season, he immediately recognized a major offensive presence, and so did Holtz's wife Beth, who pointed to the field and said, "Who's 81? He's good." So Holtz quickly instituted the many uses for Brown. Perhaps the best way to describe what Brown does for Notre Dame's offense is wingback, the position the man to whom he is frequently compared, Johnny Rodgers, played at Nebraska when he won the Heisman in 1972.
"Tim Brown makes runs like you used to see 30 years ago," Holtz said. "You just don't see people make as many things happen by themselves anymore ...It would have been interesting to see what Grantland Rice would have written about him."
Said quarterback Terry Andrysiak, "He's a thrill to throw to. I can toss a five-yard pass and I never know what's going to happen."
Neither does Brown, really. He is an instinctual runner who is frequently unaware of the moves he is making, and calls the two punt returns something of an accident. On the first, the blocking fell into place and on the second he was without blockers but found a hole, anyway.
"People are in awe, really," he said. "Two punts (returned for scores) back to back is unbelievable. I've had people come up to me and say, 'I knew you'd return the second one for a touchdown; I bet money on it.' And I say, 'Yeah, right.'
"It's just instinct really, I'm trying not to get hit. Things just happen. I try to talk about them, but I don't really remember them."
Like Rodgers, Brown doesn't run so much as he sashays. He is not only 4.3 in the 40-yard dash fast, but shifty. His hips seem to go one way while his body goes the other, and his remarkable peripheral vision enables him to see all parts of the field. The result last season was that Brown gained a school-record 1,937 all-purpose yards and averaged 14.8 yards, just shy of Rodger's NCAA all-purpose record of 15.0.
"He sticks out like a sore thumb," Michigan State Coach George Perles said.
As Holtz said before this season, perhaps the only way to keep Notre Dame from getting the ball to Brown "is to intercept the pass from center." But this season, Brown must fight stacked defenses and some past traditions if he is to win the Heisman, dominated by quarterbacks and running backs.
"My general feeling about the Heisman is that if I'm up for it I'd like to win it," he said. "It's something that could overwhelm you if you think about it too much."
But Brown has some built-in advantages. There is nothing as irresistible to Heisman traditionalists as a squeaky-clean Notre Dame candidate, especially a solid sociology major who is considering a career in the ministry after football, and when asked what kind of car he drives, replies, "I don't have a car." Also, Notre Dame plays virtually its entire schedule on national television, offering him unlimited exposure.
In short, everyone is watching. Even Josephine Brown, who has begun to read the sports pages, and will actually watch an instant replay from time to time. "I'm going to find out exactly what he's into," she said.