He loved his three older brothers--Ross, Jim and Willard. They had taught him to play football. But Joey Browner had to get away from the reputations they had made at Notre Dame, particularly Ross, who was an Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner there.
“I couldn’t have my own identity at Notre Dame,” he said. “I had to have my own shadow.”
So he went to USC.
The Trojan coach at the time was John Robinson, who also happened to be the guy who recruited him. Robinson converted Browner from a wide receiver to a defensive back. He also became a strong paternal influence on Browner, whose own father had died when Joey was 15.
USC already had future all-pros Ronnie Lott and Dennis Smith in its defensive backfield. So Browner watched and listened.
“Those guys taught me how to backpedal,” Browner said. “Those guys kept me from moving forward every time the other guys said, ‘Hike.’ ”
But they also prevented him from gaining any significant national recognition, though he was chosen as a second- and third-team All-American. And he was the 19th player selected in the 1983 National Football League draft.
Yet there was nothing special that tipped anybody to the stature Browner would attain Monday, the day after Christmas in his sixth NFL season.
In the den of din called the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Minnesota strong safety Joey Browner forced the Rams and the rest of the NFL to watch and listen.
His interceptions on the Rams’ first two possessions set up Minnesota’s first two touchdowns. And he had the Vikings’ only sack of the day--his first of the season--late in the second period on an important third down, foiling a Ram drive that would have tied the game.
By the time the Vikings had turned his big plays into a 28-17 victory in the NFC wild-card playoff game, it was time for testimony. The spotlight was blinding. Browner squinted and shrugged. But the evidence was overwhelming.
“The guy is poetry in motion,” said Viking cornerback Reggie Rutland of Browner. “You have to be back there with him to appreciate it. The guy’s a natural-born football player. He was put here to play football.”
Then it was Robinson’s turn. Robinson became the Ram coach the same year Browner joined the Vikings. And it was with a strange combination of pride and apprehension Monday that he watched Browner ruin his team’s postseason.
“That Browner,” Robinson said after the game, “I think he’s the best player in all of football.”
“None better,” Minnesota Coach Jerry Burns said.
Browner’s first interception came on a third and 17 from the Viking 32-yard line. Ram quarterback Jim Everett was looking for Flipper Anderson at the goal line on a post pattern.
“It was a touchdown,” Robinson said. “I even said it as Everett threw it. But Browner came out of nowhere.”
No big deal, Browner insisted. Deep zone, he said.
Nine plays and 73 yards later, the Vikings led, 7-0, on Alfred Anderson’s 7-yard touchdown run.
On the very next Ram play, Everett looked for Henry Ellard over the middle. But, said Browner, “he threw it high. I was in the right place at the right time. I think that rattled them.”
Browner’s second interception gave the Vikings the ball at the Ram 17. One play later, Allen Rice bolted up the middle for 17 yards and a 14-0 lead. The Rams never recovered against a Viking defense ranked No. 1 in the league this season.
Minnesota also led the NFL in takeaways (53), interceptions (36) and turnover/takeaway percentage (plus-23) this season. Moreover, the Viking offense scored 40.8% of its team-record 406 points this year after interceptions or fumble recoveries.
“If other teams want to give us those points, we’ll take ‘em,” Minnesota tackle Tim Irwin said. “We’ve got to.”
Before this game, most of the talk about the Viking defense centered on end Chris Doleman and tackle Keith Millard. Browner had 7 tackles, 4 more than Doleman and Millard combined.
And suddenly Robinson and Burns were anointing him as the combined reincarnation of Jim Thorpe, Johnny Blood and bad, bad Leroy Brown.
Browner was unfazed. “I don’t go by what people say,” he said. “One year you may be the best. The next year you may be the crappiest.”
The Vikings must next play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. When their season ends, Browner will participate in the Pro Bowl for the fourth straight season. He has his own shadow now.
But there was a time when the Vikings thought his skills were better suited to cornerback. They weren’t.
There is a saying among NFL defensive backs that goes something like this: First they try you at corner, then they try you at safety. Then they show you the door.
Browner survived by adapting to the Vikings’ defensive scheme that calls for a large dose of run support and coverage of the tight end when he goes in motion. “I’m like a third linebacker out there,” he says.
With Robinson’s help he had adjusted at USC, too. “He looked out for me,” Browner said. “He told me when I was doing things right and when I was doing things wrong. I didn’t have any relatives or family in California. You could do anything.”
That’s why beating Robinson’s team Monday gave him pause. “It was very strange,” he said. “But I’m a professional now. The rah-rah is gone. I’m a professional.”