FOOTBALL: The first and the best

Former Ball State player Tim Brown showed anything is possible, becoming first Cardinal in the NFL

Playing in NFL games Sunday were two former Ball State football players. A handful of others looked on as practice squad players. Current Cardinals tuned into the games on TV, dreaming of joining them someday.

It is not unreasonable for a Ball State football player to reach the NFL, the highest level of the game. Brad Maynard and Reggie Hodges are the most recent examples.

But it wasn't always that way. The path from Muncie to the NFL was once so unthinkable that Tim Brown, the first Cardinal ever drafted, seriously considered not going to training camp.

It was a long time ago, 51 years to be exact. There was no combine, no formal vetting process, no relentless media coverage of the NFL draft leading to the commissioner standing before a sold-out Radio City Music Hall announcing each team's pick.

Instead, Brown first heard he had been drafted when he received a letter from the Green Bay Packers. He had been picked in the 27th and final round. He was unmoved by the letter.

"Well thanks a lot, somebody saw a Ball State game," Brown said he thought at the time. "I didn't really think to give it a try at all. I was just working to get my teaching degree."

It took convincing from John Emens, who was then the school's president, for Brown to give football a chance. Despite performing well, Brown was cut by the Packers. He said he thinks part of the reason he was released by Green Bay was an unwritten NFL policy about the number of blacks on a team. It was rare for a team to have more than three blacks and any more than five was unheard of, he said.

Brown was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960, where he would play the next eight seasons. The Eagles won the NFL championship in 1960, surprising the league.

Brown would begin to surprise the league himself in the coming seasons. He was named to his first Pro Bowl in 1962 and led the Eagles in rushing four times between 1962 and 1966. He also set the NFL record for net yards in a season in 1962, only to break it again the next year.

Those records have long since been broken, but Brown has one noteworthy performance that can't be taken away. He became the first player in NFL history to take two kickoff returns back for touchdowns in one game in 1966 against Dallas.

The feat has been done eight times now, including two times in a two-month span in 2009. Brown can't believe returning kickoffs for touchdowns has become so routine.

"Nowadays they're running kickoffs back so much it's amazing," he said. "It must be poor defense."

Though he was leading the Eagles in rushing, Brown was best known for his kickoff returns. He was named to Philadelphia's 75th anniversary team as a kick returner and cemented himself in Ball State coach Stan Parrish's mind.

Parrish grew up a Cleveland Browns fan and remembers watching Brown return the opening kickoff of the 1961 season 105 yards for a touchdown against his favorite team.

When Brown returned to Ball State last month, he visited the Cardinals at practice. Parrish introduced him as the greatest player in Ball State history.

"He still looks like he could play," Parrish said of the 73-year old Brown.

Brown's playing days are long past. He retired in after the 1967 season, only to be talked back for one more year, this time with the Baltimore Colts. He was part of the team that lost Super Bowl III before leaving the game for good.

He left for the bright lights of Hollywood, where he was in movies such as "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville" and the first season of the "M*A*S*H" television series. In the movie "M*A*S*H," he sang "Suicide is Painless" despite joining the cast after filming had already started.

Brown said he took acting classes while he was still playing at the Herbert Berghof Studios, where he was in class with Barbra Streisand.

He also appeared in many commercials and was happy to get the frequent paychecks they generated.

"I did lots of commercials, thank god," Brown said. "I got $99 every time they aired. Commercials were good then."

Brown said he has lived a lucky life despite some bumps along the way. Coming from the Knightstown Children's Home, where he was sent when he was 7 years old after his family broke up, he said things could have gone much differently.

He credits some of his success to an exercise he did in eighth grade, when his teacher had each student write down three careers they aspired to.

"She said, ‘Write down three things you would want to be. Remember you have to have a job in there and why you picked that,'" Brown said. "When I was 42, they sent me a home journal and that was in there."

Brown had written down teacher, professional singer and football player. He would accomplish all three, much to his own amazement.

"These all came about. It's hard to believe I did this," he said. "Luck is being prepared when opportunity presents itself. Because of what happened with me, I believe in writing [your goals] down."


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