Twenty-three years ago, the news came out like a bolt of sadness and the impossible was true: Eagles defensive tackle Jerome Brown was dead after "careless driving" in his hometown of Brooksville, FL. How he died and the tragedy that included the death of his 13-year-old nephew is not the conversation here, for the day and the accident and the manner of death has been discussed many times.
Brown, a 27-year-old lover of life, was driving recklessly, was at fault, and he paid the ultimate price. A city mourned, a world of Eagles fans cried tears and the impact was felt for years. The Eagles dedicated their 1992 season to Brown, kept his locker alive at Veterans Stadium and created a Jerome Brown locker for each game on the road.
So much has happened since those deaths. The Eagles have, of course, moved into a new era with Jeffrey Lurie at the helm. The players on the roster don't know much of anything about Brown -- some of them weren't born when he died -- and unless they pause to recognize his likeness on the walls of the NovaCare Complex to commemorate his Pro Bowl appearances, there isn't a whisper of thought of No. 99, which has been retired.
All of us who were around on that shocking day -- Brown was pronounced dead at 5 p.m., and I learned of his death while on vacation in New Orleans later that night, a gap of time that seems preposterous to all of the digital-aged whippersnappers now -- knew Brown as a larger-than-life personality whose performance on the field was just catching up to his enormous presence off the field.
"I think about Jerome all the time, absolutely," former Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner said on Thursday. "June 25 is a date that is stuck in my brain. It was one of the most shocking moments of my life, when I heard the news. I was in California working on a TV show, taping something, and the news got out. I couldn't believe it. A guy took me into a room and showed me the news report and I thought, 'This can't be right.' But it was. I started making some calls and it was so sad."
Time has passed and the mourning has taken its various routes. Former teammates and those who loved Brown participated heavily to form the Jerome Brown Foundation, whose mission statement was to provide youth programs "which are intended to provide instructional, recreational, athletic, sports and other wholesome activities" for kids. The momentum faded through the years. Brown's family has had some tough times -- his son, Dunnell, who was just 4 years old when Brown died, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after Brown pled guilty to second-degree murder for a role in a 2011 killing.
The story here, though, is the way we remember Brown and think of the life he led. Joyner, a dear friend forever, believed in Brown and thought the gentle giant was just coming into his prime. Buddy Ryan made Brown his first-round draft choice in 1987 and the two couldn't have been matched more perfectly. Both were swash-buckling, outrageous personalities who then backed it all up on the field. Brown played in 76 games with the Eagles, made the Pro Bowl twice, was twice named an All-Pro player and was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame in 1996. The Eagles retired his jersey, at the prompting of the players in the locker room, led by Joyner, during the 1992 season.
Fans remembered Brown fondly enough by voting him to the franchise's 75tth Anniversary Team in 2007.
"I don't mourn any longer. That's the way I look at it," Joyner said. "The mourning is over. I remember the great things about my friend. He had so much energy and he touched a lot of people. He loved everybody. I felt like he was on that path to really growing up and understanding what a man is supposed to be. He was getting there.
"As much as he accomplished on the field to that point, he was just started to hit his stride. He had great things in front of him. I lost a brother, a great friend and a teammate. I am grateful for the time that our paths crossed, and for the times we were able to walk down the same path together. I don't mourn any longer. I think back and smile about the friend that I had and the man who was my brother."
Where were you that night when the word got out that Brown died? The late, great Reggie White made the emotional announcement to the stunned Veterans Stadium crowd at a Billy Graham concert and the news coverage was relentless. But there was no Twitter. The Internet was just a speck on the landscape. Smart phones were a dream.
But doesn't everyone who loved the Eagles remember the moment they heard and the sadness they felt? Twenty-three years later, so much is different for all of us as the memory of his enormous spirit lives and brings a smile to those who knew him, if only for a short time.