Dennis Breo
September 12, 1977 12:00 PM

The gospel according to the Browner brothers: ‘I’d rather hit than be hit.’

Mrs. Geraldine Browner of Warren, Ohio recalls that she almost forbade her eldest son, Ross, to play eighth-grade football. “He was such a skinny kid,” she says. Ross was then a comparatively delicate 6’2″ and 180 pounds. Besides, only a few years before his favorite pastime had been—horrors!—jacks. “Every time we looked around,” remembers brother Jimmy, “Ross was throwing up that little rubber ball and scooping up jacks. He even beat the girls.”

Now 23 and 70 pounds heavier, Ross is still scooping up things—mainly terrorized quarterbacks. Last year the 6’3″, 250-pound Notre Dame defensive end roared through enemy lines like a runaway Mack truck, outsprinting runners, blocking passes and punts and crunching loose fumbles. Already All-America and the nation’s top lineman, Browner is co-captain of an aroused Notre Dame team that opens its 77 season in a Sept. 10 televised showdown against defending national champs Pittsburgh. Browner is an early choice to be the second lineman ever to win the Heisman Trophy as the country’s best player.

But Ross is only one-sixth of the Browner football story. Brother Jim, 21, 6’3″ and 210, is Ross’s teammate, a two-year letterman who as a junior will start alongside Ross at strong safety. Brother Willard, 20, 6’2″ and 215, was slated to be the Notre Dame fullback, but low grades forced him to transfer to Tulane this fall. Meanwhile, back in Warren, brothers Joey, 17, 6’3″ and 185, and Keith, 15, 6’2″ and 175, are ends on the potent Warren Reserve H.S. squad. Then there’s baby brother Gerald, 13, who’s a nose guard at 6’1″, 260 lbs. (There are also two sisters, Burdette, 18, and Olivia, 27, neither of whom has been called into action.)

The formidable family was raised rigorously by Geraldine, who worked as a cleaning lady until hospitalized this year with a slipped disk. (Her steelworker husband, Lee, died of cancer last year at 49, and the three older boys are surrogate fathers to the younger siblings.) “The house rule was: No grades, no football,” recalls Mom. “I’d pull them right off the field if I thought they weren’t hitting the books.”

At Notre Dame, which Ross picked despite all-out recruiting by Ohio State czar Woody Hayes, both Ross and Jimmy are C+ economics majors. But in 1974 Ross was one of six players suspended for a year for allegedly entertaining a woman in their dorm after hours. “I was a victim of circumstances,” he maintains. Geraldine agreed after talking with Ross and “finding he hadn’t done anything wrong.” Nowadays Ross gives “100 percent in football, 100 percent in the classroom, and there’s not much time for anything else”—which includes hobbies like fishing, Ping-Pong, chess, checkers and cards (but no longer jacks). Ross says he has no special girl, “and if I tried to name one, that would just make the others mad.”

Ross will almost surely be a first-round pro-football draft choice, pulling down the kind of big bucks that he hopes will help out his mother. He worked for a Ford dealer in Atlanta this summer and dreams eventually of “getting into business for myself, or maybe getting an MBA and doing something in labor relations.” He’s bound to be a success. As most battered linemen and bruised quarterbacks will affirm, Ross Browner can be a tough man to move.

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