Born and raised in Detroit, one might think it was a bit awkward being drafted by the Vikings and ultimately signing with the Packers ahead of his rookie season. But ask Gilbert if he grew up a Lions fan and he won’t hesitate, “Absolutely not!” “My guy was Eric Dickerson,” Brown said, “so whoever he played for, that was my team.” You might find it funny that a career defensive lineman admired a hall of fame running back more than any other player, but Gilbert is proof that size is not synonymous with slow. “4.7,” he said, “The fastest 40 I ever ran was 4.7 in high school.” Don’t go thinking he was small at the time either. He was the definition of an athletic big man. Here’s how he tells the story…
“Me and Jerome Bettis, we were on the track team. I went to school with Jerome Bettis (who is now in the NFL Hall of Fame). Even the big guys on the track team had to run. We’d line up and they’d say, ‘Look at those fat guys in the 4×40 relay. They aint gonna beat nobody.’ So we’d get the stick and take off and they’d be like, ‘Lord Jesus!’ We were smokin everybody. That’s the pure athlete, to have the strength, the size, the power, and the knowledge to play the game, but also to play other sports, which helps us out as well.”
After high school, Gilbert took his talents to the University of Kansas. He went on to start in all but two games in his Jayhawk career, compiling 168 tackles, including 7.5 sacks. On the topic of college sports, I picked Brown’s brain for his thoughts on compensation for college athletes beyond scholarships, a subject he showed clear passion for.
He said, “People don’t really look at the situation. You got an intercity kid from detroit like myself who’s been awarded a scholarship that we’ve worked hard for. That scholarship is for your room, your board, your books, things like that. But a kid like myself, I had no money to buy myself no clothes, no food, no nothing.” and, “Some of these kids’ families have no money to buy them food or clothes. You gotta have clothes and shoes to go to school. You gotta have something to eat. You gotta have something in your room. There’s just a lot of different things that people don’t see.” For instance, “When the season is over, what are they supposed to do? It’s hard to get a job. It’s hard to do this that and the other thing.”
He went on to add, “When you look at how much those colleges make, they wouldn’t make that money if the kids weren’t there. So you should give those kids some kind of stipend or something, cause even in the NFL when you go out on the road they would give you a little stipend so you could go and get something to eat or something… The kids should get something. I’m not saying $5,000 a week, but just something to get them through the week.”
After graduating from Kansas, Brown was drafted by the Vikings in the third round of the 1993 draft. He was cut in August, clearing the way for the Packers to find a diamond in the rough. Regarding his tenure in Green Bay, Gilbert said, “I was just happy and blessed to become a Green Bay Packer. I was happy to be a person who played my whole career in Green Bay. It was a great honor to be a Packer.”
I mentioned Harry Sydney, current radio voice of local sports talk radio in Green Bay, and Brown was quick to chime in with a few laughs. “Let me tell you a little story about Harry Sydney. When I first got to Green Bay, Harry was the assistant strength and conditioning coach. He saw me, Earl Dotson, and Paul Hutchins. So Syd says, “you guys are fat, why don’t you go run upstairs for about two hours?” I said, ‘Two hours? C’mon man, if that was the case we’d be in track, not football.”
I also asked Gilbert about his nickname, The Gravedigger, so named because of his post-big-play celebration, when he would act out digging a grave for the opponent. He had this to say about the celebration and the nickname, it was “Something I did in high school and then it cycled over into college. I did it fairly rarely. It picked up steam when I was in Green Bay. And the actual nickname came from Reggie White, so it was a great honor that it stuck to me.”
Not having played since 2003, Gilbert is still up to date with the team. About the outlook this year he said, “It’s kinda hard to say, you got some new components in there. I mean, you feel pretty good every year. I always say they’re going to go 16 and 0 so hopefully one day it happens. Gotta be optimistic, gotta be.”
Given all the changes on defense, I inquired about what he thinks separates the good defenses from the bad.
“Personnelle. Personnelle is key. I always say with the defenses the guys play now, you gotta refer all that back to Pittsburgh. You can’t have the Pittsburgh defense without Pittsburg-type players. It’s key that you have the right players, and up-front is where it starts. It always starts up-front, both offensively and defensively… If you’ve got a great offensive line you could have mickey mouse back there throwing the ball and you can get the job done. But if they are horrible then mickey mouse is horrible.” Another topic I wanted to get Gilbert’s thoughts on was head injuries in the NFL, a topic he was relatively unphased and unworried about. “It’s all in the game. Concussions back in my day were, “take two plays off and get back in there,” or, “it’s just a stinger,” but now it’s something where they gotta sit out and take all those tests. I don’t think it’s different from back then to now. It’s a concussion. It’s kinda like when a boxer gets knocked out, that’s a concussion. It’s a protocol you gotta go through, you can’t just get back out there… It’s one of those things where it affects everybody and it affects the game. But now they aren’t making light of it instead of like back when we were playing.”
Asked if he’d encourage kids today to play, he didn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah. I mean, if I had to do it all over again I’d do it all over again. It’s just football. You can walk out your front door, slip, fall, and get a concussion… They’re really trying to step up their efforts in high school, college, little league. These coaches needed to be well versed on the concussion protocol and know that a lot of those injuries could happen in practice or set you up in practice for in the games. You could take two hits on the head, and then that third hit is the one that’s in the game, that’s going to knock you out. So you gotta be real smart about practicing to avoid getting them in the games.”
Given the practice restrictions that have been in place since the new CBA took effect in 2011, I asked Gilbert if he thought more practice would reduce or increase injuries. He said, “There’s no easy way of getting around it, football is a violent sport. Everybody is always fussing about the training camp, and how come this guy can’t get back or this guy keeps getting hurt. But that’s the cause of it. They’ve slacked so much back in practice and hitting. If guys practiced like we practiced… I mean, I could take my elbow and knock a wall down. Now that I’m not practicing and not in that type of frame I feel like I’d break my arm. Your body has to get used to the pounding, and once you go to the high speed pounding of a game there’s a difference. Though I don’t blame concussions on that, because concussions can happen at any time.”
Along with practicing and playing, Brown was keen on the topic of coaching. He’s had stints with semi-professional teams over the past decade and a half, and he won’t rule out coaching in the future, saying, “I enjoy coaching, I really do. I always tell myself I want to be a big time college coach one day, but you gotta take your lumps, you gotta learn things.” When asked why he enjoyed coaching he was no short on reply. “You love to get out there and coach these kids and watch them do what you taught them to do, and then they turn around and smile at you and that’s the greatest reward in the world. And It’s a great opportunity to be a part of someone’s life. Some of these coaches are like the guys dads. You know? They really lean on them for life lessons as well. You gotta be a great coach to handle and juggle all that stuff.”
The penchant for bringing joy to others and supporting others has been a prominent part of Brown’s post-playing career. Unlike many athletes, he has not allowed his time in the spotlight to be his peak. Near the end of his playing career he started the Gilbert Brown Foundation, which donates to 156 different children’s charities. More so than any other topic we discussed, the excitement and joy in Gilbert’s voice is easily detectable when discussing his foundation. “It’s all about really helping the kids,” he said, and “the good thing about my foundation is nobody gets paid. All the money that comes in goes out to organizations that work with kids.”
Along with raising money, Gilbert puts on several youth football camps every year as part of his foundation. “It’s a great deal that I put on. The main thing about it is all I gotta do is pick up the phone. In the locker room there’s a saying, ‘Never tell a teammate ‘no’ in certain situations.’ So I abuse that privilege and call guys up and have them come help me [at the camps]. The good thing about it is the guys get together and we supposedly are working but we’re having fun while we’re doing it. Guys miss each other. 53 man roster and from 7 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon that was our job every day. And we would be around each other so much that now, 10, 12, 20 years down the road, when somebody’s got something going on we come a running just to be around the guys.”
More than just seeing kids smile or having an excuse to see old teammates, Brown’s motivation for his foundation harkens back to his roots in Detroit. He said, “Growing up you’ve got something that’s failing you or hurting you, and now you’ve got a chance to help somebody else. I don’t want anything in return, but if I can save one or make one smile then I did my job.”
While many Green Bay fans will always remember The Gravedigger for his on field persona during a resurgent decade for the Packers, his legacy will be defined by the work he has done to spread his blessings unto others. As our talk was wrapping up he said, “I appreciate it, brother, thanks for everything.” Much like the city of Green Bay and the countless others who’ve interacted with Gilbert, all I said was, “No, really, thank you.” The Gravedigger with a heart of gold, that’s Gilbert Brown for you, folks.