Heart of a Hall of Famer

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Raiders Owner Al Davis and Willie Brown pose for a photo at Brown's induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1984.

The Heart of a Hall of Famer series, developed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Education Outreach Program, allows students from across the country to learn directly from Hall of Famers what it takes beyond athletic ability to achieve success on and off the field. The March installment of the Heart of a Hall of Famer series featured Raiders Legend Willie Brown. Brown, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on July 28, 1984, played in 204 games, shares the Raiders all-time lead in interceptions with 39, and set a then-Super Bowl record with a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XI, connected with schools across the country in two hour-long sessions from the Raiders facility in Alameda, Calif., with the help of the Kings County Office of Education. The event was facilitated by the Education Programs Coordinator, Jerry Csaki, at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Brown was able to communicate with the students via videoconferencing. "What we've done is with videoconferencing we have our cameras and they're run through a high-speed network via internet," explained Trista Waymire, Teacher-Curriculum & Instructional Technology-IVC. "We are connecting with the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and we connect to several schools across the country. They are all connected using videoconferencing, which is just a camera and a microphone. When the students come on we can see them, we can hear them, and they can see him as well. The Hall of Fame is the mediator. They keep track of allowing each school a fair number of questions."

Since the beginning of the Heart of a Hall of Famer series, 12 to 15 Hall of Famers have participated in the program. "The real idea, the premise behind this Heart of a Hall of Famer concept, is what it took to get in the Hall of Fame beyond just athletic ability," explained Csaki to the students prior to the question and answer session. "You know these athletes are tremendous examples of athleticism and talent, but it took more than that to get into the Hall of Fame. It took the six core pillars which you guys are studying – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, fairness and citizenship – they are the basis of what made them successful. That's the idea and the concept of the program is to tackle these character qualities that you guys have been studying."

During the first session, Brown answered questions from students from schools in California, Ohio, Maine, and Wisconsin. In the second session, Brown connected with schools in California, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia, and Ohio. The following is an excerpt from Brown's Heart of a Hall of Famer segment. 

Willie Brown: Thank you very much. Let me just say we have a good group this group. This second group is really something. It's good to see. Let me also say thank you for participating and for all the schools around the country for being able to hear some truths, hear some understanding and hopefully it will help you in your career, whatever you may do. All the things that happened in the Super Bowl and all those big games I played in is not only my ability to be able to play it, but my teammates had an important role in terms of me having the success that I had as a professional football player. I will never forget them because had it not been for them, there would be no way that I'd make All Pro or been in the Hall of Fame.

JFK Jr. High School, Hanford, CA.: How did your football career help shape your character?

Willie Brown: I think that you learn habits by learning from your mother and father and surely from your high school coach how to understand and believe in yourself and give you that confidence. You learn those kinds of things in an early age. Let me just say that growing up, I hated school. I wanted to do something else rather than go to school. So my interest wasn't in school, my interest was sports. I knew that if I wanted to play sports, I had to go to school, so that's what kept me motivated and motivated me to be a good student and a good football player by going to school every day and learning things. I think the things that they taught me were trust, understanding, and forgiving and being a person that makes decisions – don't let anyone make decisions for you. You make your own decisions because there are choices. You choose the one best suited for you or your organization or your team. That's the way I learned and learned things on the field and off the football field – to be the person who you think you are and listen to others and be willing to accept their idea if you think their idea is right. If their idea is not right in your eyesight, you have a choice to make.

JFK Jr. High School: How important is it to be known as a good teammate and what does that look like?

Willie Brown: It is not important to me as an individual to be recognized as a good player. That's not me. I'd prefer one of my teammates get the credit for something rather than me. Don't put it on me. I'd rather be the person that if I have a glass of water I want to make sure all my teammates have a drink before I have a drink. If you have food, I'd rather my teammates to have food, rather than me. Let me be the sacrifice guy. Let me be the last guy if it is satisfying their hunger, satisfying their thirst. That's the same way my father taught me when I was growing up. I have seven brother and two sisters and my father would make sure all the kids had been fed before he even thought of eating because he wanted to make sure they were taken care of. That's the way I grew up. I think that is what really helped me, helped my character on and off the football field in terms of satisfying others rather than satisfying myself first. I put my teammates first before I put myself first. I want to make sure everyone else is happy before being happy myself.

R.T. Cream Family School, Camden, NJ: Did you always have the goal to play football in the NFL?

Willie Brown:No, my goal coming out of high school was to finish high school, go to Grambling University and get my degree. From there, I couldn't have cared less about playing professional football. I wanted to be a high school football coach. That was my number one goal because I had so much respect for my high school football coach. I wanted to be like him. I even walked like and talked like him, do all the things he did. But no, that was in my far back mind in terms of playing professional football. The opportunity came so I just took advantage of it because they believed I had some talent, they believed I could play professional football. I took advantage of it knowing that would jumpstart my career in trying to get some of the things I wanted in life.

R.T. Cream Family School: Was it hard to play in 204 games?

Willie Brown:I didn't look at it as being hard. I looked at it as being a lot of fun because I was doing something I chose to do. When you're having fun doing certain things, it's not hard. The hardest part is if you don't know what you're doing, and you don't have direction and understanding of what's going on, then yea, that is hard. Fortunate enough for me, I had some pretty good athletic skills and I could do certain things that certain guys can't do and they say I was very good. It really wasn't that hard for me because my defensive back skills were so much higher than the average defensive back that played in the league and everything just came easy to me because I invented the bump and run, I knew how to play it, I had pretty good size and strength. I was 6'2" and weighing about 215 pounds and I would just beat the receiver and knock him down and got him out of the way so there was no way he could catch a pass.

Riesel High School, Riesel, TX: While you were growing up, who or what shaped your future?

Willie Brown: I think my work habits, which began when I first started playing football, were shaped by my high school coach, my father, and Eddie Robinson, of course from Grambling University, and coming to the Raiders with Al Davis. I think all these individuals helped me and prepared me to play professional football. Then there are your teammates – you only become a star when you have good surrounding ballplayers. The good players usually stand out because you have a good cast of other guys around them. I think that's what made me such a good football player, by having a good cast of other good players around you, they make you play better. They trust you and understand you and the knowledge you have by practicing, you can do certain things. You have a chance to stand out because you've gone through the practices; you've gone through the communication between you and your teammates and how to do certain things in order for you to win.

Riesel High School:What is your favorite memory of your football career?

Willie Brown: There are quite a few. One being the Super Bowl, of course, when I ran [the interception] back for a touchdown. I think that's one of the biggest games played in all of sports, the Super Bowl. But intercepting four passes in one game was kind of good. Not only that, sometimes, you have to understand that when I played, sometimes they wouldn't even throw a ball my way in the course of a game. So what I used to do in order for it to look like I'd played in the game when they don't throw my way, I'd just reach down in the dirt and rub it all over my jersey so it looked like I played. Otherwise they'd usually just take my uniform and hang it back up and have it ready for the next game because it wasn't dirty because nobody went my way. They didn't run my way, throw a pass my way, they stayed out of the way of me. Those kind of things you remember, when they don't throw a ball at your direction, or you intercept a big pass to save a game, or intercept a pass to break a tie, knowing that you have the chance to make a big play and win a ball game. I had several of those kinds of games to help me in my career. Those kinds of things you remember quite a bit.

Freedom Middle School, Spotsylvania, VA: What is some advice you have for a successful career?

Willie Brown: Whether you're in sports or what type of industry or type of job you have, success is measured in terms of your reaction, in terms of goals, in terms of being on time; all those things play an important role in being successful. Now, what do you say is success? Is success meaning you win a Super Bowl? You win a championship? Are you making All Pro? Are you getting in the Hall of Fame? Are you the top person in your classroom? Are you the top money-maker in terms of your company? All those things depend on how you measure success. I don't think of all the things I have done can be classified as being successful. Although, in the eyes of the public, in the eyes of fans, they think I am successful because of being in the Hall of Fame and I've done those things. But to me, there are so many other things in life other than the so-called being successful, so it depends on your organization, depends on your goals and how you got there. To me, growing up as a child who didn't have much, who wore hand-me-downs from my older brothers, I thought I was successful then because I had the chance to get their clothes or wear their shoes. It's how you measure success in terms of your goals. When you finish high school, I think that's being successful because you start in first grade and go all the way until you finish high school. You go to college and finish college, that's being successful. You go out and get a job, that's successful.

Freedom Middle School:What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your life?

Willie Brown: The hardest thing I had to overcome in my lifetime was being discriminated against. Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, I had to overcome how all black people were treated. Playing in high school and college, playing with an all black team, I had never played with white players before until I came to the pros so it was different. At that point we didn't look at what color you were, we looked in terms of championship, playoffs and Super Bowls. Things have changed since the early '50s. For example, when you tried to go get a drink of water at a public place, they had a sign up 'For Colored' on one fountain and then a water fountain for white people. When you go to a restaurant they tell you that you have to go to the back of the restaurant in order to get food. You cannot go through the front door when you go to a hotel. You had to go to the back of the hotel and come around the back door and take the service elevator to your room. I had to overcome those kinds of things because I grew up in those kinds of conditions. Coming and being in the pros changed my lifestyle. Today, kids don't even think about the things we went through as a football player compared to what they go through now and it's a big difference because of the way society is now, which is great. The changes we had to overcome and all those things were very important during that time so overcoming those kinds of things as a person had nothing to do with football but with life itself.

Daw Middle School, Wellsville, OH: Was there ever a time that you could have used steroids and how did you react to somebody asking you to use steroids?

Willie Brown: Growing up where I grew up in Mississippi and Louisiana, I had no knowledge of steroids; I had no knowledge of marijuana. I had no knowledge of anything until I came to the pros. I had never seen it, I had never used it, and I don't believe in taking enhancement drugs. I have seen nowadays when people have taken drugs and steroids what has happened to their bodies. They may look good all pumped up and big muscles and strong arms, but hopefully there is life after football when they see how their body has deteriorated to how their body is not supposed to be. Steroids, there's no place for it. I think every person on the football field or any sport should be on the same playing level. I think taking drugs is not good for any sport. It's not good for the community and it's not good for society for people to use some forms of drugs. I want to be drug free and hopefully the people I'm playing against also want to be drug free because you're developing your character of how you want to be and how you want your kids to be. You have to think in terms of the long run. What happens if a football player is using steroids or using drugs now and one day he is going to get married and have kids, and what are you going to teach them? Are you going to teach him to use drugs and steroids? No, hopefully not. Those things you have to think about when you are involved in taking that one chance of using any form of drugs, particularly at your age. You have choices. When you see a person is using drugs or smoking marijuana, you don't have to smoke it because he's your buddy. You try to encourage him not to use it. It's very important. You can help him develop his habits and his character by saying 'no, you shouldn't do that because this, this and this is what is going to happen to you in life.' Encourage more of your classmates and more of your schoolmates and teammates to stay drug free. Stay away from alcohol and those kinds of things and now is the time for you guys to learn that. Don't be afraid because he's your buddy to stand up to him and say this is wrong.

JFK Jr. High School: Was it hard at times to play fair in the heat of the moment?

Willie Brown:There are rules that you must follow in sports and in life itself also. Was it hard to play fair? That's why they have rules. You must play fair in order to be competitive and in order to try to win a ball game. Hopefully the people making the call, making the decision, they will do things the right way and the fair way. But yes, it's hard, particularly when you're losing to play fair. You want to do something out of the ordinary to help their chance of winning. It's hard because you have to bite your tongue in order to get through it and play fair. That's how life is. You have to do what is right and sometimes it causes you to win, sometimes it causes you to lose. You just hope everyone is fair, the officials are fair and hopefully the other team is going to play fair so you come out as a winner.

JFK Jr. High School: What community responsibilities were important to you while you were playing football?

Willie Brown: I think every person who they call a celebrity or a great player there is a responsibility that he or she must have being a role model. When you live in the community or grew up in the community, as a professional player or as whatever, you should dedicate some of your time to go back to those particular communities. I grew up in Mississippi and then Louisiana and I felt it was my responsibility to go back there and put on a football camp at the high school level and I've been doing that for the last seven or eight years now, going back to my hometown and putting on two football camps. Also in the community here in Oakland, going to different high schools. We have a lot, not only me, but a lot of great football players today who go back to different high schools and elementary schools and just go back and talk to the kids and say some of the things I said earlier to the kids. I never saw any professional football player in my life until I went to Grambling University. Nowadays, football players all over are going back to the schools, putting on football camps, putting on fundraisers, a lot of guys have foundations that help schools and giveaway scholarships to kids to go to college. I think it is a responsibility and an obligation. I try to do as much as I possibly can to give back to the community particularly here in Oakland where I live and in Tracy. When I was coaching early in my career, I had some of the Oakland Raiders come to different schools to talk to high school kids and talk to elementary school kids because I had three kids that were in school and they were going to speak to them.

R.T. Cream Family School: What did you have to do to become a coach?

Willie Brown: The right attitude, the right mindset and goals is number one. I think that when I was in the 10th and 11th grade in high school, I knew I wanted to be a coach because I idolized and admired my high school football coach so much that I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be able to go back to the high school and help young people and help them in their life and develop their life. Those kinds of things are what gave me an idea I wanted to be a football coach. Also attending Grambling University with Eddie Robinson helped me to be a coach. I watched him and tried to do things the way he did things. I think high school kids today they need guidance. They need someone to come in and help mold their lives and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be that guy that helped a guy jumpstart his career the right direction and show him there are other things in life besides just playing sports. You have other goals. Everyone can't play football, basketball or run track. There are other things that must be done so I figured that being a high school coach and being a college coach, I could do some of those things other than just coach football.

Riesel High School: What was your worst experience in the NFL?

Willie Brown: Probably the eye opener knowing how black players were treated compared to how white players were treated when I first came into pro football. I had no idea it was like that until I get involved in it. Another eye opener was how I played tight end and linebacker in high school and college and then when I got to the pros they gave me a defensive backs book the first night. I thought that was kind of crazy because I'd never played defensive back before so it was eye opening for me to know that this is the position they wanted me to play even though I'd never played it before. I had to learn and learn in a hurry because in football you get one chance, particularly in pro ball. You make it or you don't unless someone picks you up as a free agent, which is what happened in my case. I was cut and let go the last cut with the Houston Oilers. Then Denver picked me up. The eye opener was how much better they thought some of the players were than me and everybody in the world knew after seeing me play that I was much better than some of the guys they had. During that time, they were only taking certain number of blacks on the team compared to a certain number of whites on the football team. That was one of the biggest eye openers for me was how much better you had to be in that period of time in order to play in the national football league.

Riesel High School:What did you run in the 40 when you were in the NFL?

Willie Brown: I ran as fast as I had to. If you put a clock, I probably would have run somewhere in the 4.4 area. I had a track background, I ran track in high school and I also ran track in college. I could run. If I had to catch a guy who ran 4.2, I ran 4.2. If a guy ran a 4.4, I ran a 4.4. Whatever had to be done to catch a guy, I had that speed. I had that second gear. You know that second gear you have when you run track? I think that was my second gear. You do whatever you have to, to get the job done.

Freedom Middle School: When you were playing football throughout your career, did you keep your character in mind the entire time?

Willie Brown:  I really think I did because I learned it at an early age. My father was very tough and disciplinary. He was the type that would discipline you every time something went wrong and my father was 6'5" and like 245 lbs and I didn't want to cross him. I tried to do all the things that he wanted me to do. My high school coach, I tried to do all those types of things to make sure I'm on the right track. That stayed with me the rest of my life and that's what I taught my kids growing up. Things that you teach and learn at an early age you hope that those things can develop as you grow older and carry over back to your kids. Now, they say that you learn things at an early age so hopefully you kids have learned that at an early age so it will carry over when you go to college and you become a person that established yourself in society. I think those things are important. Don't let anyone influence you or let you get away from your character because you know what your character is.

Freedom Middle School: After all the awards you have won in your career, which one are you most proud of?

Willie Brown:There are so many now, but being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame surely is one of them. I've been elected to nine different Hall of Fames. That's from state, college, from this, from that, and all those things are important to me. Receiving the MVP award of your team, playing in Super Bowls, coaching in Super Bowls, all of those are very important. Probably the one that stands out more than anything is being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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