One more week, he'd say. One more week.
They called him Big Happy. Dean and Mike Brown grew up in a single-parent household in the projects of Canton, Ohio, and the neighborhood's ills didn't swallow them whole because the neighborhood respected them as the brothers who had the wherewithal to get out. Mostly this was because of Dean, whose athletic gifts dwarfed the grimness of the place.
He was the glue that kept the family together, his brother said. Anything Dean did, he insisted Mike come along. Football games, dinners, basketball games, whatever.
"If I couldn't go, then he nine times out of 10 declined going," Mike said. "At an early age, he taught me the importance of family and sticking together and being responsible for one another."
The buoyant personality gave way to a severe, gristly on-field demeanor that had Brown leaning toward playing at Ohio State before his official visit to Notre Dame swayed him. He would start the last 25 games of his Irish career, win the national title in 1988 and log more minutes than any Irish player as a senior in 1989, but the essence of him was too big to be confined within chalk lines on grass.
His smile basically composed his entire, monstrously cherubic face. His gait was slow and easy. That one pet phrase of his — I love all y'all mugs — rang out in meetings or tense moments to lighten the mood. Not surprisingly, Brown said it just before members of the '88 team walked into Notre Dame Stadium for a 20-year anniversary celebration.
At a recruiting dinner — whether Brown was a recruit or already at Notre Dame, former linemate Andy Heck can't remember — Brown spontaneously began a human beat-box session. That particular talent endured during his career. "Hey, Dean, give me a beat!" teammates shouted, and Brown produced the rhythm or rap or both.
During that memorable 1988 game against Miami, Eilers received a rare carry and wound up scoring a touchdown with Brown as his lead blocker. In the post-victory delirium, Brown made sure he made his way to Eilers. It's a good thing I'm as good a tackle as I am, knowing that Coach called your number, Brown deadpanned.
No one was immune. Once, while in the doldrums of two-a-days, Brown called over to Holtz.
"Coach Holtz, I just saw a picture of the Kent State football team," Brown said, referring to Holtz's alma mater. "Coach, I thought you played for them. It looked like you were the water boy in that picture!"
"Aw, Dean, you're a funny guy," Holtz replied. "I don't know if you're right or not, but you're sure going to look good at third-team tackle."
A little while later, Brown lined up at third-team tackle.
"If I'm blessed to be alive at 80 years old, I'll remember that day," former Irish linebacker Ned Bolcar said. "Certain people you know make you smile. Not everybody does. Dean, the thought of him, even now, makes me smile."
If there was one moment even Brown couldn't smile through, it was a jolting confrontation with the comedian Bill Cosby before commencement in 1989. Cosby spoke to a small congregation of black graduates and their guests and singled out Brown — unaware he was a student-athlete — asking him what his grade-point average was, telling him it wasn't good enough, bringing Brown to tears in the exchange.
The scene went unaddressed between the Brown brothers for years, until it came up while they dined on chicken wings and Dr Pepper at a Canton restaurant not long ago.
"It was at that point that he shared with me that helped fuel his desire to be a better person," Mike Brown said.
In 2003, Brown entered the education field, serving as dean of students at Friendship Public Charter School, the largest such school in inner-city Washington. In August, he moved back to Ohio and began work as principal at Nexus Academy in Cleveland. He was happy to be back. His mother, suffering from health issues, was happy to have her son and granddaughters just miles away.
He and his brother had plans, too. They wanted to put together a Saturday school for boys, and a blended learning academy, and programs centered on camping for at-risk youth. These were the next Dean Browns, the boys he wore his championship rings for, and he wanted to nurture them on their way to something bigger.