The death earlier this month of Minnesota Vikings icon Bill Brown, at age 80, brought back memories of a little-known segment of his career and its place in the evolution of professional athletics.
A mainstay of the Vikings from their early days of struggling as a new franchise in the National Football League (NFL) through the halcyon period of its Super Bowl days of the 1970s, albeit three losses (he had mercifully retired before the fourth Super Bowl defeat in 1977), the hard-nosed running back played more games at that position than any other Viking, including first-round draft choice studs such as his successor, Chuck Foreman, the sleek-running Robert Smith, and the inimitable Adrian Peterson.
An Illinois native, Brown attended and graduated from the University of Illinois and became a Viking in 1962, its second year of existence. He played through 1974, scoring 52 touchdowns and appearing in four Pro Bowl games as a NFL all-star player.
But he played a role in the Vikings even before becoming a member of the infant team. In his first year out of college, he played for his home state Chicago Bears under the tutelage of the legendary Coach George Halas, a founder of the league right after World War I. As a rookie, he was on that squad when it played in the Vikings’ inaugural game at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, when the Vikings famously upset the venerable Bears 37-13, the first “Minnesota Miracle.”
Brown joined the Vikings the following year, where he extended his 14-year NFL career, about three times the career span of the average NFL player. In addition to his skills, the brawny back gained notoriety for his vivid nickname, “Boom-Boom.”
The sobriquet, which sounds like the stage name of a burlesque stripteaser, was given to the rugged fullback by his first Vikings coach, Norm Van Brocklin, the predecessor to the legendary Bud Grant. The acerbic Van Brocklin bestowed that onomatopoeic descriptive phrase on Brown because of his ferocity in smashing into opposing defenders and the ensuing sound when carrying the ball, as he did 1,627 times during his storied Vikings career, amassing 5,757 yards.
That nickname and the reputation that accompanied it served Brown well when I first crossed his path.
In the early 1960s, shortly after the football seasons ended, “Boom-Boom” would, like nearly all of his fellow pro football players, take temporary off-season jobs. This was typical of most pro athletes here and elsewhere, even the superstars. In those days, they were not paid remotely close to the millions they draw these days.
Harmon Killebrew, the vaunted home run slugger of the Minnesota Twins, sold men’s clothing at an apparel store in Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Others sold insurance or other commodities. They needed the remuneration to supplement their rather meagre salaries, which were barely higher than those paid to full-time teachers.
And that’s what “Boom-Boom” did, teach, although only in a temporary basis.
The mediocre Vikings of the early 1960s did not qualify for the post-season playoffs, as they later did on a fairly regular basis. Thus, Brown and his cohorts were freed up by January to take on other work until the next season, which would not begin until summer training camp in July.
He filled his time — and pocketbook — with temporary teaching.
I remember him at least twice filling in as the boys gym teacher at our inner-city school, North High. Once school resumed after the end-of-year holidays, there would be “Boom-Boom,” or Mr. Brown, as we were instructed to call him, wearing a gray sweatsuit with a whistle draped around his neck barking out orders like a drill sergeant to our class.
Just what we needed
He was just what we needed. In the fall, we had unruly classes marked by chaos and confusion, compounded by our regular teacher spending most of his time in the teachers’ lounge while some two or three dozen of us adolescents basically did whatever we wanted to do for nearly an hour and, when confronted by class bullies, sometimes what we didn’t want to do.
But that all changed when Mr. Brown appeared on the scene. Showing up with his booming voice (yes, that boomed, too), he would put us through our paces doing jumping jacks and other calisthenics before proceeding with other activities.
He had our rapt attention, not only because of his renown as a pro football player, but because of his no-nonsense approach. Although gruff in demeanor, he also had a warm spot for some of the less skillful or more subdued students and would, from time-to-time, comfort them with words of sincere encouragement.
But, above all, he instilled a modicum of discipline on the class, which had been sorely lacking during the fall when he was cavorting with the Vikings and we were wallowing in pedagogical neglect.
We didn’t see him again after a couple of years, except on television on Sunday afternoons. He may have gone on temp somewhere else or, perhaps, he started selling printing, a trade he pursued after his playing days ended.
But whatever happened, he had made his mark on our class in a way that would never happen today. Pro athletes, multimillionaires these days, rarely need to work in regular jobs between seasons. Moreover, the seasons are much longer these days, and off-season workouts and training leave precious little time for outside jobs, even if the athletes wanted or need them.
There’s yet another reason so few pro athletes fill in as off-season teachers. With the financial rewards so large, many top-flight college athletes leave school well before graduation and do not get their diplomas, although some later go back and obtain them.
Without a degree, they cannot teach even if they have the desire and economic need for between-season gigs.
Mr. Brown, or “Boom-Boom,” as we referred to him behind his back, may be the last of his kind.
But for us he was one of a kind.
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities attorney and historian.
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