A father and son found

2-21-04, 8 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ First, Ross Browner looked in the mirror. Then he looked into his heart. Then he hugged the son he never knew he had for 17 years.

And, there was a lot to hug because Max Starks IV stands 6-7, 350 pounds.

"I thought I was looking at myself. The first thing I said to him," Browner says, was, 'Son.' Then I said, 'Sir.'"

They are still embracing. They are still joking. They are still looking hand-over-the-mouth alike.

"Oh my God," says Elleanor Starks, Max's mother. "We took a picture of them at the Senior Bowl and we couldn't believe it. They look alike. They smile alike. They laugh alike."

Starks, the versatile left tackle from the University of Florida, grew up a world apart from his father before he ended up walking in his footsteps. Suddenly, he was related to football history in his father's Atlanta home, looking at the framed Super Bowl jersey with his Bengals' No. 79, the striped helmet, and the Lombardi and Outland trophies that went to college football's best lineman as the '70s and disco died together.

"I could have blocked him. Maybe not that often, but I could have blocked him," Max says now. "You d have to power him, get on his pads, because he's got that quick first step, and you've got to use the arms to your advantage."

Before Starks went to bed each night here at the NFL scouting combine, he spoke with Browner to re-hash the day, talk about the next and, why not?

Starks is trying to show the NFL he is worthy of being selected on the first day of the NFL Draft, and a generation ago the Bengals took Browner off a Sports Illustrated cover and out of Notre Dame with the eighth pick in the draft. He went on to play nine seasons in Cincinnati at defensive end that included a MVP-type year in that first Super Bowl season of 1981, and came up with a few game tapes for his oldest son.

"Just keep it in stride. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," says Max Starks of the fatherly advice. "Never take anything for granted. Always give your best effort because you never know when anyone's looking at you."

Old school advice from a guy whose universe shook that day five years ago in February when Elleanor told him about the child she conceived just before they ended their two-year relationship.

"I wasn't mad. I was frustrated," Browner says.

"To not to know. You want to do whatever you can for your son. But we've caught up. When you ask God for something, he certainly can bless you in a tremendous way."

This is Movie-of-the-Week stuff. But not this week. Not tonight. Not on cable. Elleanor lived and worked in Atlanta as an airline stewardess when she dated Browner, but spent a lot of time in Cincinnati before the breakup. When she met and then married a man named Max Starks IV, that was enough. She didn't come calling looking for a Super Bowl check.

"I never really thought about telling him. There was nothing missing," Elleanor says of those years Max IV grew up in Orlando, Fla., while Browner lived with his own family in Atlanta. "He had a loving and supporting family. A good education. He had all the things to become a productive person. We were just two people who couldn't make it. But Max is such a wonderful person and Ross is such a wonderful person. . .they both love people and have a passion. I thought it was time they share each other."

Max was getting letters from everyone in the country. His high school coaches were talking about the striking resemblance to the brothers Browners. There were lifetime decisions to be made and Elleanor made the call, partly so he could share his experiences with him.

A few months after talking on the phone and looking at pictures, they met when Ross picked up Max after a summer session at the University of Georgia football camp.

"It was kind of difficult at first. I talked to him on the phone the day I found out," Starks says. "It took me time to deal with it at first. It kind of caught me off guard. After I talked to him and everything, I felt a little more comfortable and over time we built our relationship. It's a real good relationship. I've visited him, I know his son, who's my brother. His wife, my step mom. They're great people.

"I never wondered who my Dad was," Starks says. "(Max III) raised me from when I was young, and I give him that respect. He's my Dad, and my father is Ross Browner."

Remember, Browner was 240 pounds when he logged the Bengals' only sack of Joe Montana in Super Bowl XVI. He is now the defensive coordinator for his other son's middle school team, but Starks would never fight or wrestle his father. Not after Jackie Slater, the old Rams' offensive tackle, told him his father was the NFL heavyweight boxing champion back in the day he opened up Slater's face in the first round.

But they talk technique. They watch tape. They pull out some Bengals' tapes, and there is the Montana sack. And Browner isn't telling him to watch No. 79.

"Who do you think I tell him to watch? The best tackle I ever played against and my good friend," Browner says. "Anthony Munoz was such a good athlete, and his technique was so good. Max is a good athlete and he's smart. I think Anthony played basketball and so did Max. I'm so excited for him."

Browner has told Max of Munoz's technician-like footwork, and Max has talked to "Mr. Munoz," on occasion. He has the Hall-of-Famer's instructional video, and his father is a constant resource.

"We go over tape and my past performances against defensive lineman," Starks says. "And what to expect from them and their tendencies."

Starks is a good football player. He played both right and left tackle at Florida, and made three starts at right guard this season. One NFC line coach said Starks moved extremely well Saturday and while the coach noticed he struggled a bit on the edge with ends on change-of-direction at the Senior Bowl, he thinks his size and movement make him a solid prospect that might go as high as the third round.

But he looks to be an ever better person. As a freshman, he served in Florida's Senate because he was sick of hearing his roommates complain about campus housing, and helped get more benches and bus stops. As a sophomore, Starks gave up his seat to serve as associate justice on the honor court.

"I like to help people," and he no doubt gets that from both fathers and his mother. Elleanor, the president of the Gators Parents Association at Florida, founded The National 100 Black Women of Funeral Service in 1993. Her foundation has awarded more than 100 scholarships and grants for students looking at careers as morticians.

Max has the work ethic. He had it young and hard. He started working in the family business, Starks Funeral Home in Orlando, when he was four and in high school he served a four-year term as president of the Florida Junior Mortician's Association.

"They've done a great job raising him, there's no question about that," Browner says.

Talk about looking in the mirror. Browner, 49, and his wife, Shayla, have also been raising a football son. Rylan, 12, is coached by his Dad when Browner isn't working the insurance business.

And Cincinnati provides nice nostalgia. He still remembers the day he first met Bengals founder Paul Brown as a Warren, Ohio native at the Ohio High School All-Star Game. His team was the first champion produced by the state playoffs, and Brown told him, "I've been watching you all year."

"Then when they drafted me, he told me, 'I'm still watching you. I didn't want to have to play against you,'" Browner says. "Those were fun days and the Super Bowl was such a great experience. Tell the fans I still love them."

But Browner is too busy living in the present.

"My son (an only child) used to always say to us, 'Where's my brother, where's my sister?'" Browner says. "I'd look at my wife and, we're getting a little older, you know, and then this happened. It must have been meant to be. He loves Max. Whenever Rylan sees him, he just attacks him. You know how it is when you've got a big brother."

Rylan isn't exactly puny, either. Try 5-9 1/2 , 125 pounds. Here's a kid who will now have eight relatives in some form or another that played in the NFL by next Opening Day: his father, uncles Joey, Jimmy, and Keith, and cousins Tom and Steve Wilson, and Johnny Davis. And now his brother.

When Rylan's brother is drafted April 24 or 25, he will be surrounded by his two families in Orlando.

"It's going to be a celebration," Elleanor says. "All the people who have helped Max and had an influence in his life."

Ross Browner is very happy he made the list.

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