Bengals right end Ross Browner, who played like a Super Bowl MVP that day in Detroit, ran up to the man that got the trophy after 49ers quarterback Joe Montana broke Bengaldom's heart the first time.
"I said, 'Joe, you've come a long way and now you're a world champion,'" Browner recalls as Old School Scribe Podcast continues to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bengals' 1981 AFC title.
Browner and Montana, teammates at Notre Dame, were already used to big stages to decide it all. Browner recalls his senior year in South Bend when Rusty Lisch went down during the third game of the 1977 season and head coach Dan Devine mused out loud to his captains on the sidelines about who he should put in at quarterback. Browner, the Fighting Irish's defensive leader who started that season on a Sports Illustrated cover, says he didn't hesitate.
"We put in Joe Montana, Coach," Browner recalls telling Devine. "After that decision, he brought us back to win that game (passing for 154 yards against Purdue in the fourth quarter), I knew we had a chance to make a run at the national championship that year because of his leadership and his ability and his knowledge.'"
But Browner just may have had a better Super Bowl even though the Niners held on, 26-21, after jumping to a 20-0 lead. Montana threw for 157 yards and one touchdown and ran for another. Browner led all tacklers with ten and had the only sack of Montana as the Bengals held him to two field goals in the second half.
"The clock beat us," says Browner as he runs through the end of that magical '81 season early in the podcast, recalling the birth of The Jungle and the new flashy and risky uniforms. "We were either going to be the clowns of the NFL or we were going to be disrespected by the NFL. We were after respect."
Browner played nine seasons in Cincinnati and still has the fifth most sacks (59) in franchise history even after the assaults of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. A Northeast Ohio native from Warren and a captain of Western Reserve's state champs, it was as if Browner were born to play for Paul Brown's Bengals.
He remembers how Brown came into the North locker room when Browner played in the Ohio all-star game. How Brown, still the Bengals head coach, asked Browner where he was headed to college and when Brown assured he'd keep an eye on him, how Browner wasn't so sure. But on Draft Day 1978 he found out he did.
"If you were around in that draft, I knew I was going to pick you," Browner recalls Brown telling him. "Because he had seen me through high school, college and when I went to the pros he said, 'Hey, I didn't want to play against you, so I had to pick you.' That was a real honor coming from him."
(It wasn't Brown who told Browner they had drafted him. Browner says he was taking an economics exam on his way to getting his degree in economics when they made that eighth pick in the 1978 draft.)
Browner, 66, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., where he's president of the city's NFL Players Association Alumni chapter, also reminisces about:
- Always being a leader growing up the oldest in a house with six brothers all high school football All-Americans and three of them following him to the NFL. The next youngest, Jimmy, played with him for a year in Cincinnati. Family is why Ross decided to go to South Bend and because of legendary announcer Lindsey Nelson's tape-delayed Sunday Note Dame highlights: "I knew they could see me play every week." (About 18 minutes into the podcast.)
- Meeting a son he never knew he had until Max Starks was 17 years old and being recruited by college scouts struck by his resemblance to the Browner brothers: "It was like looking into a mirror. At 6-8, 340 pounds."
- They became close and Ross watched Starks follow Ben Roethlisberger to the Steelers in the 2004 draft and emerge from a 10-year career with two Super Bowl rings as Big Ben's left tackle. Talk about irony: "They had lockers side by side and are best friends to this day." (About the 27-minute mark.)
- How boxing as a youth helped his football career and why Paul Brown didn't want him defending his 1979 NFL heavyweight title or heading to New Orleans to face Cowboys defensive end Ed "Too Tall," Jones in a battle royale. (About 23 minutes in.)