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Orlando Brown Jr.'s Bengals Debut As Big As Zeus

OT Orlando Brown Jr. smiles during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, August 31, 2023.
OT Orlando Brown Jr. smiles during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, August 31, 2023.

Zeus, and we're talking about the NFL version here. Orlando Brown Sr.

The 6-7, 360-pound force of nature who bludgeoned a long-shot legend into the brute reality of an estimable decade career as a turn-of-the-century right tackle and who always wanted his son to play with that D.C. edge.

The edge never left the father after his hardscrabble upbringing in the District. But in the rest of his son's life, Orlando "Zeus," Brown Sr. wanted the son to conduct himself with all the people skills and finesse of a Washington ambassador he never was.

"Be better than me," Zeus kept telling him. Play left tackle, not right. Fight to the end, not as an end. Be approachable, not intimidating. "Be better than me," and that's the man who takes his first snap as a Bengal in Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Browns.

A four-time Pro Bowl left tackle who brings tenacity and talent to a Super Bowl contender while seamlessly becoming a part of the community as a polished spokesman in the fight against the disease that took Zeus so young at 40.

Of course, Orlando Claude Brown Jr.'s first game as the final piece for the most anticipated Bengals team ever would be in Cleveland.

Back where it all began.

There is the history of the Browns and Bengals with both teams founded by Paul Brown. But Cleveland is also where Orlando Jr.'s mother grew up going to Browns games with her football-mad father, wrapping his children's feet in plastic to cover their boots so their feet wouldn't freeze.

It's where Mira Brown met the huge man who introduced himself simply as "Zeus," on a Fourth of July night out in '94. That was just as Zeus began the legend, rising from an unknown practice squad player to starter for head coach Bill Belichick's playoff Browns. When the Browns abruptly left Cleveland for Baltimore and the 1996 season, Zeus' massive and raw physicality helped define the smashmouth DNA of the new Ravens franchise that still runs through the current AFC North.

As the Bengals try to become the first AFC North team to win what is routinely regarded as the best division in football three straight times, Mira Brown agrees with her son's new boss. Bengals president Mike Brown always insists the Ravens are still the Browns.

And everyone knows Zeus came back to Cleveland to start for the 1999 expansion Browns.

"I'm just stoked right now. I can't wait to see him out there wearing 75 for the Bengals who I feel are Super Bowl contenders this year," Mira Brown says. "He loves it so much and he says, 'Mom, the fans are the greatest.' And I said, 'Son, I believe that because that's the way it is in the O-H-Ten.' That's what we called Ohio when I was growing up. The O-H-10. He said, 'What is the O-H-Ten?' I'm like, 'C'mon, man.'"

So, of course. Orlando Brown Jr.'s first Bengals game is in Cleveland. Back where it all began.

And after blocking for an NFL MVP in Baltimore and blocking for another in Kansas City while winning the ring, he's finding the fit of his life in Cincinnati. He's done everything he wanted in the game, except two of the bigger items.

Be named first-team All-Pro. And, do it as a franchise player. Not a franchise free agent. But a franchise player.

"I'm glad I haven't been named an All-Pro. It means so much more to be able to do it for an organization like this. For this city," Brown says. "The previous places I was at, I played left tackle and I wasn't a mainstay of their core or a mainstay of a building block of what they wanted to be and all those things. I don't feel that way (about Kansas City).

"I was playing on the last year of my rookie deal, and I played on a franchise tag. Although those things were offered, it was never set in stone like it was here. This organization said, 'We're going to make you a big part of what we want to be,' based off what they gave me (four years, $64 million). Being able to make All-Pro here? That genuinely means the world to me."

He has been watching this world. He has played the Bengals twice a year ever since he came into the league, straddling Marvin Lewis' last season in 2018 and Zac Taylor's first in 2019. From the outside, the Bengals always attracted him.

(Which is funny because Zeus would tell friends he hated Cincinnati and the Bengals. Only because it was a heated rivalry in both Cleveland and Baltimore.)

"You can see the energy, you can feel the heart and will against guys like Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Carlos Dunlap when he was here. You could always feel there was a will and a want … I always felt this is a gritty team that really wants to win. You can feel that from the players."

He also feels it from Taylor and his staff, as well as ownership. Brown has been struck at the music that is allowed in the Bengals locker room because he noticed in his previous stops the organizations had "ten toes in the locker room." He would especially notice when the business partners were in there (and they always seemed to be in there) how the music would change.

"Here, you can put whatever you want on the speaker system," Brown says. "It may not sound like a lot, but the influence that type of stuff has is huge."

Today, Brown is driving his '69 Chevelle LSS 396 from one of his favorite places already in Cincy, Lola's Coffee Bar, a Burrow Go Ball from Paycor Stadium on Third Street. The "IDIDIT," license plates are inspired by Derrick Thomas' Mercedes-Benz from MTV's "Cribs," back in the '90s and it is roaring and rattling down Central Avenue just the way he likes it after they put in the LSX 454 engine.

"I like that old muscle car feeling," Brown says. "Nowadays so many guys are buying these hell cats and all those other 2023 versions. I'll take my 50 grand and build me something old school. I've got an old soul, you could say."

To know why, you have to know Zeus, and no one knows him better than his oldest child.

Growing up in 1980s Washington D.C. during the AIDs and crack epidemics. Junior's grandmother was a janitor. His grandfather drove taxis. Making a living and staying alive were the same things.

"(Zeus) somewhat had to wear a mask to fit in. I feel like for a long time he really struggled just being himself," Junior says. "You could say we have different personalities. My dad that I knew to the core was a very chill individual. What was perceived as far as the Zeus personality, the aggression, that wasn't always who he was."

He knows how Zeus went to South Carolina State and wasn't even on the list of prospects the Browns came to watch that day in Orangeburg. He introduced himself to the scouts like he introduced himself to Mira.


They gave him a workout and he got on the rookie minicamp list.

"His father was kind of self-made," says Marvin Lewis, the Bengals all-time winningest head coach, who, by the way, won his first of 131 games in Cleveland.

Lewis became the Ravens defensive coordinator when they moved to Baltimore and saw how guys like Zeus and Ray Lewis gave the Ravens their signature old-school toughness. No one was immune. One of Zeus' close buddies who played with him in Cleveland, defensive back Donny Brady, got him mad in practice and there was Marvin Lewis, "Like I was on a sea saw," ending up on one of Brown's massive arms trying to break it up.

"He grew up and was nurtured into the NFL with coaches like Pat Hill and Kirk Ferentz," Lewis says of those early offensive line teachers. "A great success story. So big and so physical. That's the way he played the game. One of those guys you wanted to get off the bus first and follow into battle because he wasn't going to shy away from nothing."

That's how Zeus wanted his son to play. When he even let him play. Mira snuck him onto the team in second grade and when his dad found out and that they had given Orlando the number 0 because it was the only jersey that fit, he fumed, "Who the bleep wears zero?" Zeus didn't want him playing anyway and pulled him off the team, the son recalls.

He finally let Orlando play in eighth grade after he basically broke down crying while telling his father how much he studied and loved football. OK, Zeus told him, if you're going to do it, you have to do it 100 percent. You have to play ten years in the NFL and go to the Hall of Fame. Then when he went out to show him how to block, Zeus broke the five-man sled.

But after each of the first three games, there was a curious trend. Zeus would drive Orlando to the games, but one of the moms had to drive him home because there was no sign of Zeus. Orlando asked him what was going on and he can still hear Zeus' always steel-dipped honesty.

"I can't watch that soft-ass stuff, Dog. You're playing football so soft, I can't handle it."

When Orlando asked what it all meant, Zeus showed him the "Water Sucks," scene from "The Waterboy," that enrages Adam Sandler into a blocked field goal touchdown. Zeus had pile-drived his point home. A few weeks later he ran on the field to chest bump Orlando after Junior pancaked the second-biggest kid in the division, got up, and then jumped on him again for a penalty.

"That's one of my memorable father-son moments," Orlando Brown says.

Nothing like that last conversation, though. Orlando was 15 on Sept. 23, 2011. It was on the phone and no one knew the indestructible Zeus was hours away from dying of diabetic ketoacidosis. Orlando told him about his fight in practice that day against the kid whose goggles fogged up.

"I remember him telling me never to lose that mentality and continue to keep that approach with everything you do in life," Junior says a dozen Septembers later.

Devastating. "I thought my dad was Superman." Orlando had chosen that year to live with his father in his Inner Harbor condo in Baltimore. "He lived the life I wanted to live," says Orlando, and he figured the best way to learn was to live with it."

Now, as the oldest (born in Baltimore before the Ravens ever played a game), he sensed he was the provider for the household of his mother and four siblings.

But he had help from guys like Jammal Brown, a young first-round tackle who played for the Saints and was befriended by Zeus when they were repped by the same agent, Tom Condon. Brown knew the son. He saw him as a little guy at the D.C. football camps Zeus put on and quickly became a father figure. When Orlando followed Jammal to the University of Oklahoma, the bond was sealed.

"I know a kid needs that," Jammal Brown says. "I lost my mom when I was in high school. I know the feeling."

Zeus took Jammal Brown under his wing like Jammal took the son. "Every good offensive line needs a Brown" he would tell him Jammal. Jammal would also hear him tell Junior, "Hey Kid, don't watch me, watch Jonathan Ogden," of the future Hall-of-Famer who played opposite him on the left side for the Ravens. "He's the guy and that's the position. Left tackle."

Jammal Brown can see the father's passion in his son. The grit. The drive. But there are also the differences. Hey, the son will say, I'm not a city kid. I grew up an NFL kid.

"He's got a little bit of Zeus in him," says Jammal Brown, who advised him to pursue the Bengals because of how Joe Burrow steps up in the pocket with both hands on the ball so suits his game.

"That aggression comes out. Orlando is a little bit more controlled. But when it comes out, it comes out. Big Zeus? He couldn't control him as much … He'd say what was on his mind right then and there to the point it could get uncomfortable. But once that button gets pushed, you can see Senior in him."

You can also see Mrs. Zeus every time he appears in front of a camera. Mira Brown, a product of the Ohio School of Broadcasting, made certain her children would be equipped with every communication skill available.

If Zeus was a foreboding presence, his son was raised to be accessible and accommodating. When Junior was just starting school, Mira would stand him up in front of her and Zeus, and if the in-laws were over the house, or if her folks were there, have him get up in front of them and say his ABCs. She'd also ask him questions. She'd point to a picture of a cow and say, 'What's that?' If it looks like Orlando Brown has been doing interviews forever, it's because he has.

"I understand what it feels like to stand up and speak in front of people. I understood teaching my sons to have to be articulate in front of people was so important," Mira Brown says. "And that's important because everybody has a story."

Her son's next chapter is still in the galleys. One of the main characters, Bengals running back Joe Mixon, Brown's Oklahoma teammate, says it is the Zeus side that makes him what the Bengals have been missing up front. That gigantic attitude.

The son admits it has been a battle melding the Zeus side with his own personality. At his Paycor Stadium introductory news conference earlier this year, Brown invoked Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson's pregame hijinks when he jumped on his dad's back.

"That's the difference," Jammal Brown says. "Orlando would have laughed that off. Zeus snapped."

His father taught him the edge and the son has been sanding it down.

"I struggle with it, honestly man. "For a long time, especially early in college, I probably had an unnecessary roughness penalty once a game," Brown says. "I struggled being able to really control that because, to be honest with you, I was not really good at football for a while. I mean, I didn't really get down to being able to compete against the best until the end of my freshman year going into my redshirt sophomore year where I was able to compete with some of your top rushers across the college football scene.

"For a long time I had to rely on the nastiness, the attitude to be able to get by and compete. For me, that was my edge. I didn't really have the athleticism-based fundamentals to be able to go out there and really play with some of the best of them."

The Pro Bowls and MVP quarterbacks and ESPN spots tell you how far he's come. "The only regret," he says of Sunday's opener against his dad's Browns, "is he's not here to see it. I know he opened so many doors for me."

But using the long-shot-never-give-up grit Zeus bequeathed him, Junior walked through those doors. The dad would have loved that moment back in February when the Chiefs were getting ready for the Super Bowl at Arizona State, where Lewis is a senior adviser.

When Brown realized who he was, he bear-hugged Lewis and lifted him off the ground. Much more gently than when Lewis tried to get in the way of Donny Brady. Then just last week, Lewis, one of the greatest community leaders Cincinnati ever had, saw an email about Brown's involvement in a Paycor Stadium gala later this month for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Diabetes not only felled Zeus, but Orlando's brother has Type 1 and he's pulling out all the stops.

"To see him when he's a young kid and what he's gone through and then to see (the email)," Lewis says, "that's cool. Really cool."

As cool as Sunday's opener back where it all began.