Skip to main content

Thirty-thirty club

Linebacker Bo Harris (53), defensive tackle Wilson Whitley (75), and defensive ends Ross Browner (79) and Eddie Edwards (73) in 1981. (AP photo)

This Sunday's Bengals-Steelers game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Pittsburgh is turning out to be a 30-year festival of life and love for the 1981 AFC champion Bengals.

For Cincinnati there is kicker Mike Nugent, whose mother was pregnant with him when she went to the Freezer Bowl to cheer on the Bengals to their first Super Bowl in the 59-below wind chill the doctor said would be fine for the baby as long as she dressed snugly.

For Pittsburgh there is left tackle Max Starks, born on the very day his father punched that Super Bowl ticket harassing Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts at Riverfront Stadium: Jan. 10, 1982.

But Bengals right end Ross Browner wouldn't know he had that son until 17 years later. Browner, who laughs just like his son, pondered the question this week.

What's more amazing? His nine sacks that helped the Bengals to the 1981 AFC title game are now 30 years old? Or to have a son nearly 30 years old.

"The Super Bowl being 30 years ago; that's hard to believe," Browner is saying from Nashville, Tenn. "It seems like it just happened. The new uniforms and Forrest Gregg. That's what did it."

After what he's been through with his son, there's nothing left of amazing. Max Starks turned out to be even bigger than Browner and one of those dreaded left tackles, no less. Not only that, Starks plays for the Steelers, the team Ross loved to hate during his nine seasons with the Bengals.

"Of course you root for your son; you always root for your son," Browner says of Sunday's game. "Sometimes it can be hard. But if the Bengals aren't playing the Steelers, I'm always with them."

Starks is laughing in Pittsburgh. When he visits his father's house, he always stops to look at the framed picturing honoring a defensive MVP season with the Bengals. Browner had requested the picture of him sacking Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw long before he knew he had a son, never mind one that would help the Steelers to two Super Bowl rings.

Ross likes to point to a Steelers left tackle headed to the ground next to Bradshaw in the frame.

"I remind him I've got the rings. I tell him, 'Pops, you set the stage for me,' " Starks says with his father's laugh.

Browner was at Paul Brown Stadium three weeks ago for Pittsburgh's 24-17 victory, but he'll watch this one from home in Nashville, where he's a vice president for U.S. Community Credit Union. Corporate life is busy. It is a working weekend during the Christmas season with parades and clients, but he'll see enough so he can text his weekly critique to Starks and at some point they'll get on the horn.

"He's got a great perspective on it," Starks says. "He knows what a pass rusher is trying to do, so what a great resource. He's got (60) career sacks. That's a lot of sacks."

Browner can help out Starks with a scouting report on his striped descendants at right end, Michael Johnson and Frostee Rucker. Johnson is nearly as tall as the massive 6-8, 350-pound Starks.

"Johnson is a very good athlete; he moves well," Browner says. "The big thing is that Max has to keep his feet moving, stay parallel, and not turn his body."

Which is funny because a month ago Browner was at LP Field in Nashville rooting for Johnson to sack Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck while sitting in the stands with '81 teammates Isaac Curtis and Louis Breeden watching the Bengals win.

"We had a great time; great guys," Browner says. "We were sitting in the stands talking about games in the past. We stayed right to the end. I like this Bengals team. They remind me of us with the good defense, good line, the defensive backs are playing well and they've got a lot of good receivers like we did when we had Isaac Curtis and Cris Collinsworth and Pat McInally. (Andy) Dalton reminds me a little bit of Kenny Anderson."

Browner says Gregg, the head coach of that '81 team, was the big factor.

"He was a 6-5 Vince Lombardi," Browner says. "Real disciplinarian. You knew were you stood with that guy."

The Bengals were in the second year of Hank Bullough's 3-4 defense and Browner always thought he was better suited for a 4-3, where at 270 pounds the end wasn't always going to get buffeted inside.

"They play so wide nowadays," Browner says. "We had a good defense. We were the first guys doing zone blitzes. I even think I had (one) interception dropping in a zone."

Starks doesn't know much about that '81 season. He's seen a little bit of tape and once in a while he and his father talk about it. The classic, of course, is that when Starks played in his first Super Bowl after the 2005 season, it was also in Detroit. When the Steelers practiced in the Silverdome, Starks pulled out his cell phone to call his father from the turf where he sacked 49ers quarterback Joe Montana 25 years before.

"He was always telling me about sacking Joe Montana," Starks says. "I know a little about the game. How they came out and had a bad start and almost caught up. I hear some stories. He was tough, athletic. Actually, Coach LeBeau tells me some good stories."

Coach LeBeau is Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and back then he was the Bengals secondary coach. Apparently in one halftime Browner was so frustrated that he was dropping so much in the zone blitz that he yelled, "Blitz me and I'll knock him out."

"He didn't knock him out, but I guess he hit him pretty hard," Starks says.

If it sounds like Starks is proud, he is. He likes his father because he's a good guy and Browner likes his son because of the same reason.

Max's mother, Elleanor, lived and worked in Atlanta as an airline stewardess when she dated Browner and spent a lot of time in Cincinnati before the breakup. With their lives going separate ways, she didn't want to burden Browner with a baby. When she married Max Starks, a Florida man, she felt the child would have a solid upbringing.

And he did. She knew there would be a time and it just so happened the son was headed into the family business. The call was made as Max began sifting through the college offers.

And it has worked. As Starks said at the 2004 NFL scouting combine, "(Max) raised me from when I was young, and I give him that respect. He's my dad, and my father is Ross Browner."  

"We're the best of friends," Browner says now. "I'd say we're closer than we ever have been. Obviously we're still building on the relationship. It's been a blessing. He just got married to a wonderful girl. Beautiful couple. He's helping with my 20-year-old son Rylan who's playing out at Arizona."

It's hard not to be close when you see your son barge out of the Steelers locker room wearing your old Bengals 79 jersey. Which is what Starks did after the first game he started at PBS in 2005. Browner and his wife were dressed in Steelers garb like everyone around them.

"Some of them weren't very happy," Browner says. "Everybody kind of had their mouths wide open and somebody said, 'They made the trade that quick?' And I said, 'C'mon now. That's my son.' "

Starks says his father was a big help when he was released just as training camp was getting started back in July.

"He told me that at the end of the day, it's a business and that's how you have to handle it," Starks says. "He told me to be ready because you never know. I was ready, but I didn't know it would be the Steelers again."

His call came the first week of October. There are no 79 jerseys now. It is like that Wild Card game at PBS in the '05 playoffs.

"That was a business trip. I wore a suit," Starks says.

Starks does find it amazing. A kid born on the day his father won the right to go to the Super Bowl playing his first postseason game in his father's town. And now playing a game for first place against his team.

"It's a great division. I think it's the best the best division in the NFL," Starks says. "You can never predict how the games are going to turn out. The Bengals play good defense. They've got a lot of good young players up front that are quick. It seems like no matter what year it is, it's going to be close."

Browner did everything in college at Notre Dame. The cover of Sports Illustrated's preseason college issue. The Outland Trophy. The Lombardi Trophy. But that doesn't stop father and son from needling each other.

"I tell him, 'Son I played back with the boys,' " Browner says with his son's laugh. "Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood ... I tell him I get a good bull rush on him."

"I joke with him that he may have all these trophies, but I tell him I've got a couple of Super Bowls," Starks says with his father's laugh. "There's no way he could bull rush me. Not at 270 pounds. He'd have to go around me."

But they'll put the needle down for three hours Sunday.

It's like Browner said back in 2006 after the Steelers had won the Wild Card game at PBS and he got a call from Curtis.

"Isaac said, 'Ah, those Steelers,' " Browner said back then. "I told him, 'I know, I know.' But you know, when it comes down to blood, there is never any question who you're going with."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.