Tim Brown likely cringes when he sees it these days – one defender, often the last defender capable of keeping six points off the board, taking down an Irish runner in the open field.
I remember it happened to Brown...once. On his second career punt return, with the Irish trailing rival USC 37-35 on Thanksgiving weekend with just over two minutes remaining. Brown had already performed magic as a receiver, kick returner, and runner that afternoon in sunny southern California, accounting for 196 all-purpose yards on his first seven touches.
South Benders, alumni, and subway alums were already well aware of Brown’s greatness before said punt return. It was direct result of the brilliance – or maybe common sense – of fellow College Football Hall of Famer, Lou Holtz, who kick-started Brown’s career when he made him the focal point of his first Irish offense in the spring of 1986.
More than eleven games, three quarters, and a school-record 1,881 all-purpose yards following his spring renaissance, Brown awaited a boot from Trojans punter Chris Sperle. Holtz figured it was time to put college football’s most dangerous weapon in place to put the finishing touches on a dramatic 18-point comeback victory over the Men of Troy.
Somehow, 56 yards later, Sperle felled a full-speed Brown in his attempt to cut back off the right sideline – one full of Brown’s teammates wildly cheering his greatness and the likelihood their comeback efforts would come to fruition. Five snaps later, John Carney kicked the game-winning 19-yard field goal; Holtz 1986 snake-bitten
Irish ended the 1986 season on an emotional high, and Brown’s 1987 Heisman campaign had officially begun.
- USC 1986: Gained 252 all-purpose yards on 13 touches including the game-changing 56-yard punt return to set up John Carney’s winning field goal as time expired.
- Michigan State 1987: Totaled 275 all-purpose yards on 14 touches, including punt return touchdowns covering 66 and 71 yards in a 31-8 Irish victory.
- Alabama 1987: With the Irish clinging to faint national title hopes, Brown accumulated 225 yards on 14 touches vs. the No. 10 ranked Crimson Tide in a 37-6 Senior Day blowout.
- Boston College 1987: Brown posted a career-best 294 all-purpose yards on 16 touches as the Irish used a brutal ground attack to best the Eagles, 32-25.
- Navy 1986: Amassed 284 all-purpose yards on 15 touches including a career-best 184 receiving yards on seven receptions.
The nationally televised comeback vs. USC at the end of the ’86 season alerted the rest of the college football world to something Irish fans had known for months…Tim Brown was the nation’s best football player.
Brown picked up in September of ’87 where he left off in ’86 – making plays – with a touchdown worthy of the forever highlight reel in Notre Dame’s 26-7 upset win at No. 9 Michigan in Ann Arbor, out-jumping two Wolverines for a nearly impossible grab in the deep corner of the end zone (shown in final link below).
One week later, in front of an evening ESPN audience in Notre Dame’s home opener, Brown electrified the Stadium crowd and television nation with back-to-back punt return touchdowns (linked below) against No. 17 Michigan State.
Two games, two wins vs. two ranked rivals, and three sublime touchdowns. Hello Heisman.
The Irish were a better football team in 1987, though Brown was just as good if not a more dynamic football player in 1986. Of course, the Heisman is as much hype and team success as it is individual excellence. Brown had the latter covered, doing so with a humble grace that has endeared him to fans and teammates for the last 25 years.
He bridged the gap to the most successful era of Notre Dame Football over the last four decades, graduating before the 1988 National Championship run and a six season span of excellence (64 wins, 9 losses, 1 tie, five major bowl victories) that hasn’t been approached in South Bend since.
Brown was a once-in-a-generation talent, though he was followed one season later by the program’s other such talent of the latter quarter of the 20th century, Rocket Ismail.
Ismail’s team success and sheer speed are the two main reasons I list him as my favorite college football player of all-time (watching him play live each week from age 15-17 is likely another). Golden Tate’s excellence in the face of defeat is likely the reason today’s generation of younger Irish fans idolize the program’s most dynamic player in the decades since Brown and Ismail left campus.
Brown paved the way for both. After more than 15 seasons in which college football was dominated by deep-set tailbacks and the occasional quarterback hero, Tim Brown brought versatility back to the amateur game – the first “All-Purpose” player to capture the Heisman since Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers in 1972.
Brown scored 22 touchdowns in his Irish career with an additional five called back due to penalty. He averaged an obscene 42.3 yards per score and still holds the program record for the highest single-season yardage total with 1,937 in 1986. (The number was threatened by Tate last season with an aggregate 1,915 albeit with an extra game played).
His all around excellence paved the way for Rocket Ismail’s role at the school and for a decade of dominant special teams play at Notre Dame, one that saw the Irish return a combined 28 punts and kickoffs for touchdowns during the Holtz era, with Brown accounting for six of them, the longest a 96-yard kick return through No. 8 LSU in Death Valley.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and college football has had its share of versatile, multi-purpose weapons since Brown; from Rocket, to Desmond Howard, to Allen Rossum, to Charles Woodson, to Peter Warrick, to Wes Welker, to Reggie Bush, etc.
Few, if any, will one day join Brown in the “other” Hall of Fame, one reserved for the game’s professional legends.
This weekend’s celebration for Brown is in South Bend; Canton should be soon to follow.
1987 Heisman Season Highlights
Brown vs. USC, 1986
Brown’s two punt return TDs vs. MSU
Brown talks about his first college football game
Lou Holtz on Tim Brown (contains highlights)