Archdeacon: The legacy of one of Ohio’s greatest sports families

VANDALIA — He led the way into the beautifully finished basement of his new home off Little York Road and soon you found yourself immersed in the world of one of Ohio’s greatest sports families.

As Willard Browner sat there showing you photos and telling you the stories that came with them, you got a highlight reel remembrance of one of the most accomplished sets of brothers — and their sons, too — who ever played the game of football at every level: high school, college, and pro.

“This is my brother Ross getting the Lombardi Trophy from Jack Kemp,” he said holding up a 1977 photo of his older brother, the oft-saluted Notre Dame defensive end and team captain, who was being honored as the college game’s top lineman by the former pro quarterback turned U.S. Representative and later Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Willard pulled out a copy of a September 5, 1977, Sports Illustrated that had Ross on the cover with the headline: “Notre Dame’s Peerless Ross Browner.”

“Over the years he made the cover of SI five or six times,” he said.

Willard had another photo of himself, as a 220-pound Notre Dame running back, lowering his shoulder as he was about to barrel into an overmatched Purdue defensive back.

There was a portrait of his brother Joey, one of the greatest Minnesota Vikings players ever and a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1980s, who’s been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame nine times — a place where he definitely belongs.

And then there was a photo of Max Starks, the massive 6-foot-8, 350-pound offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He’s Ross’ son.

Although he retired from the NFL in 2015 — after winning two Super Bowls with the Steelers — Starks still carries the family’s banner in the game. He’s a sideline reporter for the Pittsburgh Steelers radio broadcasts, as well as a college and pro analyst for ESPN Radio, Westwood One, the NFL Network, SiriusXM and he hosts a radio show in Pittsburgh.

All told, nine Browner family members played major college football and six played in the NFL.

“There’s not another family quite like us, not with all six brothers being high school All Americans, two of them being first round draft picks in the NFL and the success spanning to the second generation, too,” Willard said.

While there are other football bloodlines of real note — the Matthews family includes three generations, and there are the Selmon Brothers, and the Watt brothers and the Mannings and McCaffreys and a few others — it’s hard to argue with Willard.

And the Browners certainly are deeply rooted in Ohio football greatness.

It started when they won high school championships at Warren Western Reserve and, years later, when Ross and Jimmie both played for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Ross was a first-round pick of the team in 1978 and was named the Bengals’ MVP as a rookie. Three years later he’d set a championship game record for a defensive lineman when he made 10 tackles in the Bengals’ 26-21 loss to San Francisco at Super Bowl XVI in Detroit.

An embrace of the family’s Ohio connection has come in even the most unexpected setting, Starks admitted:

“When I played for the Steelers, we were in the AFC North like Cincinnati, so we played them twice a year. I’d wear my dad’s Bengals’ jersey when I’d come to Cincinnati games.

“For me, it was really cool having that connection and knowing the weight of that legacy I was helping carry on.”

The Browner football tree is laden with impressive branches:

  • Ross – the oldest of the six football playing brothers – was part of two national championship teams at Notre Dame, where he became one of the most decorated defensive players in college history. Along with the Lombardi Trophy, he won the Maxwell Award as college football’s most outstanding player and the Outland Trophy. He was twice named the UPI Lineman of the Year and finished in the top five in Heisman voting two years in a row. A Cincinnati Bengal from 1978-86 (then a Green Bay Packer for a year,) he’s fifth all-time in Bengals sacks (59) and is part of the team’s Ring of Honor. He died in January of 2022 from COVID complications. He was 67.
  • Jimmie was a Notre Dame safety and played with the Bengals from 1979-80. He’s now retired and lives in Atlanta.
  • Willard was a running back at Notre Dame and then Tulane and Utah State. He ran his grandfather’s tavern, the Three Deuces, in Warren for a decade and for the past 31 years has been an official with the Ohio Lottery. His wife Kim, a Roth High grad, is the niece of former Detroit Lion Larry Lee, also a Roth product. They have a daughter, Courtney, who’s getting her master’s degree at Kentucky State.
  • Joey played at Southern Cal and was a first-round pick of the Vikings in 1983. He finished his 10-year pro career with a season at Tampa Bay. He lives in Minnesota now and, Willard said, he was honored on the field as a Vikings’ Ring of Honor player when Minnesota hosted New Orleans last Sunday.
  • Keith, a three-sport standout at Warren Harding High, was a Southern Cal linebacker and was drafted in Round 2 of the 1984 draft by Tampa Bay. He made the NFL All-Rookie team and would go on to play for three other NFL teams and in the Arena League.
  • Gerald, the youngest brother, was one of the top high school recruits in the nation. A standout 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive lineman at Georgia and then Morgan State, he died young of a heart attack.
  • Rylan is Ross’s son. He played at Arizona, first as a 6-foot-3, 280-pound offensive and defensive lineman.
  • Max Starks, grew up in Orlando and starred at the University of Florida before becoming a pro. As an eight grader, his feet were so big – he wore size 16 shoes – that he couldn’t find footwear that fit, so he borrowed shoes from Shaquille O’Neal, the big man of the Orlando Magic, where young Max was a ball boy. Today, he wears size 19.
  • Keith Jr. —known as Tellis — was a University of California linebacker who played with the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears before going into construction in California.

While some of the family members are memorialized on a Browner Wall of Fame at Warren G. Harding High School, which is a 1990 consolidation of the two Warren schools the brothers attended, Jimmie would like to see them all mentioned in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in nearby Canton:

“I’m not sure they want to do that, but we have made a real contribution to the game. I think it’s pretty unique.”

Embrace life, work hard

Woody Hayes made one mistake when he came to recruit Ross in the early 1970s, said Willard:

“He came to our house, but my dad didn’t particularly care for him. Woody told my dad, ‘You won’t need to work another day in your life!’”

For Jimmie Browner Sr. — a man who had worked hard in a steel mill his whole life — that claim was akin to slowly scraping your fingernails down a chalkboard.

“Woody saying that to Dad was the worst thing he could have told him,” Willard chuckled. “My dad said, ‘What do you mean I won’t have to work?’

“And Woody said, ‘Thanks to your son’s football, he’ll be able to take care of you.’

“But Dad said, ‘No…No..No!’ And he told Ross, ‘Son, you need to know one thing. We all earn our own keep!’”

Jimmie, who’d come out of Mason, Georgia, to find a better paying job, worked the third shift at Republic Steel for decades.

Working the third shift paid more money and he needed it for the family, which, along with six hefty sons, included two daughters, Olivia and Birdette.

“With him working the graveyard shift, he never got to see any of us play sports,” said Keith Sr., who now drives a forklift for Peet’s Coffee in California. “He’d just hear about the three older boys — Ross, Jimmie, and Willard — on the radio. He passed (at age 49 from cancer) when I was 14.”

Julia, the boys’ mom ― who also cleaned other people’s homes said Jimmie — was at their games and was active in the booster club.

“She’s the one who always urged us to play and sometimes she’d be right out there with us in the yard when we were having pick-up games,” Keith said.

When the family relocated to Atlanta a few years after Jimmie Sr. passed away, a local TV station did a story on the boys and had a video of Julia in her housedress shooting hoops.

“Anything the boys do, I try to do better,” she said with a laugh.

Those parental lessons — embrace life whole-heartedly and work hard — served the boys well.

There was no headier time than that 1977 national championship season at Notre Dane when Ross, Jimmie and Willard all started for the Irish, whose games were all on national TV.

And no one was more stirred by that than young Gerald, who told the Atlanta TV crew:

“Having brothers like I have, the success and the winning will always be in my blood.”

Family a source of pride

Max Starks didn’t find out that Ross Browner was his dad until he was 17.

Raised by his mom and, as it turned out, his stepdad, Max Starks III, in Florida, he didn’t play football until high school.

His size and natural talent quickly made him a formidable presence on the football field, and soon he had colleges clamoring after him.

“My mother finally talked to Ross (who didn’t know about Max) and they had a conversation how he could help guide me since he’d been through all that,” Max said from Arizona, where he lives. “That’s the reason I first met him and it was cool to know I had someone who could understand what I was facing.

“He didn’t come off as pushy. There was no, ‘I need to be your dad.’

“He came with the right mindset and just said, ‘I’m here if you need me…And over time we can work on growing our relationship to whatever we define it to.

“That approach was comforting because I suddenly had a lot of stuff to reconcile in my mind. I’ll admit it was a little awkward, too.

“That summer I went to a football camp in Georgia and afterward he brought me back to Atlanta before my flight left for Orlando.

“That’s the first time I really met him in person. I got to meet my stepmother then, too, and my half-brother, Rylan. We went to the family home in Atlanta and that’s when he kind of laid the family history on me. That’s when it got real! That summer I went to his house and there were all these awards in a trophy room; it was like going to a museum. That’s when I saw what my father and my uncles had accomplished. And I started to realize the extent of the legacy.

“As I got older and progressed to play in college and the NFL, that legacy became a source of pride and of energy to do my best because I knew what those before me had done.”

And what his generation was doing now.

He played against his cousin Tellis who was with the Texans.

One of the most poignant memories was stirred when he and the Steelers faced Seattle in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit in 2006.

“The only Super Bowl my father played in was in Detroit, too,” he said. “That was the last time the game had been played there. We practiced in the Silverdome, which was where my dad’s game (Super Bowl XVI) was played.”

Although San Francisco topped the Bengals in that 1981 title game, Ross had that indelible performance that included a sack of Joe Montana, his old Notre Dame teammate from that 1977 championship season.

“While we were in the Silverdome I went over to the spot where my father sacked Joe,” Max said. “All those parallels coming together, I really felt part of the legacy then.”

Keith said, back in about 1987, someone had planned to make a movie about the Browner family, but the project “fell through.”

There’s still hope that Joey will be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and that, at least, would get some of the family’s story trumpeted with it.

But regardless of that, Keith — who’s now 61 and lives in San Leandro, California — said he plans to pen some new chapters of the Browner story not far from Hall of Fame.

His hometown of Warren is about 50 miles northeast of Canton.

“I’ve still got to pay the bills out here, but once I retire, I plan to go back ‚” he said. “I love my Ohio. That’s where the whole story — the legacy, the tradition, all of it — that’s where it began. Thats where some of the best memories are.”

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