Accomplishing the dream: From Warren to the NFL
WARREN — When you walk into the varsity football building at Warren G. Harding High School the walls are littered with memories of the past.
Photos and jerseys of former players fill the hallway as you walk through the lobby of the building. Paul Warfield, Ross Browner, Korey Stringer, LeShun Daniels Sr. — along with his sons LeShun Daniels Jr. and James Daniels — Mario Manningham, Maurice Clarett, Boom Herron, the Browner brothers,, Prescott Burgess, Lynn Bowden, Hjalte Froholdt. The list could go on and on.
The way current Warren G. Harding football coach Steve Arnold looks at it, placing the photos of former players there reminds his current ones what they can accomplish if they work hard enough towards it.
“When you first walk into this facility you see the jerseys, all the retired numbers,” Arnold said. “So I wanted to strategically place those so that when our players first walk in here, they see that. Then, you go down the hallway and see all the former players that have played here and made a huge impact.”
The list of talent that has come out of Warren since the late 50s is undeniable and it’s something that former Raiders and Panthers of all ages take pride in.
But that list starts with NFL Hall of Famer Paul Warfield and Western Reserve great, Ross Browner.
SETTING THE STANDARD
After Warfield helped the Panthers come close to Associated Press titles in 1957 and 1959, he went on to Ohio State and then into the National Football League. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after being named a two-time All-Pro, winning two Super Bowls — including the historic 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins team — and earning eight nods as a Pro Bowler.
As he alluded to in the first story of this Built at Mollenkopf series, Warfield wasn’t always intrigued by football but he did mention how his football career started.
After being convinced to play touch football in grade school, his team from First Street Elementary went on to win the Warren city championship with an undefeated record.
“Now little did I know that years later, I would play in the National Football League, which is the epitome of professional sports to a degree, on an undefeated historical championship in the Miami Dolphins of the 1972 season,” Warfield said with a laugh from his Palm Springs, California home.
Ross Browner, who passed away in January at the age of 67, was another player that set the example for kids from Warren. After helping the Western Reserve Raiders capture the 1972 state title with an undefeated record Browner went on to have an outstanding career at Notre Dame.
He helped the Irish win national titles in 1973 and 1977 under Ara Parseghian and won the Outland Trophy for the nation’s best linemen in 1976. He was also awarded the Maxwell Award for the nation’s best player a year later.
Ross was later selected 8th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1978 NFL Draft. He played for the Bengals for nine seasons and recorded eight sacks during his rookie year.
Three years later, Browner helped the Bengals reach Super Bowl XVI, where he set the record for tackles by a defensive lineman (10) in a 26-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
“Paul and the Browners set the standard,” Arnold said. “But we’ve had a lot of guys that have come in after that, but they are at the top of the mountain. Paul is the ‘Godfather’ and then the Godfather of defense is Ross Browner and then it goes from there.”
The legend of Warren football can’t really be told without naming Ross and the rest of his Browner brothers. Ross was the oldest but Jimmie, Joey and Keith, all went on to play in the NFL as well.
Another Browner, Willard, who rushed for 1,000 yards in 1975 alongside Jimmie at Western Reserve, was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and was a running back at Notre Dame.
“We both ran for over 1,000 yards and I think he needed like 120 or 130 yards to get 1,000 yards,” Jimmie recalled. “But I remember trying to do that. It was a great time. We were both running backs and I think I had like 1,200 yards. They used to take me out before the game was over because I had so many yards, so I probably could’ve ran for a lot more.”
Joey was a six-time pro bowler for the Vikings and went on to be named to the NFL’s All-Decade team in the 1980s as well.
The youngest of the group, Gerald, went on to play football at the University of Georgia to complete the group. Jimmie said their success may have come from the way they were raised in Warren from a young age.
“The only way we could really leave the house was if we had something to go to,” Jimmie said. “We had to either go to the YMCA or the Rebecca Williams Community Center. We had to have a mission to leave the house, so that was important for us too.”
The Browners are a staple of Warren and Arnold always loves to use a unique piece of trivia when talking about football out-of-town.
While sitting at a table in the varsity house at the high school, Arnold remembers speaking at an event at the University of Iowa. He was alongside Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and posed a question to his listeners?
“What family of brothers has produced the most NFL players?” Arnold recalled asking Ferentz. “He thought about it and he couldn’t remember. But once I said the Browners, he knew right away. There hasn’t been a set of that many brothers that have played in the NFL before and they are out of Warren, Ohio.”
DREAMING OF GREATNESS
Numerous players saw what football stars from Warren could do, or go on to do, and they wanted to be a part of that special tradition that was created in the city.
Nick Frankos, a Trumbull County native who owns the Buena Vista restaurant in Warren and would go on to captain the 1985 University of Cincinnati football team, grew up dreaming of one day being able to play for the Panthers.
He went to elementary school at Howland but knew when the time came, he would don the Black and Red. He’s still amazed by the amount of talent that has come through Warren and gone on to do big things.
“When you look back and see how many great football players and coaches that have come through here from the 60s on through the 80s, 90s and 2000s, I mean there should be a 30-for-30 on it,” Frankos said. “That’s not even including all the great college players that never went to the NFL. The history is quite impressive.”
After helping Harding win a state championship in 1990 when Warren G. Harding and Western Reserve merged, LeShun Daniels went on to Ohio State with teammate Korey Stringer before playing in the NFL.
Daniels also went on to be able to share his Warren football experience with his sons, LeShun Jr. and James, who currently plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers after playing for the Bears for four years.
After moving around for work and spending time in different parts of Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota, LeShun Daniels Sr. said that football in Warren is unmatched.
“It’s just tradition,” he said. “Warren kids, I don’t think they ever get the respect that’s due to them because in Warren, you have to go and work for everything that you get. The kids that are dedicated and work hard, they go on to do great things.”
Along with James, LeShun Daniels Jr. played in the NFL for a brief stint after rushing for over 1,800 career yards at Iowa. Since being drafted 39th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, James has started in 48 games, including all 17 games a year ago in Chicago.
Maurice Clarett and Mario Manningham are two other higher-profile players that have come out of Warren.
Manningham, who went on to star at Michigan after his stellar high school career, is known for his play with the New York Giants and his 38-yard sideline catch that led the Giants to a Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots.
He played in the NFL for six years, appearing in 67 games, catching 211 passes for 2,849 yards and 19 touchdowns, including a career-high nine in 2010.
Clarett had a one standout year at Ohio State after a stellar high school career at Harding. He helped the Raiders reach the state title game in 2001 before rushing for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2022 as a freshman.
No matter the player that has gone on to have success though and for the most part, LeShun Daniels Sr. believes that it comes down to discipline.
“There is a certain standard when you’re playing football in Warren and I think that is always the main goal is to get to it,” he said. “I know some years the team has been up and down but I think that’s what you’re striving for. It’s what most of the families in the town are still striving to be.”