Remembering Ross Browner
It’s a rite of passage if you wore your West Side Pride like a war medal in those years.
Those years — the Golden Era of Warren High School football — ran from the split of the public high school that formed Western Reserve as an immediate rival to Warren G.
Harding in 1966 through 1975. During that time the city produced two state champions (Reserve in 1972 and Harding in ’74) and a state runner-up (Reserve in ’73).
Warren was arguably the center of the Ohio scholastic football universe, and in 1972 it came to a grand culmination with a 37-6 win by the Raiders over Cincinnati Princeton for the big-school state crown.
It was the first year of the computer playoffs, and to this day those of us that grew up on the West Side still mention it as if it’s a Thanksgiving Day tradition as scrumptious as grandma’s turkey and gravy. Gone were the AP and UPI poll titles that were paper crowns. They were replaced by legitimate titles that didn’t require a plurality of votes by sportswriters sitting at desks.
Standing in the middle of it all on the muddied turf at the Akron Rubber Bowl on that November night was Ross Browner. The eldest of the football-playing brothers that included Jim, Willard, Joey, Keith and Gerald, Ross was a boy in a man’s body, displaying speed and strength that was an incomparable combination for any blocker that tried to corral his talents.
Ross passed away Tuesday at age 67 from complications of COVID-19. It came as a sobering kick to the gut for those of us that lived through those wonderful days 50 years ago.
It hurts even more for those of us (I graduated from Reserve in 1971) that walked the halls of the school with Ross.
The Browner family is as much a part of Warren football royalty as is any family that sent their boys onto the playing field at Mollenkopf Stadium. Ross, as the most senior and most-heralded, was always viewed as the leader of the brothers.
A year after the Raiders won the state crown, Ross was a starting defensive end for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide to claim the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. The game remains one of the best and perhaps among the most underappreciated of all big games, and Ross played a huge part in it as a rarity — a starter as a freshman.
Ross was that good. He was able to step off the field at Mollenkopf and straight to an historic venue in South Bend and start for fabled coach Ara Parseghian.
It was the beginning of one of the greatest careers ever for a Notre Dame defensive player. He was a unanimous All-America selection in the 1976 and ’77 seasons. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior or defensive lineman and the Lombardi
Trophy as the nation’s best lineman. He was awarded the Maxwell Trophy as the country’s best overall player, and, by the way, he twice won the UPI Lineman of the Year award.
Ross was selected in the first round by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1978 draft. He played nine seasons for the Bengals and set the then-record for tackles by a defensive lineman in Super Bowl XVI against the San Francisco 49ers.
I had the pleasure and honor to have interviewed Ross a few times during and after his playing days. Most memorable was a talk with him prior to his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999 in South Bend.
What I recall — and what was mentioned in several comments by his teammates the last couple days — was his large, captivating laugh. He seemed to laugh all the time, projecting a love of life that could capture you in its wake.
I’ll always remember Ross for that laugh and for that rainy night in Akron (the last game played on natural turf at the Rubber Bowl) when he and his teammates delivered for the West Side. The scene — with Ross, coach Joe Novak and everyone else on the field soaked in mud — was a vision of football paradise for so many fans.
Those old enough to remember might recall that the Raiders did a type of war dance in those days when victory was inevitable. The defensive players, while waiting for the offense to break the huddle, would double-tap their thighs and then double-clap their hands. The opposition probably didn’t appreciate the dance, but the West Side fans delighted in every repetition of the taps and claps.
One starts to feel the embraces of older age when a classmate two years younger — who happened to give you a great memory — passes away. I can’t deny having that experience when I heard the news.
But then I thought about that laugh and that game and that moment in Warren sports history, and I felt better.
Gosh, I sure hope there’s a gathering place in Heaven for all Warren Western Reserve Raiders that have passed on. When Ross arrived last Tuesday, hopefully they all greeted him with the Raider War Dance.
RIP, fellow Raider.