No other NFL defensive lineman had an eerier nickname than Gilbert Brown.
“The Gravedigger” earned the moniker after his famous tackle/sack celebration dating back to his college days with the Kansas Jayhawks.
Throw in his Darth Vader-like helmet visor and you get one of the most intimidating nose tackles in the history of the National Football League.
Brown, a mountain of a man at 6’2″ and 340 pounds, anchored a dominant Green Bay Packers defensive line that stifled the opposition week in and week out.
Brown was such an immovable force, even double teams couldn’t keep him in check. His presence helped the Packers win their third Super Bowl title in 1997.
Gilbert Brown will go down in history as one of the best nose tackles to ever wear Packers Green and Gold.
Gilbert Jesse Brown was born to parents Leroy and Ann in Farmington, MI on February 22, 1971.
Brown has four siblings. His parents met at Bluefield State College in West Virginia.
Leroy was a former navy man and coal miner who worked in the Chrysler assembly line in Detroit.
His fascination with automobiles eventually rubbed off on his son Gilbert.
When Gilbert Brown was nine years old, he started assisting the pit crew of his dad’s drag racing team. He learned how to repair and maintain a car from his father.
His obsession with cars eventually became a lifelong habit.
— Gilbert Brown (@GilbertBrown) April 11, 2021
Brown attended Mackenzie High School in Detroit.
He was a two-sport star who excelled in football and track. He ran the 100- and 200-yard dashes in high school.
Ann Brown told SI.com’s Austin Murphy in January 1998 that her son developed his speed on the track when bullies chased him on his way home during his grade school days.
When Brown made it through the door, he’d always ask his mother for some chips.
He became an all-state defensive lineman for the Mackenzie Stags several years later.
One of Brown’s Stags teammates was future Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Jerome Bettis.
When Brown was a 280-lb. senior, he made a lasting and final impression.
He wore tight-fitting shorts, a cape, hat, and sunglasses while doing bodybuilding poses to the tune of a popular funk song.
Brown, whose body was slathered with baby oil, brought the house down.
Mackenzie Stags head football coach Bob Dozier told SI.com in 1998 that the audience gave Brown a standing ovation. The girls even threw money at him.
When the dust settled, Gilbert Brown whittled down his college choices to the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, and Kansas Jayhawks.
Brown shocked many by choosing the more laid-back and relaxed pace of Kansas.
He credited Jayhawks assistant coach Reggie Mitchell for convincing him to commit to the program.
Big Gilbert Brown would continue building on his football resume with the Kansas Jayhawks in the next several years.
College Days With The Kansas Jayhawks
Gilbert Brown was a human development major who played for the Kansas Jayhawks from 1989 to 1992.
Brown received plenty of harsh criticism from people who felt he’ll never prosper at the University of Kansas, which has been known more for its rich basketball tradition.
He told KUSports.com it didn’t matter because he was confident he would get an opportunity to play right away.
It took some time before Brown proved his detractors wrong.
With Brown imposing his will on the defensive line, Kansas won eight games in the 1992 NCAA season and beat the 25th-ranked BYU Cougars in the Aloha Bowl, 23-20.
Brown also got the last laugh when the Jayhawks inducted him into their Ring of Honor in the fall of 2017.
Whenever Brown stopped an opponent dead in his tracks with a tackle or sack, he celebrated by making it appear he shoveled dirt on opponents after making a big-time stop.
Thus, the “Gravedigger” was born during Brown’s college days with the Jayhawks.
Brown’s signature Darth Vader helmet shield added a menacing touch to his antics.
His “Gravedigger” celebratory sack move made highlight reels when he was already playing pro football for the Green Bay Packers several years later.
Brown was a huge yet nimble defensive lineman. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds in college – it was a fast finish for somebody who weighed at least 300 pounds.
Brown’s voracious appetite never got in the way of his performance on the college gridiron.
According to Murphy, Brown usually settled in his room and ordered a large pizza after dinner.
Brown’s father Leroy passed away after his junior year at Kansas in 1992.
His death affected the younger Brown’s play when he became a senior.
Jayhawks defensive line coach Reggie Mitchell told SI.com some five years later he, the other coaches, and players were worried about Brown’s well-being.
Brown regained his bearings in time for the 1993 NFL Draft.
An unusual twist of fate would make Brown one of the most dominant nose tackles in Green Bay Packers history.
Pro Football Career
The Minnesota Vikings made Gilbert Brown the 79th overall selection of the 1993 NFL Draft.
Brown grew so homesick when he was a rookie with the Green Bay Packers he’d drive eight hours to Detroit after the last team meeting on Monday afternoons.
He’d spend his entire off day with his family in the Motor City, per Murphy.
After Gilbert Brown retired from the NFL in 2003, he established a youth foundation that helped discourage bullying in Wisconsin schools.
Brown witnessed bullying first-hand when he was a rookie defensive lineman trying to make the Vikings’ final roster cuts in 1993.
“In Minnesota there was rookie hazing all the way,” Brown told OnMilwaukee.com’s Jimmy Carlton in August 2016. “I’ve seen a guy get tied, taped, and dunked in ice-cold water because he was a rookie.”
Brown also witnessed some of the veteran Vikings players cutting not only the tape, but also the tip of the rookie’s thumb off.
Brown couldn’t believe his eyes – and to think the rookie was a wide receiver who caught footballs for a living.
The Vikings waived Brown before the regular season because of his weight. He was listed at a hefty 355 pounds back then – a good 40 pounds heavier than his playing weight in college.
— Gilbert Brown (@GilbertBrown) February 22, 2020
Fortunately, the Green Bay Packers signed Brown just a day after Minnesota released him.
It turned out somebody from the Packers informed a front desk employee of Brown’s Mankato, MN hotel that they would want Brown to play for them, per SI.com.
Packers general manager Ron Wolf remembered Brown running a 40-yard dash in 5.26 seconds just a few hours after he disembarked from his plane.
Green Bay promptly signed the man nicknamed “The Gravedigger.”
It was a stroke of fortune considering Brown would spend the entirety of his decade-long NFL career in Green Bay.
In stark contrast to the culture in Minnesota, Brown told Carlton there was no rookie hazing whatsoever with the Packers.
Packers head coach Mike Holmgren and his staff merely handed out complex playbooks that resembled a dictionary.
Brown knew if he and the other newcomers didn’t know the playbook, the Packers would release them.
He also knew the Packers understood that rookies couldn’t focus on the playbook if they had to go through hazing and other rituals, so they prohibited those practices.
Long story short, Green Bay wanted to do away with unnecessary distractions.
Green Bay had two consecutive nine-win seasons in Brown’s first two years in the pro ranks.
Unfortunately, they lost in the NFC Divisional Round each time.
During Brown’s time with the Packers, he looked up to legends Brett Favre and Reggie White.
Brown explained to OnMilwaukee.com that having guys like Favre and White around gave younger players an edge and an opportunity to learn more about the nuances of football.
Plus, Favre and White’s presence made the Packers perennial Super Bowl contenders.
Brown lauded Favre for his tenacity and resilience. He was the type of quarterback who played through the worst kinds of pain imaginable.
“And when that bell rung, he went out there and played – on one wheel, two wheels, whatever it was ,he went out there and fought for you,” Brown told Carlton in 2016. “He’s the man. Brett Favre’s the man.”
Big Gilbert brown pic.twitter.com/HlLQjRAnGU
— Joseph G. (@Joe707g) May 16, 2020
Brown joined Green Bay one year after Packers general manager Ron Wolf acquired Favre in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons.
Those two moves – signing Favre and Brown – helped propel the Packers to postseason contender status after years of miring in mediocrity.
Brown developed a reputation as an immovable run-stuffer because of his mobility and massive 6’2″, 340-lb. frame.
The majority of Brown’s body fat content was in his massive midsection, which he considered his center of gravity.
He considered it a major asset especially when offensive coordinators threw double teams his way, per Murphy.
Brown was so good, one of Chicago Bears offensive line coach Tony Wise’s players told him that his back killed him trying to get the Packers’ vaunted immense nose tackle out of the way.
Brown’s presence fortified a Packers defensive line that had already had the legendary Reggie White.
Mike Holmgren’s squad was clicking on all cylinders on both sides of the ball.
Consequently, Green Bay won an average of eleven games per season from 1995 to 1999.
They made two Super Bowl appearances and won one during that span.
Green Bay’s stellar defense propelled the team to Super Bowl glory in the 1996 NFL campaign.
Behind the exploits of Brown, White, Santana Dotson, and Sean Jones, the Packers’ defensive line helped limit opponents to just nineteen touchdowns in the regular season.
The quartet also limited the opposition to an average of just 88.5 rushing yards per game.
For his part, Brown had a career-best 51 tackles in 1996.
While he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, Burger King restaurants across Wisconsin honored him with the “Gilbertburger” – a double whopper burger cut in half that included a bit of everything except pickles.
— Dusty O'Chodle (@Dusty_OC) October 7, 2013
Winning Super Bowl XXXI over Drew Bledsoe’s New England Patriots was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Gilbert Brown’s NFL career.
He had a chance to earn $9 million over three years with the third-year Jacksonville Jaguars in the spring of 1997.
However, Gilbert Brown politely declined the Jags’ offer.
Brown decided to remain in Green Bay because he wanted to stay close with his four-year-old son Jamal.
The boy resided in Kansas City, MO with his mother Sheryl Cherry.
Brown also declined the Jacksonville offer because he already developed a relationship with Green Bay-area children he never wanted to relinquish.
Brown’s rapport with Green Bay’s youth has lived on to this very day.
The Packers won thirteen games in 1997 and made it to the Super Bowl for the second straight year.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXII, Denver guard Mark Schlereth’s game planning for Gilbert Brown was a futile effort.
“You’re not going to move him out of there. You run away from him,” Schlereth told The Washington Post’s Jennifer Frey in January 1998.
The Broncos won the first of their consecutive Vince Lombardi Trophies.
Behind Super Bowl XXXII MVP Terrell Davis‘ 157 rushing yards and three touchdowns, Denver beat Green Bay, 31-24.
Brown sat out the entire 2000 NFL season due to weight- and injury-related concerns.
He went on a strict diet and training regimen so he could take the field again a year later.
During that time, Brown trained and lived with his former Kansas Jayhawks strength and conditioning coach Fred Roll.
The training paid off as Green Bay re-signed him on March 23, 2001. He reported to training camp at a svelte 339 pounds.
Brown played three more seasons for the Packers. Despite averaging eleven wins per year from 2001 to 2003, they never made it past the NFC Divisional Round.
The Packers eventually released Brown on March 2, 2004. He had officially played his final down in the National Football League.
Gilbert Brown finished his 10-year NFL career – all with Green Bay – with 61 solo tackles, one pass defended, and one fumble recovery.
Along with Dave Hanner, Henry Jordan, and Ezra Johnson, Brown was one of a handful of true Packers defensive linemen who played ten seasons with the franchise.
Gilbert Brown and his family split their time between Detroit, MI and Milwaukee, WI.
Brown loves living in Milwaukee because it’s a short five-and-a-half-hour drive to the Motor City.
He also likes Milwaukee because it’s a city that allows him to live without any pretensions.
“I can just be myself,” Brown told Carlton. “That’s why I connect with Milwaukee so much: it’s just like going back home to Detroit.”
Whenever Brown is in town, he loves hanging out at the local JJ’s Fish, McDonald’s, and Burger King.
However, the Milwaukee restaurants that stand out for Brown include Church’s Chicken, Popeye’s, KFC, Five Guys Hamburger, and Carnevor.
Brown told Carlton he fell in love with Church’s Chicken when he was a young boy growing up in Detroit, MI.
He saved some of his lunch money so he could eat at the local Church’s Chicken on the way home in the afternoon. Brown’s favorite was the two-piece chicken dish.
Brown has always been conscious about his weight even during his days in the National Football League.
When ESPN’s Rob Demovsky asked Brown what his exact weight was in 2015, he refused to divulge it.
Various player profiles have listed the gigantic Brown at 340 pounds. However, some pundits believed that was a conservative estimate.
When Demosky interviewed Brown in 2015, he noticed the latter was significantly slimmer than he was when he played on the pro football gridiron.
Brown didn’t deny the fact the transition into retirement was difficult for him and his fellow ex-players.
“It’s hard, man,” Brown told Demovsky. “It’s hard to adjust to life after football because it’s different. Some guys just start eating things they never ate before. They get high blood pressure and diabetes and different things like that.”
Brown tries to do different things to help divert his attention away from football.
Brown has done charity work and appeared on radio and television in Wisconsin since he last played in the NFL in 2003.
He has also appeared on Packers tailgating tours along with former Green Bay players Antonio Freeman, Jerry Kramer, and Dave Robinson.
Brown admitted to Demovsky he still misses playing in the NFL after all these years. He got away with choking some offensive linemen during his heyday.
He told ESPN if somebody did that in today’s NFL, he would serve time in jail.
His foundation, the Gilbert Brown Foundation, supports more than 156 children’s charities in Wisconsin.
Its mission is to serve the youth in an environment that promotes diversity and life skills, per its official website.
Through his foundation, Brown runs several free youth football camps, does speaking engagements about bullying, donates scholarships, provides money and supplies to shelters, hospitals, and various youth organizations.
Brown told Carlton in 2016 the youth football camp participants’ ages range from six to nineteen.
He officially became a member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in the summer of 2008.
Brown dabbled in coaching after he retired from the National Football League.
He served as the head coach of the Continental Indoor Football League’s (CIFL) Milwaukee Bonecrushers in 2008, the LaCrosse Spartans of the Indoor Football League (IFL) from 2010 to 2011, and the Legends Football League’s (LFL) Green Bay Chill from 2011 to 2013.
The LFL (which became the X League in 2020) featured scantily-clad female football players who wore bikinis.
Brown told Carlton it was a bittersweet experience – while coaching women’s football was awesome, he also had to teach many of them the rudiments of the gridiron.
These basics included tackling and blocking. He essentially had to start from scratch because many of his Green Bay Chill players didn’t have football backgrounds. Many of them played soccer and softball before playing in the LFL.
When Brown became a head football coach, he acted as a father figure to the players. Coaching helped get football out of his system.
Helping the players go through their on- and off-field struggles during Brown’s head football coaching stints also fulfilled him, per OnMilwaukee.com.
— Gilbert Brown (@GilbertBrown) December 13, 2019
He admitted to Carlton that he booed Brett Favre when he signed with the hated Minnesota Vikings – the team that waived him in 1993 because of his weight – in 2009.
“I’m gonna tell you the truth: when Brett went over to Minnesota, I booed his a** like the rest of them,” Brown told OnMilwaukee.com.