The history of professional football is filled with inspiring stories of athletes overcoming long odds to make it in the NFL.
Each player makes certain sacrifices to become professional athletes.
However, there are some who initially appeared to have no shot at a decent life, let alone a life filled with glory.
Hardy Brown was one such athlete.
Brown had a difficult upbringing that eventually left him abandoned by his mother.
He learned the game of football almost by accident and ended up becoming a natural.
After fighting in WWII, Brown decided to try achieving his dream of going to college and continuing to play football.
What he accomplished is legendary and has recently been immortalized by Hollywood.
This is the story of Hardy Brown.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 14, 2020
Murder Witness and Growing Up as an Orphan
Hardy Brown was born on May 8, 1924 in Childress, Texas.
Brown’s early years were rough and as hardscrabble as one can imagine.
Prohibition was tearing the country apart and unscrupulous characters were making money through bootlegging.
There are various historians that believe Brown’s father was a bootlegger himself.
This occupation may be what led to his murder when Brown was four.
In full view of a young Hardy, two men confronted his father at a neighbor’s house on November 7, 1928.
The men drew pistols and shot four times, killing Brown’s father.
Only months later, Brown was present again when he witnessed a family friend murder one of his father’s killers.
It was at that moment when Brown’s mother realized she needed to put Hardy and his siblings in a safer environment.
She drove Brown and three of his brothers and sisters to the Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas.
After leaving her children in the care of the administrators and teachers at the home, it would be years before they would see their mother again.
At the time of the Browns’ arrival, a young man named Harvey “Rusty” Russell was employed by the school as a teacher and head football coach.
He was a sharp coach who organized the Masonic Home football team from scratch.
Jim Dent’s 12 Mighty Orphans, true story of the Mighty Mites who ruled Texas football, comes to the big screen! Luke Wilson will star in this amazing tale that took place at the Masonic Home and School of Texas, better known to us as ACH's Wichita Campus. https://t.co/qDs810Fv1U pic.twitter.com/6Mdl2S1OTr
— ACHChild&Family (@ACHChildFamily) August 23, 2019
Russell was adept at assessing the talent of his young charges and tinkering with offensive schemes that would benefit them.
It was into this program that Brown eventually found his purpose.
When he was of age, he started playing for Russell and soon developed a knack for bone rattling hits.
According to historians, Brown learned his “tackling” technique from his older brother, Jeff.
Jeff surmised that opponents could be knocked down more easily if you hit them high.
He tried out his theory during a game and, when an opponent approached, Jeff crouched down and then jumped through the opponent’s chin.
More often than not, the move would debilitate or knock out the intended victim.
Jeff taught the move to Hardy and soon most of the team was using “the humper” (as the kids called it).
“The city boys were frightened as hell of us,” Tex Coulter (a teammate and future pro football athlete) said. “I don’t blame ’em, the way Hardy Brown was and I was, too, to some extent. The goddamn guys would be bleeding all over the place. You know, in high school ball, you just aren’t used to that. We speared, we leg-whipped, we used the humper, and I’m almost positive the man who invented the crackback block was our coach, Rusty Russell. We did all them things and didn’t think anything of it. We thought we were good, clean, rough boys.”
The team under Russell’s tutelage became one of the best in the state.
The players on the Masonic team were orphaned or abandoned by their parents as the Browns were.
Football gave them an outlet to vent their frustrations and bonded them as teammates from similar circumstances.
“Football gave us self-worth,” Coulter said. “We were orphans, but you couldn’t call us orphans. When the newspapers came out and wrote stories, they’d refer to us as ragtag kids, and that made us angry. That was pity from above, and we hated it. Football was a way to alleviate that.”
The “Mighty Mites,” as the team was called, went to the state playoffs ten times under Russell.
During Brown’s senior year, the Mites made it to the state semifinals before being eliminated.
Military Service and College Ball at Tulsa
Brown and his “humper” technique were widely known throughout Texas.
He decided to ply the trade at SMU after leaving the Masonic Home.
However, WWII began and Brown joined the Marines.
As a paratrooper, Brown fought the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of the war.
He was on his way to Iwo Jima when a change of orders came through.
The Army wanted Brown to play for their team at West Point.
It turns out Brown’s former Masonic Home teammate, Coulter, pulled a few strings.
Coulter himself was released from active duty to play for the Army.
Coulter, in turn, recommended Brown to his superiors.
The next thing he knew, Brown was at West Point suiting up to play.
However, his time at the Point was short lived.
Brown didn’t make the grade academically and was dismissed from the team.
Not to be deterred from his dream, Brown found his way to the University of Tulsa by 1945.
Before Hardy Brown emerged as one of the hardest-hitting tacklers in NFL history, he was a versatile weapon at the University of Tulsa in the 1940s. https://t.co/nllW9zYJcj
— Tulsa World Sports (@TWSportsExtra) June 16, 2021
Brown played for the Golden Hurricanes and deployed the humper as a linebacker and a blocking back.
Brown’s teammates were happy he was on their team, especially the way he could deliver a blow.
They also realized they had to keep their head on a swivel when practicing.
“We’d put Brown at fullback if we wanted him to block one defensive end and put him at halfback if we wanted him to block the other,” said teammate, roommate and future Saints president Jim Finks. “There were many games when he literally knocked out both defensive ends. I think it was a game against Baylor that he put out the two ends on consecutive plays. He broke my nose and gave me four stitches at a goddamned practice!”
It was during his Tulsa years that Brown developed his love for alcohol and having fun.
One night after some intense drinking, Brown and his girlfriend Betty (who he would eventually marry) shot up his dorm room with a .22 caliber rifle.
Most of the time, however, Brown was described as intelligent and shy off the field.
Brown Becomes a Pro
After leaving Tulsa, Brown found his way to the All-American Football Conference.
The first organization to employ Brown was the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.
1949 saw Brown move to the Chicago Hornets and then to the Baltimore Colts in 1950.
When the AAFC disbanded in ‘50, Brown was signed by the Washington Redskins.
In 1951, Brown began a five-year stay with the San Francisco 49ers.
During his career with the team, the 49ers averaged only seven wins per season.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) July 30, 2019
However, for opponents, they understood that facing the 49ers would be detrimental to their health.
Brown had developed a reputation, as he had at Tulsa and at the Masonic Home, for his humper technique.
Opponents were wary of where Brown was at all times so as not to catch his potent shoulder.
On one occasion, an opponent keeping an eye out for Brown very nearly lost his eye.
“I didn’t really believe the things I’d heard about him, but then I played against him for the first time at Kezar Stadium in’51,” said Joe Geri of the Steelers. “We ran a trap or something and he threw that shoulder into my eye — we didn’t wear face masks in those days — and put me down on my back. I was lying there groggy but I managed to ask one of my teammates, `Is it bad?’ And he said, `Well, your eye’s out.'”
Various old timers tell the story of the Brown hit on Geri and add that Geri’s eye was hanging out of the socket only by its tendon.
Geri did not recall it that way.
“I’m not sure about that,” Geri said, “but I do know I had to have 13 stitches.”
According to pro football veterans, Brown did not really have the size, speed or even talent to play the pro game.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 1, 2018
What Brown brought to the sport came down to two very basic things.
“It was all technique and timing,” former teammate Bob St. Clair said. “He would coil like a snake and then explode. In mid-air, he’d extend the shoulder and aim it at your Adam’s apple. You either got hit in the chest or the face. He destroyed people with it.”
“Guys would get cornered and try to run Hardy over,” said Hugh McElhenny, another ex-teammate. “But he’d just get lower and then — pop! He’d snap up right under a guy’s jaw. He ended a lot of careers.”
Coulter tried to more accurately sum up Brown’s technique.
“To me, Hardy Brown was the most unique player ever,” Coulter said. “Think of it this way: What Hardy Brown was all about in football wasn’t physical. Hardy was a psychic occurrence.”
At one point during the 1951 season, longtime Chicago Bears coach, George Halas, challenged that “psychic occurrence” and asked the referees to look at Brown’s shoulder pads.
Halas was sure that Brown had to be hiding something nefarious in his pads to be able to hit that hard.
“They thought maybe he was using a steel plate or something,” said ex-49er Gordy Soltau. “George Halas, the Bears coach, sent an official into our locker room right before one game. They made Hardy take off his shoulder pads, thinking he had some metal in there. But he didn’t.”
Not only was Brown known for his devastating hits, but he could also get into the zone long before anyone understood what the term meant.
During one game, Coulter’s team was playing San Francisco and he wanted to say hi to his old pal.
Coulter took one look at Brown across the line of scrimmage and thought better of the idea.
“The first time I played against him as a pro, I came out of the huddle at the beginning of the game, and figured I’d say hello. I came up to the line and looked across at his linebacker spot and his eyes looked like they belonged to some cave animal. They were fiery, unfocused. You didn’t know if he could see anything or everything. I kept my mouth shut.”
Although the rules of professional football back in Brown’s day were not nearly as developed as they are now, many opponents (and even teammates) believed Brown’s play was illegal and dirty.
“Pound for pound, inch for inch, he was the toughest football player I ever met,” said former 49er teammate and road roommate Y.A. Tittle. “He was so tough he was damned near illegal.”
Tittle wasn’t the only established pro to openly question Brown’s tactics and delivery.
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) June 21, 2016
Even an athlete with a hitting reputation so fierce they nicknamed him “concrete” complained about Brown.
“Chuck Bednarik always said he was the dirtiest SOB he ever played against,” Hall of Famer Bill Dudley said. “But even though Hardy would try to knock the hell out of you with that shoulder, I don’t think it was a dirty blow. I was a teammate of his in Washington for a while and I thought the world of him, personally.”
Glenn Davis, also known as “Mr. Outside” for his running technique as a back, questioned why Brown didn’t tackle in the typical fashion.
“I don’t hold out any real venom for him,” Davis said, “but I think he made a mistake playing the way he did. He would have been a much better player if he had concentrated on making the tackle instead of trying to kill somebody.”
However, as frustrated as opponents (and even Brown’s coach) were for his lack of tackling technique, Brown may not have made it in the NFL without “the shoulder.”
“…But if he hadn’t been able to hit like that, he never could have played football,” Dudley said.
Coulter believed that Brown did not actually set out to hurt anyone.
He opined that Brown was playing to the best of his abilities while also enjoying the thrill of a good hit.
“I don’t think he ever went out to hurt anyone,” Coulter said. “I think Hardy was shaped a certain way. One thing about a hard hitter is that you don’t realize what it feels like to be hit. When you’re doing the hitting, when you stick someone with that shoulder, it’s a beautiful feeling. By God, it gives you a sense of power that reaches right to the back of your head. I think Hardy enjoyed that feeling.”
One of the most recent scandals in the NFL was “Bountygate.”
During the 2009-2011 seasons, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams allegedly doled out money incentives to his players for game-changing hits on opponents.
The threat to player safety was at the forefront of the scandal and Williams and the Saints were heavily penalized.
In Brown’s time, there was still a hint of lawlessness to the NFL.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) July 4, 2021
As his fame grew due to his violent tackling and collisions, opponents tried to turn the tables on Brown.
Stories abound of the lengths teams and players would go to in trying to give Brown a taste of his own medicine.
After Brown nearly took out his eye, Geri’s teammates swore revenge.
The result wasn’t positive…for Geri’s mates.
“I walked to the sidelines and one of my teammates said, `Don’t worry, Joe. We’ll take care of Brown.’ But when it was all over, he’d put about three more people besides me out of the game,” said Geri.
Another instance of an opponent’s fury toward Brown that backfired came courtesy of former Detroit Lion Gil “Wild Horse” Mains.
Mains flew down field on a kickoff and jumped on Brown with both feet.
His cleats opened deep gashes on Brown’s legs, but that didn’t seem to stop “the shoulder.”
“They had to put about 20 stitches in him,” Mains said, “but he came out and played the last half, and on one of his first plays, he caught one of our backs, Bullet Bill Bowman, in the face and broke his nose. I couldn’t believe Hardy could come back. I always admired him.”
A few teams were more than obvious in their dedication to knocking Brown out of a game.
In some instances, the retaliatory attempts made Bountygate look like child’s play.
“I remember Hardy came up to me before a kickoff once and said, ‘How about an onsides kick?’” said former CBS broadcaster Pat Summerall, a teammate of Brown’s in ’56. “It was a close game with the Giants, and I told him I couldn’t do that on my own without hearing from the coaches. He said he thought it would be a good idea. . . . Anyway, I kicked off as far as I could kick it, and here comes the whole Giant team after Hardy. They never even looked at the ball.”
“Some teams would put up a little money pool to see who could get Hardy out of the game,” St. Clair said. “You’d watch on films, and they’d all be going after him on some plays. But he was cunning and crafty. He almost never took any solid hits.”
Brown’s Playing Style Catches Up to Him
After the 1955 season, Brown moved on and played with the Chicago Cardinals in 1956.
He then retired, but was brought back by the Denver Broncos in 1960 for their inaugural season.
Pro Football's Dirtiest Player? « DenverBroncos.com: Hardy Brown ended his career with the Denver Broncos in the 1… http://bit.ly/bGcH5S
— uCoach Pro Broncos (@uCoachBroncos) February 26, 2010
Even with his fearsome menace, there was nothing Brown could do to help with the Broncos lack of talent.
The franchise went 4-9-1 in ‘60.
By then, it was fairly obvious that Brown wasn’t the same player he used to be.
Even with the four-year lay-off between the Cardinals and Broncos, Brown was slowed by repeated concussions, a battered body and weakened shoulder.
“…he always had a sore shoulder,” Soltau said. “Nobody could have played some days, the beaten up condition he was in. But he played. He was really tough.”
That toughness would eventually cost Brown dearly.
Retirement, Death and “The Mighty Orphans”
Once he retired for good after the 1960 season, Brown had difficulty finding work and he eventually lost touch with many of his friends.
His marriage suffered due to his drinking and it was said that Brown couldn’t scratch his head because of his obliterated shoulder.
Eventually, Brown was placed in a nursing home in California due to the onset of dementia.
The cost of repeated concussions and playing in a helmet with little or no facemask was obvious.
So was Brown’s alcoholism.
“I never thought anyone or anything could have hurt Gordy (as we called him at the Masonic Home)…He started in a home and ended in a home. They say it could have been alcohol. It might have been Alzheimer’s. I don’t believe it. All those licks he gave other people took their toll. And Hardy Brown, the meanest of them all, hurt himself most of all,” said Bill Walraven, a former sports writer and fellow orphan at the Masonic Home with Brown.
Brown died on November 8, 1991 from complications of dementia and emphysema.
He was 67 years old.
Though he passed much too soon, Brown left an impression on NFL historians.
In an episode of the NFL Network’s Top 10 list of “The Most Feared Tacklers of all Time,” Hardy was ranked number five.
In 2021, the story of Russell and his Masonic Home teams became a movie titled “12 Mighty Orphans” based on a book by Jim Dent of the same name.
One of the best inspiration movies I've seen in my life and the fact that it's based on a true story makes it even more greater!
12 Mighty Orphans. Must watch! pic.twitter.com/zs6EFCUpNO
— Sphe (@Afrikanwolf) September 12, 2021
The film starred actor Luke Wilson as Russell and Jake Austin Walker as Brown.
As is sometimes the case with movies based on real events, some of the factual, historical details were changed.
For instance, Brown comes to the home as a teenager, still clad in bloody clothes from his father’s murder.
An opposing high school coach asks an official to check Brown’s shoulder pads for metal during a game.
The orphans appear in the state championship in Russell’s first year in the film.
None of these events happened the way they were portrayed in the movie.
However, Brown’s legacy lives on, whether it is in cinema or with those that saw him play.
“Everybody feared him,” Soltau said. “You whispered `Hardy Brown’ to them, and they began to shiver at the sound. Nobody could hit the way he could. If TV had been in when he played, he’d be immortal.”