Willie Brown set the precedent for playing the cornerback position in Oakland.
His on-field exploits helped him earn three Super Bowl rings – one as a player and two as a coach.
Who could ever forget his memorable pick-six off Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl XI?
That was an NFL Films highlight reel for the ages.
Clearly, football ran in Brown’s blood: he coached after retiring and served in the Raiders’ front office for almost three decades.
He also earned a ton of football accolades.
No wonder many people in the football world also spoke highly of Brown, a man of high character.
Truly, Willie Brown was part of a rare breed of gridiron warriors.
We're thinking of the great Willie Brown today, on what would've been his 80th birthday. pic.twitter.com/zSOZcEdOAJ
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) December 2, 2020
Early Life and College Career at Grambling State
William Ferdie “Willie” Brown was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi on December 2, 1940.
Brown, who was part of a large family, grew up in a segregated area along Mushroom Street.
“I had six brothers and two sisters, a good mama, and a good daddy,” he told Mississippi Today’s Rick Cleveland. “We were raised right. We had to be home by the time the sun went down, and we always had to do our chores.”
Brown played high school football at N.D. Taylor High School, an all-black school locals called “Yazoo No. 2.”
His mother was against the idea, per Cleveland.
Brown suited up for Olympic track star Ralph Boston’s brother Peter on the football team.
Brown revealed he and the other black kids played scrimmage games with white players.
He also told Mississippi Today he played on both sides of the ball and looked up to Coach Boston:
“Yes, the schools were segregated but what a lot of people don’t know is that we played pick-up games with the white kids all the time.”
“We played and we didn’t think a thing about it. At first, it was us against them, but then we began to choose up sides and play. We just played ball.”
“Coach Boston was a great coach; he taught me so much about football.”
“The funny thing is, I played both offense and defense but I scored more touchdowns on defense.”
Brown spent his four-year college football career at Grambling State University in Louisiana.
He played tight end, linebacker, and defensive end for legendary Tigers head football coach Eddie Robinson.
Brown helped Grambling State win the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship as a freshman linebacker in 1960.
— GSU_Tigers (@GSU_TIGERS) April 28, 2018
Years later, Brown reflected on his transformation into a defensive back in the pros:
“I didn’t play DB in college,” Brown told ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez. “I just knew that if you beat the hell out of the receivers coming off the line of scrimmage, that was going to affect whether they could catch the ball or not.”
Brown trusted his football instincts and it eventually translated into a remarkable football career.
However, a young Willie Brown had no immediate takers once his playing days at Grambling State were over.
After several unsuccessful pleas to several NFL and AFL teams, Robinson eventually convinced the Houston Oilers to give Brown a tryout.
Oilers head coach and general manager Pop Ivy assigned Brown to the secondary.
Despite the latter’s best efforts, the Oilers released him during training camp.
Brown’s transition to the pro game marked a tumultuous time between the NFL and AFL.
Since the AFL’s inception in 1960, it had been aggressively recruiting black players from historically-black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Major football programs in the South also disallowed these black players from competing in the pro leagues.
Thus, they were stuck in the HBCUs.
Willie Brown was apart of Grambling’s first SWAC Championship. The cornerback went on to be a 5x AFL All-Star, Raiders franchise leader for INTs and previously held the Super Bowl record for longest INT. Brown was inducted into the Pro Football HOF in 1984. #BlackHistoryMonth pic.twitter.com/8a4NO5o3rS
— BlackCollegeFootball (@BCFHOF) February 19, 2021
Brown discussed the recruiting situation of black players back in the day with The Undefeated’s David Steele in 2019:
“The AFL came in and said, ‘Hey, we don’t care what color you are, we want you to play in the American Football League,’ and that’s when things took off for black players.
“(NFL) scouts didn’t come to Grambling, Texas Southern, Prairie View, all the black schools, looking for talent.”
Willie Brown was about to make his indelible mark on professional football.
Taking The AFL By Storm In The Mile High City
The Denver Broncos signed 23-year-old Willie Brown in 1963.
Brown became a cornerback in the pro ranks.
He wore No. 24 – a classic number for defensive backs – for the Broncos.
Brown’s switch to defensive back was a pivotal moment in his football career.
This was where he would make a name for himself for the next 16 seasons.
The Broncos were one of the pioneer members of the American Football League (AFL), which was established in 1960.
When Brown came aboard, the Broncos were in their fourth year of existence.
Back then, they were averaging fewer than five wins per 14-game season.
Could Willie Brown help them become a contender?
No, he couldn’t.
Brown played four seasons (1963-66) in the Mile High City.
The Broncos took a step backward during that stretch, averaging a paltry three wins per season.
Brown’s best season came in 1964, when he recorded nine interceptions in 14 contests – an impressive feat, to say the least.
This coming from a second-year pro who never played a single down as a defensive back during his college days in Louisiana.
To nobody’s surprise, Brown became an AFL All-Star in 1964.
1965 Denver Broncos mini helmet signed by:
HOF 84 pic.twitter.com/JjU36wK8WA
— T.S.M.H.E. (@T_S_M_H_E) March 27, 2017
Brown’s best game as a Bronco came on November 15, 1964 when he intercepted four passes in a 20-16 win over the New York Jets.
Brown is one of 21 players to accomplish that gaudy feat in pro football history.
Among the other defensive backs who reached that milestone include DeAngelo Hall, Deltha O’Neal, Deron Cherry, and Kwamie Lassiter.
Brown concluded his four-year stint in Denver with 15 interceptions in 50 games and two AFL All-Star selections.
Oakland Raiders Super Bowl Glory
While Willie Brown served notice he was one of the best cornerbacks in the AFL, the Denver Broncos struggled mightily.
On the other hand, the Oakland Raiders, another founding member of the AFL, were on the rise.
Willie Brown officially became a member of the Silver and Black prior to the 1967 AFL season.
Many years later, Brown told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Lamarre his trade to Oakland was his fondest memory as a Raider:
“Probably the greatest memory as a Raider is coming to the Raiders, meeting Al Davis in Denver.”
“I was playing with Denver and got traded to the Raiders. He took the time to come to Denver, fly in, talk to me about joining the Raiders. That’s probably the greatest moment.”
Willie Brown will forever be cherished as a true Raider.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) October 22, 2019
Brown made an immediate impact, picking off seven passes and adding two fumble recoveries in his first season as a Raider in 1967.
Oakland won 13 of 14 regular-season games, won the AFL Championship, and made its first Super Bowl appearance that year.
Behind quarterback Bart Starr’s 202 passing yards and one touchdown pass, the Green Bay Packers beat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, 33-14.
Brown finished with one combined tackle and one solo tackle in his Super Bowl debut.
Despite the loss, Brown became an AFL All-Star for the third time.
It was also the first of three consecutive AFL All-Star selections as a member of the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders were a juggernaut in the next three seasons, winning 32 of 42 games.
Unfortunately, they lost in the conference championship game each time.
As for Brown, he earned four consecutive Pro Bowl nods from 1970 to 1973.
During that stretch, he had 12 interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Clearly, he was in the upper echelon of cornerbacks during the Raiders’ first four years in the NFL.
A championship life lived with style and swagger.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) October 22, 2019
Despite missing out on the Pro Bowl for the remainder of his career, Brown was still a legitimate defensive stopper.
He intercepted eight passes for the Raiders from 1974 to 1976.
Until that time, Oakland dominated during the regular season but failed to reach the Super Bowl again.
That changed during the 1976 NFL season.
The Raiders went 13-1 during the regular season and squared off against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
One of the most defining moments in Brown’s storied NFL career came in the fourth quarter.
The Raiders were comfortably ahead at 26-7 with 5:43 left to play in the game. Brown was covering Vikings wide receiver Sammy White.
Brown told Mississippi Today he knew Minnesota quarterback Frank Tarkenton was going to throw to White all along:
“The funny thing is, I knew it was going to happen, I just knew it.”
“I visualized it just the way it happened the night before. In fact, I told my roommate, Gene Upshaw, exactly what was going to happen.”
“I knew what was coming. I knew Fran was going to throw to Sammy on the quick sideline pattern, so I gave a look like I was going to stay back, and then I broke on it.”
Brown rumbled 75 yards toward the opposing end zone unscathed for a pick-six.
As soon as Brown picked off Tarkenton’s pass, NFL Films zoomed in on the former’s face as he strode along the sideline.
It was a look of intensity captured on camera and replayed thousands of times on national television.
“They show it over and over on ESPN, especially during Super Bowl week,” Brown told Cleveland. “I guess I have seen it about a million times.”
— Spooky 🇩🇪 (@SpookyRaider) January 22, 2021
Brown’s stellar defensive play put an exclamation point on the Raiders’ first Vince Lombardi Trophy. Oakland won easily, 32-14.
It was Brown’s only Super Bowl ring as a player.
He would go on to win two more as the Raiders’ defensive backs coach in the ensuing years.
Brown played two more seasons in Oakland. He retired after the 1978 NFL season.
Brown concluded his stellar 16-year football career with 54 interceptions, two pick-sixes, and four fumble recoveries in 204 career games with the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders.
Many experts consider Brown one of the best defensive backs in Raiders football history along with the likes of Charles Woodson, Lester Hayes, Mike Haynes, and Terry McDaniel.
Willie Brown’s Post-Football Life
Willie Brown remained an integral part of the Oakland Raiders organization for many years since he retired from the gridiron.
The Raiders hired him as their defensive backs coach from 1979 to 1988.
During the early part of that stretch, Oakland was a perennial championship contender.
The Raiders, under the leadership of head coach Tom Flores, won Super Bowl XV and Super Bowl XVIII.
When the Raiders won their second Vince Lombardi Trophy in four seasons, Brown worked with stellar defensive players such as Vann McElroy, Mike Haynes, and Lester Hayes (the latter two formed the dreaded “Haynes and Hayes” duo which terrorized offenses from 1983 to 1986).
🏴☠️ OTD in 1984, CB Willie Brown was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Undrafted & cut by the Oilers in 1963, Willie would go on to play 16 years, named to 9 Pro Bowls & won Super Bowl XI with the Raiders! #RaiderNation #Raiders pic.twitter.com/4uRb3aHgLm
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) July 28, 2020
During Brown’s tenure as Raiders defensive backs coach, he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.
Team owner Al Davis, the man who acquired him in a trade with the Denver Broncos in 1967, was his presenter.
Brown revealed in his enshrinement speech it was Davis’ wife, Carol, who wanted him to become a Raider:
“You know, Al is a unique guy; he takes credit for a lot of things particularly the plan to get me to the Raiders.
“But the lady who is responsible for all this is Mrs. Carol Davis: she saw me play and she decided that she wanted me to come to Oakland and he does not take the credit for it – Mrs. Davis takes the credit for it.”
The Long Beach State 49ers hired Brown to become their defensive backs coach in 1990.
Brown eventually succeeded George Allen, who passed away in December 1990, as the 49ers’ head football coach a month later.
Long Beach State won just two of 11 games with Brown at the helm.
While at Long Beach State, Brown coached future NFL football players Jay Walker and Terrell Davis.
After a three-year hiatus from football, Brown became the head coach of the Jordan High School Bulldogs in 1994.
A year later, Brown returned to the Black Hole.
The Raiders hired him as their director of staff development – a capacity he assumed for 24 years.
According to The Associated Press, Brown was a “regular presence around the team” during his third tour of duty with the Raiders.
During this time, Brown shared his football knowledge with elite defensive backs such as Nnamdi Asomugha, Charles Woodson, and Rod Woodson.
— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) October 22, 2019
Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, wore Brown’s No, 24 when he played for the Silver and Black.
Woodson shared a story about Brown’s enthusiasm to wear his jersey number with Raiders.com:
“I remember Brown – nobody wanted me to put 24 on more than Willie Brown. He said, ‘Hey, listen, man. You’re going to put this 24 on, and you’re going to be great.”
“Y’all know how Willie Brown talks. And it wasn’t until then that I truly learned about being an Oakland Raider, and about who Willie Brown was, and what he meant to Raider Nation, and how much he loved the Oakland Raiders.”
“Nobody, and I mean nobody, loved the Oakland Raiders more than Willie Brown. I promise you that.”
In recent years, Willie Brown also announced the Raiders’ selections during the yearly NFL Draft.
Brown earned another accolade in 2012: he officially became a member of the Black College Football Hall of Fame.
Among the other inductees were Steve McNair, Harry Carson, Eldridge Dickey, and Jackie Graves.
It was also Brown’s 10th induction into a Hall of Fame, per Raiders.com.
Brown is part of a rare breed of black football players.
He’s one of only nine black Pro Football Hall of Famers who spent their college careers at black colleges and started their careers in the AFL, per The Undefeated.
According to Steele, Brown is also one of just five black players who turned pro before the NFL-AFL merger and the first common draft in 1967.
The other four players are Emmitt Thomas, Larry Little, Art Shell, and Buck Buchanan.
Brown is also a member of the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team and the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Willie Brown passed away due to cancer at the age of 78 on October 21, 2019.
Brown is survived by his wife, Yvonne, two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren.
— Rod Woodson (@RodWoodson26) October 22, 2019
In a press release (via CNN), the Raiders said Brown was all about the Raider spirit:
“His legendary performance on the field changed the way the cornerback position was played and his valued guidance as a coach, mentor, and administrator permeated the organization and touched countless individuals both on and off the field.”
“Willie’s loss will leave.a tremendous void, but his leadership and presence will always be a major part of the fabric of the Raiders family.”
Willie Brown’s legacy will live forever in the hearts of not just Raiders fans, but also generations of football fans everywhere.