For most of my life whenever I thought of Willie Brown the image that came to mind was the often-replayed slow motion clip of him returning an interception for a touchdown in Super Bowl XI.
In recent years the image that comes to mind was one of him walking across his brother’s restaurant to pick up my young son James.
We were making one of our many trips to the Hall of Fame Restaurant in Little Yazoo to pick up some hamburgers named after the NFL legend from Yazoo City. The restaurant is owned by Willie’s brother David, and in addition to having some of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted, the place is like a small NFL museum with the walls covered with autographed photos from Hall of Fame players and other memorabilia.
James is a football fanatic, and he has always been fascinated with the place. Since he knew Willie Brown was from Yazoo City, James asked me a million questions about him. It seemed hard for him to believe that one of the greatest defensive players of all times grew up in our hometown.
So it was a wonderful surprise when we walked in and discovered that Mr. Brown was there to visit family and friends. His brother introduced us, and Mr. Brown quickly sealed the deal on having a fan for life with young James.
He was happy to answer all of James’ questions, and he seemed just as excited to ask questions about current events in his beloved hometown. We sat out on the front porch for a little while and talked, and when we got ready to leave he asked if I wanted to take a picture with James.
I wasn’t going to ask because I didn’t want to be a pest, but of course I did.
James got to see his hometown hero again when Mr. Brown came home to serve as the guest speaker for the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
We were thrilled that Mr. Brown agreed to speak at the banquet, but he did much more than that. He donated a great deal of sports memorabilia to be auctioned off to raise funds for the local chapter.
He obviously loved the chance to give back to his hometown, and he made a great impression on all of the young people present.
Countless Willie Brown stories have been shared across the nation since his death last week. Most of those stories have understandably been focused on his incredible career and how he remained devoted to the Raiders after his playing days were over.
Willie Brown retired from the NFL in 1978, when I was just two years old. The fact that he remains a household name is a testament to his greatness as a player.
But here in Yazoo he’ll also be remembered for being a great person off the field.
The late Dennis Mitchell, who worked for this newspaper for many years, was the biggest Oakland Raiders fan I’ve ever known. At his funeral his sons presented me with a Raiders Shirt with his name on the back.
His widow, Lillian, also works for the paper. One day I complimented the nice Raiders hat she was wearing.
She told me that she ran into a man in Yazoo who was wearing the hat. She asked him where she could get a hat like that because it reminded her of something Dennis would have loved.
“You can have mine,” she said.
When she was telling me about this nice man, I recognized who she was describing.
It was Willie Brown, and she had no idea that he was a famous football player. She just knew that he was one heck of a nice guy.
Farewell to a Yazoo legend who was a fierce competitor on the field and a true gentleman everywhere he went.