Putting family values ahead of college coaching career
He stands on the sideline, outfitted in a coat and baseball cap, still wearing Burrell blue. He isn’t the head coach, and he seldom draws attention from any of the several thousand spectators in the stands.
Here is a man who made one of the greatest catches in Sugar Bowl history, arguably one of the finest in the long and storied history of Pitt football.
And unless you know him, you wouldn’t know he is that John Brown.
Such a life is a utopia of sorts for Brown. He still eats, sleeps and drinks football, but, at the same time, it does not consume him. He works as a financial advisor for the Greater Allegheny Financial Group; spends his summers and autumns as assistant football coach at Burrell High School, instructing receivers, tight ends and outside linebackers; and is a devoted husband and devout father of four.
More than 20 years have passed since he became etched in Pitt football lore. Brown, 43, still laughs when, after receiving a solid dose of ribbing from Burrell’s other coaches, his players approach him, asking, “Did you really catch that pass?”
He is a small-town idol who returned to his native Lower Burrell and willingly tossed aside what could have been a promising college coaching career to raise his family.
He works hard at what he does, in the business world, on the football field and as a family man.
And though he answers his players truthfully when prodded, Brown prefers to be remembered for those attributes, not as a one-play flash in the pan.
“Almost secretly what bothers me about it — and bother is probably too strong a word — to some extent, it takes away from what I’m most proud of, and what I’m most proud of is I was a guy who showed up every day and worked hard and could be counted on,” Brown said.
“What it has done, because of the situation, the drama surrounding that kind of a play, it was such a moment — something kids for generations have pretended to do in their back yard, and I did, too — that it kind of created a notoriety that ordinary plays would never create for a person.”
Brown throws and catches literally thousands of passes each year while coaching at Burrell, giving back to a community he holds dear to his heart.
It was one pass he caught on Jan. 1, 1982, though, that lives in the minds of everyone who watched that Sugar Bowl game between Pitt and Georgia.
Trailing 20-17 with 42 seconds remaining and facing a fourth-and-five at the Georgia 33-yard line, Pitt quarterback Dan Marino dropped back to pass. Seeing that his running backs stayed in to pick up the Bulldogs’ blitz, Marino spotted Brown over the middle and zipped a 33-yard scoring strike to Brown.
The catch lifted Pitt to a 24-20 victory and an 11-1 final record. It also made Brown immortal.
The catch made the cover of sports sections all across American that week, not to mention Sports Illustrated.
A year later, with his collegiate career finished, Brown held out hope that he might be selected in that year’s NFL draft. It wasn’t as though he didn’t have the credentials, size and speed.
It was his right knee, on which Brown was forced to have surgery twice, once during the middle of his senior season and then again after the season, that caused teams to shy away from him.
He had missed the pre-draft workouts where scouts grade and rank prospective draftees. So rather than being drafted, Brown settled for signing a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Before camp even opened, Brown was called into the team doctor’s office. X-rays showed that his right shoulder, which had been operated on several times dating back to his high school days, required surgery again.
He was told he would be placed on injured reserve, making him ineligible to play the upcoming season. Equally as frustrating for Brown, his knee wasn’t responding to rehabilitation as he had hoped, and he began developing back problems.
Finally, after about one season, he said enough.
The road back home
With his dream of playing professional football dashed, Brown began carving a career path.
He returned to Pittsburgh, finished a few classes and earned his degree in English writing.
But he wanted to coach. He contacted a friend in Texas, interviewed and was hired at Marine Military Academy in the Rio Grande Valley town of Harlingen, Texas, as an English teacher, and football and boys basketball coach.
“I always thought being in some small school tucked away somewhere was paradise,” Brown said. “I enjoyed that.”
He also realized he needed to scratch his itch to move on to the next level.
Pitt hired Brown to be an assistant coach, but after two seasons — one under Foge Fazio and the other under Mike Gottfried — and he and his wife Debbie’s second child on the way, Brown walked away.
“The (college) coaching life is not conducive to a good home life,” he said.
“He was probably only a year or two away from being a receivers coach at a top-notch (university),” said Burrell head coach Tom Henderson. “He has a good, old-school approach. He works with the kids very well. He demands perfection.”
Brown began working for A.C. Dellovade Inc., an ironworking company, in Washington County before moving back to the Valley in 1990.
“What I specifically like about the Valley is the fact that I have great friends,” Brown said. “In many ways, I frequently consider myself to be very blessed to have good friends, probably more than I deserve.
“The fact that we see each other all the time, I think it’s truly a great place to raise a family, your children can get a good education, sports are big, there’s a lot to do.
“There are good people here.”
He considers himself fortunate to have been raised in the Valley and said the area affords today’s youth similar opportunities that he had.
So he’ll continue to stand along the sideline, in the shadows, content in what he has accomplished and where he and his family are headed.
Hometown: Lower Burrell
Family information: Wife: Debbie Brown, formerly Debbie Moret; children: John, 16; Aaron 15; Kathryn, 9; and Emma, 6.
Favorite thing about the Valley: “In my particular case, over the years I’ve developed what I consider a large number of very, very good trusted friends, and they’re all close by. All my family is here, too.”
Motto for the Valley: “A great place to raise a family.”