NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – “I can hardly wait for that whistle to blow.”
Those words were from a man of 90, but reflect the excitement of a child. That’s how Johnny “Jackrabbit” Brown viewed the return of football to Old Dominion University in 2009. That’s when I interviewed the gridiron warrior, who once scampered over defenders in the dusty, cotton leather era of 1930’s open-faced football.
Brown passed away at the age of 94 this past weekend.
It’s now that his Emmy Award-winning appearance in my series “Monarch’s Madness” comes to mind. The series spotlighted the comeback of a program that faded with the Great Depression only to return as the most successful start-up college program ever after a near 70-year hiatus.
Brown was a crusty combination of grit and humility, who, on the day we talked on the bleachers at Foreman Field, seemed most happy with a football in hand. He couldn’t resist demonstrating the classic stiff-arm Heisman Trophy pose, using my head on which to rest his hand, as he, in his words, “danced away” from defenders.
ODU, in the late 1930’s, was actually the Norfolk branch of the College of William & Mary, and Brown wore gold and green as he scampered through those fields before sparse crowds. My favorite line he used to describe himself: “tramp athlete.”
“We were walk-ons,” he said. “We didn’t have to pass anything. They had us in here so we would not compete with our fathers for jobs. It was the Depression”
Brown was even kicked off the team for a time, all because he and a teammate went to some movie called “Gone With the Wind.”
“So we decided to skip practice and see the thing and came back the next day, and we weren’t on the team,” he recalled. That is, until both men ran 100 laps for penance. “Then we were allowed back on,” Brown said.
Brown’s life then went from the worn sandlots of Virginia to the battlefields of Europe. He was a tank-commander under General George Patton and later came back to the area to serve as principal of Granby High School, where Brown estimates he touched the lives of more than 100,000 students.
But on that day in 2009, Johnny Brown enjoyed sharing a piece of his life — a story that cemented a legend as “Norfolk’s Jim Thorpe” when he played three sports in high school and college. Our talk earned an Emmy Award as part of the WAVY-TV series marking the rebirth of college football at ODU. When Brown found out we had won, I received this voicemail:
“Hey, Tom. This is Johnny. Thanks for telling me about the Emmy award. But could you do me a favor? I need you to write a letter, because my friends don’t believe me. If you could do that and maybe send it to me, that would be great. Thanks Tom, Bye.”
I had lunch with Johnny later that week and gave him the letter I wrote. He held it with such pride, grateful that someone else would take the time to notice the rich experience that he shared with so many. It is for this Johnny Brown will be most remembered, even over those gallops on the gridiron.