Booker T. Brown, born into the hard-scrabble poverty of the Jim Crow South, found his life’s path while paving Sam Cunningham’s way into the football lore of both Santa Barbara High School and USC.
On Monday, however, it was the lineman who followed the running back into eternity.
The 69-year-old Brown died in West Covina on his wedding anniversary — his wife, Jacqueline Mayfield Brown, by his side — barely 10 months after the death of his fellow All-American and NFL star.
“Damn,” Mike Fryer said as he relayed news about the death of his former SBHS and Santa Barbara City College teammate. “Within a year of Sam Bam’s passing, too.
“Both have hit hard.”
Brown, whose football career included a stint in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, marveled about his life’s journey when he was inducted into SBCC’s Athletics Hall of Fame. The event, held three years ago in a venue graced by the view of the Santa Barbara marina, reminded him of how far he’d come.
“Hey, I grew up in Mississippi,” he said. “My family were sharecroppers, and we didn’t have running water in the house. But we had food on the table … And we had love.”
That drove him in life even after football. Brown taught both special education and regular classes in middle school. He coached football at Mojave High School in Hesperia.
He became an ordained minister 23 years ago. And when failing health forced him to give up his pastorship, he and Jackie started the Booker T. Brown Foundation.
Brown never forgot the need he witnessed as a youth.
“My father still wanted to give back,” said James Brown, the second youngest of Booker’s seven sons. “He mentored, fed, clothed and sheltered people in the Mojave and Sacramento communities.
“Beyond the fame and notoriety, my father’s character was his most significant asset and attribute I admired the most. Being the gentle giant, he left big shoes and a big shadow to fill. He was treasured by many and loved by all.”
In addition to James, Brown is survived by sons Booker Jr., Levi, Nehemiah Banks, William Johnson, Bobby Washington and Cleo Brown.
His two surviving brothers, Lorenzo and Joe Brown, still reside in Santa Barbara. His older sister, Joyce Brown, lives in Santa Rosa.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Booker T. Foundation. Click here to make an online donation.
A Vaquero Revival
SBCC’s Hall of Fame induction in 2019 allowed Brown to personally thank the college for giving him his own second chance. Poor grades in high school had spoiled his first shot at an athletic scholarship.
Coach Bob Dinaberg’s program had gifted him with “one of the greatest environments on this earth.”
“The love that you have is transferred between everyone here, even the people you don’t know,” Brown said. “That makes it a family … And when you say I’m part of this family, that’s one of the greatest blessings and one of the most special things you could have ever done for me.”
Brown, the youngest of 10 children in the family of the Rev. Joseph and Louise Brown, eventually followed his father into the ministry. He preached in several Southern California desert communities, including Sun Village Church of Christ in Littlerock.
He once joked about having been “a drug baby.”
“I was drug to church,” Brown said. “I guess that was my destiny.”
Brown’s destiny included a life-changing move from the Deep South to the serene shores of Santa Barbara with his family on Christmas Eve in 1962. He recalled watching USC beat Wisconsin 42-37 on television in a Rose Bowl thriller just one week later.
“What makes a 10-year-old pick a team?” Brown mused. “The team who won.
“I became a Trojan fan on Jan. 1, 1963.”
He was a schoolyard legend at Franklin Elementary and Santa Barbara Junior High. Fryer, who attended Garfield and La Cumbre Junior High, competed against Brown in such after-school sports as flag football, basketball and even baseball.
Every time they hooked up in the decades that followed, Fryer would thank his good friend, Booker, for “forcing me to raise my game at an early age so I could compete on the same field or court as he.”
“He was already a man among boys,” he explained. “We became teammates at SBHS and played on some pretty darn good teams in all three sports.
“His football talents are most remembered, but he also excelled at center in basketball and as a first baseman and pitcher in baseball.”
They were also teammates for two seasons at SBCC. Brown ran interference as a blocker and Fryer nabbed interceptions as a defensive back, snagging a school-record 11 of them.
They both earned JC All-America and All-State honors while leading the Vaqueros to another school record of nine victories. Their 6-0 sweep through the Western State Conference marked SBCC’s only undefeated season during its 43-year tenure in the league.
Brown’s quick-trigger explosiveness as a 6-foot-2 and 257-pound lineman inspired Dinaberg to change his entire offensive scheme.
“He was at the point of attack 80% of the time,” he said. “I tried to run plays years after Booker left — the same plays Booker ran — and they just didn’t work.”
The Old College Troy
USC recruited Brown as an offensive guard. He got his first start as a tackle, however, after several Trojans had gone down with injuries before their showdown at No. 15 Stanford in Week Five of the 1972 season.
Coach John McKay was ready with a smart-aleck response when reporters grilled him about his rapidly thinning line.
“Well, we’ve got this guard named Booker Brown,” he said. “He’s the widest athlete I’ve ever seen. We’ll put a helmet on each of his shoulders and have him play both tackle and guard.”
The Trojans won 30-21. And they kept winning — all the way to New Year’s Day.
Cunningham launched over the goal line and into history with a Rose Bowl-record four touchdowns during a 42-17 rout over Ohio State. It capped an undefeated season and clinched the national championship for USC.
Sam Cathcart, their coach at Santa Barbara High, was still bragging about his two Dons during a “Ye Ole Gang” alumni reunion three decades later. He gestured how Sam Bam kept going “right over Booker, who was flattening Buckeye defenders.”
Brown was a consensus All-American the following year. A tie with Oklahoma and a loss to Notre Dame, however, cost USC a chance for back-to-back NCAA titles. The Trojans did earn another Rose Bowl berth by defeating UCLA 24-7 in a showdown of Pac-8 unbeatens in the final game of the regular season.
Coming Up Roses
Brown said they’d been motivated by a claim that the Bruins had already bought new uniforms to wear in the Rose Bowl.
“Coach McKay told us, ‘Let’s keep those uniforms in mothballs,’” he said.
Fryer, a starting defensive back for UCLA, had graciously “congratulated both Sam Bam and Booker at midfield” after the final gun of their 1972 meeting. The 1973 defeat, however, left him too devastated to leave the Bruins’ sideline.
“We were favored,” he explained. “I was so stunned that we got upset that I simply sat on the bench following the game, knowing that it was my last college game … and no Rose Bowl.”
Brown’s collegiate career ended at that Rose Bowl with a 42-21 loss to Archie Griffin’s Ohio State Buckeyes. It was ironically, as he put it, “my best game as a Trojan.”
“I graded 100%: No tackles, no assists by the guys who played over me,” he said.
Nobody smiled more off the field than Booker T. Brown. Nobody snarled more when he was on it. He even got under the skin of Woody Hayes, Ohio State’s tempestuous coach.
“Arnie Jones was the first defensive tackle that went against me,” he recalled. “I beat him into a bloody pulp. He came to the sideline, and Woody Hayes broke a clipboard over his helmet.
“Pete Cusick came into the game. He was scared to death. ‘What’s this guy have, a razor blade out here?’ His arms were shaking. I was a violent, vicious guy. I liked to talk on the field. I told him, ‘This is gonna hurt, but it’ll be quick.’”
Big Payday to No Payday
Brown was selected by the Houston Oilers in the sixth round of the 1974 NFL Draft. The Southern California Sun of the new World Football League outbid them, however, to make Brown the highest paid offensive lineman in professional football.
He was soon paving the way for his former UCLA adversaries, running backs Kermit Alexander and James McAllister. The Sun had little trouble rising to first place in the Western Conference of the WFL’s 1974 standings.
All three players opted out of their contracts, however, when the team failed to make payroll just before their playoff opener against the Hawai‘i Hawaiians.
The Sun set with a 32-14, first-round loss at Anaheim Stadium, prompting coach Tom Fears to say, “It sure as hell didn’t help any not having Kermit and Booker.” Just one year later, the sporting world no longer had a World Football League, either.
Brown signed with the Chargers in 1975 and got his first start against Denver on Nov. 16. Although the Broncos won 27-17, their All-Pro defensive end, Lyle Alzado, approached him after the game to pay his compliments.
“This guy has a reputation as a brawler … He was a former gang banger from the Bronx,” Brown said. “He says to me, ‘Hey, uh, you’re going to be a good lineman.’”
Brown, normally self-effacing and soft-spoken after the final whistle, figured it best to continue his bravado with one of the game’s most intimidating players.
“I said, ‘I know … You got anything else to tell me? I just kicked your behind the whole game. You better tell me what I’m going to be because I owned you.’”
Injuries and ailments, however, soon told Brown that his pro football career would be short. He played his last game for the Chargers in 1977.
He did get the chance to explain that to Alzado when their paths crossed in an airport terminal nearly two decades after their first meeting.
“He goes, ‘What happened to you?’” Brown recalled. “I said, ‘Well, different things happen. You become damaged goods and the teams aren’t going to take a chance by paying you for the rest of your life.’
“So he says, ‘Man, I’d wondered what happened to you because you were a good football player.’ I said, ‘I take that as a compliment coming from you.’”
On Any Sunday
The braggadocio was sidelined. The real, sweet nature of Booker Brown had been called into play.
His Christian ministry arose from the same humble beginnings that had marked his Mississippi youth. The pastor of a church noticed the massive, ex-football player walking past and asked if he could help move some heavy objects in his cluttered courtyard.
Booker Brown was soon reading Bible stories to the church’s youngest parishioners. His desire from then on, he always said, was to give back for all the good fortune that had come his way.
“This game of football was a catapult for me,” he said during one of his many returns to Santa Barbara. “It gave me a lot of confidence. It helped me provide for my family. It gave me the peace of mind of being around people who I still love and are dear to me.
“I couldn’t have grown up in a better place than Santa Barbara. Just the people and the lifestyle. No racism or bigotry.”
Brown paused so he could flash one of his famous, gap-toothed smiles.
“This is part of my legacy,” he said.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.