Although he caught only 65 passes in his career, a number that many top receivers catch in a season these days, former NU split end Todd Brown was one of the best receivers in Nebraska history.
He wasn’t the biggest (6-0, 175) but he had speed to burn.
“My inroad was my speed,” Brown said. “I became pretty good at the 40-yard dash, running a 4.36/4.38 handheld, and I worked hard at it. I was right in there with Irving Fryar…we were side-by-side when running. At the NFL Combine, the only wide receiver that was faster than I was Willie Gault.”
As a high school track star at Holdrege High School, Brown ran the 100 meters and was a long- and triple-jumper. As a senior he was a state champion in all three of those events, running the 100 in 10.8 and breaking the state record in the triple jump by four feet. That record stills stands: 50 feet, two-and-a-quarter inches.
“Nebraska offered me a scholarship for track, but my heart was to play football for Nebraska. You can’t play football on a track scholarship,” Brown explained. “So I passed up a track scholarship and walked on the football team. The reason Coach (Tom) Osborne didn’t give me a scholarship [was] because he didn’t know if I was fast enough. So I ran the 100 meters in the spring of my senior year.”
Because he had the necessary speed along with his athletic ability, Brown was fortunate enough to earn a scholarship in the second semester of his freshman season.
“I would have played even if they didn’t offer me one,” Brown said. “It was a huge dream for me to play for Nebraska. When you were a young man, the pinnacle of sports in our state was to represent the state. It was almost a patriotic thing, like going to the Army or something. There was something that was compelling inside. It was representing my community; it was my representing my family, representing my God, to be a Husker. It was really important.
“I don’t know if young people feel that way anymore, but in my high school when I grew up, if you wore an Oklahoma shirt, you would get razzed all day long. It was like another country, you were flying a different flag. I was so loyal, not just me but our community and everybody I grew up with. If you felt like you had a shot to make it (play football at Nebraska), try it. That is certainly what I did.”
Brown said he was lucky as a freshman, because within the first week he was one of five players on the team to redshirt in the new freshman redshirt ruling. Dave Rimington, Roger Craig and Jamie Williams were part of that group.
“So I never played on the freshman team,” Brown said. “It was the best move strategically that could have happened to me. I came up there just wanting to make a name for myself. I was only 160 pounds, but was really fast. It (redshirt year) toughened me up and taught [me] to go full speed. I saw playing on the scout team as an honor, and if I could score touchdowns on the Blackshirts, I could start for Nebraska. If you ask the defensive coaches from back then, I raised a lot of havoc in their secondary as a freshman against the Blackshirts. I scored a lot of touchdowns and gave them a good look.”
For a Nebraska boy from a small town in Nebraska, it was more than just football. That shone through to his teammates who didn’t know what Husker Football was about.
“It was important to me, it was important to my community and it was important to my family. These people from out-of-state got a sense of this being a bigger deal than your average college football,” Brown said. “I think it gave them a sense a pride for the state and a love for the people of this state, and ultimately it elevated everybody’s game. This isn’t just about me becoming an NFL football player. We didn’t worry about that.”
As a redshirt freshman in 1979, Brown bided his time on the depth chart. He did not have any receiving stats, but learned from veteran receivers like Tim Smith. Then as a sophomore in 1980, Brown won the job at split end, and he didn’t disappoint, having his best season as a Husker in catches (28), yards (416) and touchdowns (five).
Brown said the most memorable game of his career came in that 1980 season, in a home game against Florida State. At the time the Seminoles were not the “name” program they are today. As Brown put it: “It was just another non-conference ‘we’re going to kill ‘em’ kind of game.”
Brown felt he personally played a really good game. There was something about that game; he felt he contributed a lot, and not just because he scored a couple of touchdowns. (Brown scored both of Nebraska’s touchdowns on pass receptions).
Even though Brown had a good game, the Cornhuskers did not. FSU upset the Big Red in their own backyard, 18-14. NU had a chance to win the game at the end when they drove to the Seminole three-yard line with just 12 seconds left to play. But as quarterback Jeff Quinn rolled left, he was hit by an FSU linebacker and fumbled.
“If Jeff wouldn’t have gotten hit, I was wide open in the end zone,” Brown said. “I ran a simple out pattern and I had their defensive back’s number all game, and he took a fake to the inside and I spun him around. So I was standing wide open in the corner end zone as Jeff was getting hit and going down.”
At the end of that game Bobby Bowden sought out Brown and told him that he played a really good game.
Brown started again at split end in 1981 and 1982. Even though he didn’t catch as many passes as most receivers would have liked, for Brown, just winning mattered most.
“For me, I wasn’t there to catch balls, I was there to win football games. I was there to represent my state, and to do whatever it takes to helps the Huskers win,” Brown said.
When Brown caught the ball, it was a big play. He knew he was going to get only three or four balls a game, but that they were going to be big plays. He had several games in which he caught two touchdowns, despite catching a total of only three passes.
“It was a different way in thinking about a receiver. It was just as much fun to spring Mike Rozier or Roger Craig on a big run than it was for me to catch a pass. I was there for the team, not for myself,” Brown said.
Brown and the 1982 team suffered probably one of the most gut-wrenching losses in Nebraska football history. It came in State College, Pa., against the eighth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. Nebraska came in ranked No. 2, featuring probably the most talented offense of any Husker team ever. The offensive line had Outland and Lombardi Trophy winners Dave Rimington and Dean Steinkuhler, tight end Jamie Williams, I-backs Mike Rozier and Roger Craig, quarterback Turner Gill and receivers Fryar and Brown.
“When we lost to Penn State out there because of those two bad calls, Coach Osborne handled it like a man,” Brown said. “What he said at the end of the game was just a character builder. He said, ‘Guys, you want to win a national championship, you gotta play so much better than the other team that no one can take it away from you. So no one say anything about the officiating, those guys don’t try and make bad calls, just don’t talk about it.’
“It was good for us to hear, because our heart was broke. I felt we were as good a team Nebraska has ever put on the field.”
But not winning a national title didn’t define Brown’s playing career, or his college experience.
“A national title would have been nice, but I got so much out of the game, the memories, the teaching, and the life experiences. Just playing for Coach Osborne was enough.”
After Nebraska, Brown was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round, but ended up playing Canadian football for six years before hanging up his cleats.
The teaching, life experiences and lessons learned carried Brown into a very rewarding profession.
“I was involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and became a Christian before I came to the University of Nebraska. That has been a driving force in my life,” Brown explained. “I found a way to take my profession, or architecture and construction, and point it towards promoting the gospel by designing and building churches across the United States. I am the CEO of the company: Brown Church Development Group.”
Having his office in Kearney, Brown enjoys life with his wife on an acreage along the Platte River. The couple has four children, ranging in age from 25-year old twins to a son who goes to Kearney High School.
Brown was and always will be a perfect example of a Nebraska kid living out his dream. And he has nothing but high praise for how the NU football program enabled him to realize that dream.
“You knew that the Nebraska program developed you into a player that was competent and able to compete. It was more about the testimony of the Nebraska program than about something great about that individual. They turned willing kids into football players.”
And Brown was simply that.
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Shane Gilster is the Editor of Big Red Report Magazine. His stories focus mainly on catching up with former Huskers and examining Nebraska athletic history.
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