Bud Brown didn’t know it when he was drafted, but Don Shula was the perfect NFL head coach for him.
An undersized defensive back (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) out of Southern Miss, Brown was taken by the Miami Dolphins in the 11th round of the 1984 draft — the 305th player chosen.
Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history who died Monday at the age of 90, could relate.
Thirty-three years earlier, Shula — an undersized (5-11, 190) defensive back from little-known John Carroll University in Ohio — was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 9th round.
Shula became a starter at cornerback his rookie season. Brown became a starter at safety his second season.
Both loved proving people wrong. Both knew size and perception didn’t define a football player.
“Coach Shula always stood behind the defensive backs when the offense and defense went against each other in what everybody calls 7-on-7 now,” says Brown, a retired firefighter who resides with his wife, Karen, just outside Meridian. “I knew he had played defensive back so that made you listen to what he told you twice as much.”
Brown, 59, learned of his old coach’s death via Facebook.
“I’d last seen him when the 1984 team — my rookie team that reached the Super Bowl — had a reunion in 2009. He stood up some, but he spent a lot of time in a wheelchair then. It was great seeing him and a lot of the guys. It brought back a lot of memories.
“It hit me hard when (quarterback Dan) Marino retired. Now my coach has passed on. It really makes you think how fast time is passing.”
A few minutes later, Brown laughs and begins telling the story of the moment his rookie year that almost ended his NFL career before it started — but also the moment that might have been the deciding factor in making the Dolphins’ roster.
“We were doing goal-line defense and the quarterbacks, Marino and Don Strock, were wearing red jerseys, which meant you’re not supposed to hit them,” Brown says. “Well, Marino ran a bootleg and was coming right at me. I was just going to grab him and show that I was there to make the tackle.
“But the closer I got to him, the more Marino lowered his shoulder. Well, I lowered mine, too. And I smoked him. Marino jumped up and said, ‘Good lick’ and trotted back to the huddle.”
Shula, meanwhile, didn’t compliment the hit.
“Coach started running and yelling at me, calling me and my mama and daddy everything in the book. But I’ve often wondered that when it came down to the final cuts if Coach might have thought, ‘If that guy is crazy enough to hit Dan Marino while trying to make this team, he might be crazy enough to help us win.’ I really kinda believe that.
“And something I’ll never forget is that after I’d made the team, Dan Marino was the first player to come over and shake my hand and say, ‘Glad you’re here.’ ”
Brown, who spent six seasons under Shula, earned his first game ball in 1985, intercepting John Elway at Denver’s Mile High Stadium in the final minutes to preserve a 30-24 win. And, yes, Brown still has the football.
After the game, Shula told Craig Barnes of the South Florida Sun Sentinel: “(Brown) had a hell of a game … He made a lot of plays for us (12 tackles), including the interception at the end.
”On the interception, he could have played it safe, but he saw the ball and broke right to it.”
While working for the Clarion Ledger, I traveled to Miami to do a story on Brown during the Dolphins’ training camp. Between practices one day, I accompanied Brown to the team’s cafeteria for lunch.
Suddenly, Don Shula was standing at our table.
“Is this is your friend from Mississippi?” Shula asked Brown.
“Yes sir, it is,” Brown said.
“Glad to have you with us,” Shula said, reaching and shaking my hand.
Shula went over a couple of practice details with Brown — whom he always called ‘Bud Brown’ — and then walked away. I looked at Brown in disbelief.
“He was like that,” Brown says now. “Coach’s wife sent us something after both our boys, Clint and Hunter, were born. He cared about his players.”
Brown and his older brother, Bill, played for one of Mississippi’s best high school coaches to ever walk a sideline — their dad, Billy Brown, at West Kemper High School in Dekalb.
Brown played for a defensive mastermind, Jim Carmody, at USM.
So he knows how great coaches approach the game.
So I ask him the secret behind Shula’s 347-173-6 record in 33 seasons — 26 with Miami. (His teams reached six Super Bowls and won two.)
“He paid attention to detail and somehow knew how to get the most out of every player,” Brown says. “One thing that really struck me is that the day after a game at 9 o’clock, he would stand while we went watched film of every special teams play. And every player was required to be there. It didn’t matter if you were Dan Marino, you attended that meeting.
“I think it sent the message to every player on the team that special teams was just as important as offense and defense.”
Two more stories about Bud Brown’s relationship with Don Shula.
In a Monday Night Football game against the Washington Redskins, Brown was ejected late in the game for bumping an official.
Sports writers asked Brown postgame if he was worried about his meeting with Shula the next morning.
Brown answered: “I’m more worried about walking out of this dressing room and facing my parents, Billy and Frances Brown, who drove 16 hours to see me play and I didn’t even finish the game.”
Brown explains what happened on the play: “The quarterback (Jay Schroeder), was running and he stumbled. I hit him, anyway. I was flagged for a late hit.
“Then their linemen started at me, protecting their quarterback. People were pushing, I saw somebody coming at me from he side, and I put my hand up. Well, it happened to be an official.
“But the official I was accused of bumping didn’t throw a flag. Another official did. He ran in and said, ‘You’re gone!’ ”
At his meeting the next day in Shula’s office, Brown feared the worst.
Instead, Shula said: “We’ve reviewed the film. It wasn’t a late hit on the quarterback and there was really nothing to you bumping the official. You’ll have to pay a $500 fine to the league. That’s automatic if you’re thrown out of a game.”
Brown was relieved — until Shula “shot me that death stare of his,” Brown recalls. “He said, ‘If we had lost the game, the team would’ve added a fine, too,. You couldn’t have afforded that one.’ ”
The other story sums up how Brown wound up with the Dolphins.
As the 11th round approached, Shula asked scout Mike Cartwright his top choice at the time to “take a chance on.” Cartwright, who had watched Brown play at USM and worked him out before the draft, immediately answered, “Bud Brown.”
Cartwright ph0ned Brown. “I’ll never forget what he said,” Brown says. “He said, ‘Coach Shula believes we got just what we wanted and needed with this pick.’
“Coach Shula listened to him about me. That changed my life.”