Sunday, July 13, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seahawks -- In Search Of ... Chad Brown

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

FINDING A LABEL for the Seattle Seahawk linebacker and businessman isn't easy. In fact, the player who strives to keep football in perspective would prefer if people didn't try.

The jungle was alive. Growling. Moaning. Chirping. Everything moving in the dank of an Indonesian night. A skin of ants crawled on the trees. A crown of cobwebs hung overhead. A liquid ground oozed beneath the grass.

And Chad Brown stopped. The others were gone, squishing ahead through the thicket of brush. He let them go, let them disappear until the flashlights vanished, until there was nothing but black all around and a night that buzzed. This was what he wanted, what he came halfway around the world to hear. He turned off his flashlight. Then he was still and nothing else was.

"I stood there and listened to the jungle," the man who will revive the Seattle Seahawks says. "You can feel the rhythm of the jungle."

It is three years later and Brown sits in an old swivel chair, in the makeshift office of a decrepit warehouse in Boulder, Colo., that is his snake business. It still seems amazing that he was standing in the jungle halfway around the world looking for snakes.

This is a piece of his life. There are so many pieces, falling around him in a shower of contrasts. Those who know him say you can't identify him; he won't let you. He played college football a couple of miles from here, at the University of Colorado, and won a national championship. The Seahawks have given him more than $30 million because they think the 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker can do the same for them.

Yet even they don't know that a couple of miles from here he tried to quit the game one fall weekend. That sitting here in this business he owns, with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare, exotic snakes curled up in aquariums and plastic cases, he doesn't really want to talk about football. That on the wall of the office are pictures of Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur and even a photo of Brown in the jungle as well as a map of the world, but nothing that says he is a football player.

Brown turned 27 yesterday and might be on the verge of becoming the best linebacker in the NFL. He says he wants to be. He just doesn't want that to be his lone identity. Not when the planet is stretched across the wall and there's so much of it he hasn't seen.

"He wants to be known for more than football," his mother, Marsha, says. "That's just one facet of a multifaceted person."

The other day he did an interview with Sports Illustrated for Kids. The reporter asked, if he could meet one person in history, who would it be? Brown refused to answer. Any answer, he feared, would stamp him for life. "What if I said `Malcolm X'? They'll say I was a militant," he says. "If I say `Jesus Christ,' they'll say, `Oh, he's a good Christian guy.' No matter what I put, they'll label me off that answer."

He is like no other football player. He started this business from nothing, developing it into one of the country's better dealers of exotic reptiles. But there are other longings. He must read. He must travel. There is culture and history. His wife, Kristin, had a baby girl, Amani, last year. He wants to be with them now.

The money from the Seahawks and the expectations suddenly thrust on him might take him away from these things. He doesn't want that to happen.

He has hiked the mountains of Costa Rica in search of snakes, spent two days in Thailand. Once, in southern Texas, he lay on the road, in the middle of the night with nothing around for miles and watched in reverent silence as a herd of wild sheep thundered past.

In Indonesia, the party he was traveling with stumbled across a village locked in time. The people had never seen anyone quite like him. Certainly no one as big. They watched in awe as he filmed them with his video camera. He gazed as they gathered around to see him replay the footage.

Complex person

His skin has the olive tone of a man who is of two races. And maybe this is the ultimate complexity of Brown, the player who refuses to be labeled. His parents - a black father and white mother - challenged him to develop a curiosity to learn about a world far from the tidy lawns of Altadena, Calif.

They encouraged him to read and ask questions. And they also gave him the body that has grown until he became the most desired free agent in the NFL last winter.

The picture is never clear. The player pursued the history of his father's race when he got to college. "I had to know the truth," he says. "In high school they don't teach you the truth." It was here he came to admire Malcolm X, to listen to reggae and rap and in the end, define himself more as a black man than a white one.

The person he has trusted to help run his business is a young white man with a shaved head named Robyn. They met in college when Robyn worked at a record store at which Brown regularly searched for reggae CDs. They have been friends since.

Ironically, the Malcolm X poster on the wall is Robyn's. The black woman who plays basketball and passes through the warehouse is Robyn's girlfriend. In Brown's world, nothing is easily classified. The labels just don't fit.

"Maybe it's because people who don't know me come to me with two things - football and snakes," Brown says. "While the people who do know me, know that I spend a lot of time talking about football and snakes and want to talk about other things. In fact, when I talk about football and snakes, I feel like I have to give a performance or something. Whereas, when I hang with my friends, we talk about traveling or Tupac Shakur or something."

There are days he would love to sit in his garage and build a chest of drawers. He reads Architectural Digest. He loves looking at contemporary homes. He'd like to learn to play the drums. He owns a motorcycle.

Which isn't to say he is tired of the snakes. In many ways, snakes are his passion. Originally, the business, called Pro Exotics, was a safety net in case football didn't work out.

But the business has exploded. It has gone from one unit in the warehouse to two. And he is close to a deal on a place in downtown Denver that would have a showroom.

"He's definitely in it for the enjoyment, because we've dumped a lot of dough in it," Robyn says. "We don't do the biggest business in the country but people know who we are because of Chad's financial situation. People are scared of us because of what we can do."

`I hate football'

When football people talk about Brown, they rave about his ferocity. Seahawk Coach Dennis Erickson loves players who hit hard. Brown is fast and hits very hard. "He always knows where the ball is," Erickson says.

What many don't know is the answer he once wrote on a survey for Colorado's publicity people. The sentence he needed to complete was, "People don't know this about me but . . ."

"I hate football," Brown replied.

How could this be? Brown pursues quarterbacks with a warrior's zeal. Once in college, he chased Iowa quarterback Jim Hartlieb around the field, even though he had suffered a separated right shoulder earlier in the game. And after he finally found Hartlieb, wrapped him in his arms and threw him on the field, the newspapers called the tackle the most devastating of the game.

How could he hate football? Brown built himself from a good linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rookie four years ago, to one who had 13 sacks last season. He is seen as something rare and wonderful, a linebacker who can rush the quarterback and stop running backs cold.

"He strikes me as a very intense guy," says Mike Murphy, Seattle's linebackers coach. "He gets frustrated when he doesn't do something right. He wants to do it again and again until he gets it right. That's the sign of a great player."

Brown says he wants to be the best linebacker in football. And when he is at practice, he pushes himself to be just that. "The thing is, he is a student of the game," Brown's father, James, says. "I don't think he'll ever satisfy himself. No matter what type of game he had, I don't think he'll be satisfied. You could say he had a tremendous game and he'd go, `Yeah, but . . . ' You can't hate the game and play all out the way he does."

To understand the dichotomy one has to understand the child who grew into a linebacker. His friends in Altadena were adventurers, restless dreamers who talked of traveling the world. They also were older.

"I think it was good for him," James says. "He grew up with a lot of maturity."

Chad's sense of adventure blossomed as he read more. Often, he'd take a volume of the encyclopedia to read in bed before falling asleep. As a child, he once picked up the book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," just because it looked interesting.

He laughs at how in college he would go to the library to study and wind up reading a book on something else. Still three classes short of a degree, he jokes that he learned more by doing that than his friends who graduated.

So one understands the lure a trip to Costa Rica or cycling across Italy would have for someone who craved more than just a playbook. "What could I do?" Brown asks now. "I couldn't go up to (Colorado) Coach (Bill) McCartney and say, `Hey, I'm going to take a semester off and go to Europe for a while.' "

But the child had to be rough, too. Almost fearless. "He was a daredevil," his father remembers. James and Marsha Brown were baffled by their son, who at one minute would be reading peacefully inside and the next be pounding his bike over a backyard ramp, hellbent on mayhem.

His mother had to rush him to the doctor. How many times was it? Five? Six? She loses count. So many cuts, bruises and broken bones.

Maybe this is how he came to be such a tenacious football player without possessing the single-minded passion for the game other great players seem to have. The energy just releases itself. As a linebacker, Brown becomes a nuclear reaction, atoms exploding in a flurry of fury.

"I guess I made peace with the game and all the things that come along with it," he says. "There's no point in having this dislike or hate relationship with the game. But it's just frustrating when people define you, when they can only think of you in one context."

Then came Valentine's Day and perhaps the most impetuous move of his life. With one call, the Seattle Seahawks changed everything, whisking him across the Rocky Mountains in then-prospective-owner Paul Allen's jet.

He didn't leave Seattle until the team had given him a six-year contract worth $24 million and another $7 million to sign it. Now there was a new label, one more stigmatizing than the others he tried so carefully to avoid.

In a day, he had gone from being the 27th-highest paid Pittsburgh Steeler, making less than $350,000, to one of the best-paid linebackers in the NFL, with a salary of $4 million per year. Suddenly everything was different. Old friends didn't know how to approach him. New ones came from every direction. He started spending less time at Pro Exotics and more time with his agent.

That he is in the office of the snake business on this day is unusual. And maybe not entirely comfortable. He looks across the room at Robyn, who busies himself, adjusting the handlebars of a mountain bike.

He knows things are different here between them, that Robyn mumbles things like "Chad's off playing professional athlete now" when he isn't around. In the past, it was easy to be a football player six months a year and someone else the rest of the time. But the game is pulling harder, new responsibilities are pulling harder. Nothing is the way it used to be.

"People say money changes you, but it doesn't change you so much as it changes people's perspective of you," Brown says. "Having everybody you know and everybody you meet know you got that check, everybody's perspective has changed. Ask Robyn."

Robyn looks at the handlebars and nods slowly.

"It closes him off a lot," Robyn says. "Everybody's coming after him, so we had a little stutter in our relationship. He's had a lot of responsibilities all of a sudden and it's affected everything. It affected our business, personal, everything, trying to adjust to that check, to that money."

Sometimes, the stamps don't wash off easily. He can't afford to be carefree the way he once was with Pittsburgh. A franchise is building its sparkling new defense around him, around his versatility. It won't be as easy to separate football from his identity anymore. And in the stillness of his office in Boulder, Brown seems to realize this.

This week, he will report to Cheney for training camp, which begins Wednesday. The expectations will be greater on him now than they ever have. The idea intrigues him, satisfying his sense of challenge. But there is the trepidation of learning a new defensive system, learning to be a linebacker in a 4-3 defense instead of a 3-4. The coaches are trying to make it easier, trying to design formations that still allow him to rush the quarterback.

"I feel like all eyes are on me," Brown says. "I'm still learning the system, and at the same time I feel all this pressure to be the best, that if you were to go to a Seahawks practice, I would have to stick out."

Yet there is always that distance from the game. One of his new teammates is an old one, cornerback Willie Williams, who also left Pittsburgh to sign with Seattle. They are friendly but not close, even though their wives are good friends. This is the way it has always been for Brown, warm enough to his teammates to play with them and win, but always retreating to a world that has nothing to do with football.

When asked if he has any good friends in the game, he pauses and finally comes up with one name - Si'ulagi Palelei, former Steeler offensive guard. But that is it.

"Sometimes I don't give people the chance to know me," he says, referring to football. "It's not from the perspective of I'm better than you; I've got a lot going on and a lot of interests. But I don't quite have a lot of time. I see these guys seven days a week; the last thing I want to do is hang with you guys some more. I want to go home and see my wife and kid."

So, now comes the test. The test of a will to be the best. The test of a will to not let football define his life. He admits he hasn't read as often since signing the contract. He doesn't spend as much time around his snakes. The snake-hunting expeditions probably will have to wait a few years. People are calling. Everybody wants a piece of the Seattle Seahawks' new linebacker, the one who will make this team good.

The football player who is like no other will have to work harder to stay that way. The labels print themselves even darker.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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