A promise to his father: Why Orlando Brown left the Ravens for the Chiefs

  • Covered Chiefs for 20 seasons for Kansas City Star
  • Joined ESPN in 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Former NFL offensive lineman Jammal Brown received a call last season from good friend Orlando Brown Jr in the moments after Orlando’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, beat the Washington Football Team.

Orlando Brown had played in 53 NFL games to that point as an offensive lineman, including two in the playoffs. But this one was special.

“He called me and he was crying,” said Jammal Brown, no relation to Orlando. “He just said, ‘I got to play left tackle.'”

The emotions poured out that afternoon because in Orlando Brown’s world, left tackle isn’t just a position but THE position. That spot was the dream of his father, long-time NFL offensive tackle Orlando Brown Sr., who died at 40 of diabetic ketoacidosis when Orlando Jr. was in high school in 2011.

The Ravens traded Brown last spring to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he will get the chance to be the left tackle for the long term. That’s something Baltimore wouldn’t give him. They have their long-term left tackle in Ronnie Stanley, and Brown played on the left side only because Stanley was injured last season.

Things come full circle for Brown on Sunday night, when the Chiefs and Ravens meet in Baltimore (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

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The promise

Brown Sr. played 129 NFL games over nine seasons with the Ravens and Cleveland Browns, all as a right tackle. But he didn’t want that path for his son.

He preferred that Orlando Jr. play left tackle, the glamor position of the offensive line (if there is one), because that’s the player that protects a right-handed quarterback’s back side.

His father was passionate about Brown playing the left side, so passionate that he wouldn’t have it when Orlando Jr.’s coach as a freshman in high school planned to play him at another offensive line position.

He told the coach his son was a left tackle, and if he didn’t play there, he wouldn’t play anywhere on offense. So Orlando Jr., a future Pro Bowler at offensive tackle, was a defensive tackle that season.

“Something he made me promise him was that I was going to be a left tackle and that I was going to play in this league for 10-plus years and be a Hall of Famer,” Orlando Jr. said. “My dad understood the magnitude of [being a left tackle], often being the captain of the offensive line, often being one of the better players on offense. It was just kind of ingrained in me at a young age and … it was a dream and goal I set for myself in this league.

“I grew up with my father playing in this league … as a right tackle. In my household, if you weren’t playing left tackle, I won’t say he disowned you but he kind of talked back to you. Growing up, my dad would tell me straight up, ‘Hey, study Tony Boselli, watch his game, watch Anthony Munoz, watch all these guys, watch Bryant McKinnie.’ He would tell me, ‘Don’t watch my film.’ Obviously I did because he was my father but he would tell me, ‘Look at the left tackle.'”

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Zeus and Baby Zeus

Orlando Sr. was by all accounts a good player, though he had no Pro Bowls or All-Pro selections to show for it. His career is best remembered for two things, one being accidentally hit in the eye with a penalty flag thrown by an official in a 1999 game.

The other was his size. Brown was big enough to stand out even in a profession filled with large players. At 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, he was big enough to acquire the nickname of Zeus from his teammates.

He would occasionally bring Orlando Jr. to practice, and as his son grew, it was apparent he would become big like his father. His dad’s teammates nicknamed Orlando Jr. Baby Zeus.

It was also apparent Orlando Jr. would become a football player.

“Orlando learned everything he knew about football from his father,” said Mira Brown, Orlando Jr.’s mother. “He learned how to get into a stance from his father. He was getting into a stance since he was 2 years old.”

Orlando Sr. had high standards for his son. Jammal Brown said Orlando Sr. once walked out of a high school game when his son wasn’t using his strength and size to dominate his opponent the way he believed he should.

“His dad was the type of guy who was like, ‘If you’re not going out there to be an animal on the field because you’re the biggest guy, then I don’t want you playing,'” Jammal Brown said. “His dad was like, ‘You’re the biggest kid out there so don’t be the most timid kid out there.’ His dad didn’t want to see it. But then Orlando turns into this monster and so he wishes his dad was alive to see this.

“That’s what keeps Orlando going. Being able to get to the NFL and be a Pro Bowl player, be known as an aggressive blocker. Those are all the things he wanted to prove to his dad.”

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From tragedy to draft day

His father died unexpectedly, but that didn’t deter Orlando Jr.’s determination to carry out his wishes. At 15 years old, he spoke at his father’s funeral and told everyone he would keep his word to his dad. He would take care of his mother and two younger brothers, and he would do it by playing football.

He finished high school and played in college at Oklahoma, where he started 40 games, all at left tackle. He was almost his father’s size — the Chiefs list him today at 6-8 and 345 pounds — and appeared headed for a high draft slot.

Then he tested poorly in almost every drill at the 2018 NFL scouting combine. His 40 time of 5.85 was the slowest of any player that year. His vertical jump and broad jump were the lowest among all combine participants. He had 14 reps on the bench press, lowest among offensive linemen and fewer than some wide receivers and cornerbacks.

He was drafted by his hometown Ravens, one of his father’s former teams. But it didn’t happen until the third round. Since Brown didn’t have the quick feet and other athletic skills considered necessary for an NFL left tackle, the Ravens had no plans to play him there. He would instead be a right tackle.

“What a blessing for Orlando Jr. to be drafted by the Ravens,” Mira Brown said. “For him to have that opportunity to actually walk in his father’s foosteps in a city where he was born, Orlando Sr. would have been ecstatic. The Ravens had been our family for 25 years.”

The union between the Ravens and Orlando Brown’s son also stirred some memories for the father’s former offensive line teammates. They had a tradition of gathering for one Ravens game each season, and they would always remember the one starter from the group who was no longer with them.

“When the Ravens drafted him, that was probably when everything came full circle,” said former Ravens guard Edwin Mulitalo, who played with Orlando Sr. “All of a sudden, I felt the chills. I remember thinking that God works in mysterious ways.

“Zeus was a commanding force. When he walked into the room, you couldn’t help but see him. When Orlando Jr. put that jersey on for the first time and that helmet and you saw him playing for the Ravens, it gave you a flush of memories.”

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Leaving Baltimore

Brown played well enough at right tackle to be a Pro Bowler in 2019. He also made the Pro Bowl team last year, when he split his season between the two positions.

But it wasn’t enough for Brown, who wanted to be the left tackle on a full-time basis. When the Ravens signed Stanley to a long-term contract extension last year, Brown knew if he was going to fulfill his father’s dreams, it wasn’t going to be with the Ravens.

“He didn’t want to believe that at first,” Jammal Brown said. “He went to high school near Baltimore. His dad played there. He got a lot of love there. He was on a winning team. His friends were there. It was a perfect situation for him, other than that he wanted to play left tackle.

“But to do those things his dad wanted him to do, the things he told his dad he was going to do, he was going to have to leave.”

Brown requested the Ravens trade him to a team willing to play him on the left side. Enter the Chiefs, who were searching for a left tackle after releasing the long-time incumbent, Eric Fisher.

They tried to sign veteran free-agent Trent Williams but came up short. They weren’t thrilled with many of their other free-agent options or those in the draft.

After some internal discussion about whether Brown could adequately handle the responsibility of protecting quarterback Patrick Mahomes from the left side, they determined he could.

“Orlando is one of those guys where it doesn’t always look pretty but once he gets his hands on you, it’s hard to do anything,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. “He’s so big, so massive. These defensive linemen, they get tired quickly. It’s frustrating when you’re a defensive lineman and you can’t bull rush. Then you start dancing and playing games and then the ball is out. Point A to Point B is the best way to win in the pass rush in our league. He can shut that down.”

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‘The worst athlete in the NFL’

Brown readily acknowledged he’s not a classic fit at left tackle in a passing offense like the Chiefs have, saying, “I’m the worst athlete at left tackle, by far.” But he also said that doesn’t mean he won’t excel at the position.

“The offensive line positions are positions that can be manipulated,” he said. “Often times, you have men who are undersized who can play at a high level. A lot of times you have guys who are really big and super athletic who can play at a high level. Then you have guys like me, the worst athlete in the NFL, with the ability to stay between his man and the quarterback. All of that comes down to understanding my pros and cons and working with and around those. There are tricks and techniques I can use to take advantage of other guys.”

Jammal Brown, who played tackle for seven NFL seasons for New Orleans and Washington and twice reached the Pro Bowl, said, “He plays the best way he can play. He doesn’t go out there and try to have quick feet because he doesn’t have quick feet. He understands his size and his reach and that if a guy has to go through him, Orlando wins. If a guy tries to run around him, he makes the guy run way around. He understands that and that’s how he plays the game. That’s why he can be a successful left tackle in a passing offense when most guys who put up his numbers and have his type of build and shape, they put them at right tackle.

“He feels he’s a better player at left tackle. He’s left-handed. When you can get your strongest hand on a guy first, you feel you can control a guy better. Me playing left tackle in the NFL and being right-handed, I totally get it and understand it.”

Now it’s up to Brown to take advantage and make his stay at left tackle a long one. Those close to him are counting on him being successful.

They know the motivation behind it.

“Orlando [Sr.] would be proud but I can see him getting after Orlando Jr. to be more physical,” Mulitalo said. “That was always the main thing with Orlando. He was always telling me, ‘Let’s drive these fools into the ground.’ The physicality was his whole game. He would have told his son, ‘Stop being so soft’ even if he was doing a great job.

“But now he’s validating all of Zeus’ work. It wasn’t that he provided food on the table or all the material things. It was that he provided the mentality to work. That’s why he would be so proud, because his kid is working and achieving those goals.”

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