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Brown, a Surry County native who retired to Portsmouth and became a restaurateur, was 84.
Brad Cherry, a longtime friend who lobbied for years to get Brown into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, called him “one of the best defensive players to ever play the game.”
At 6-foot-5 and more than 300 pounds during his NFL days, Brown played 10 seasons for Detroit and Los Angeles. He made six Pro Bowls and was selected to the halls of fame of the Lions and Rams as well as the College Football Hall of Fame.
But the Pro Football Hall of Fame eluded him, much to his chagrin and to others who have long advocated for his induction.
“It would mean that I made it,” Brown told The Pilot in 2019. “Right now, I haven’t made it yet. But I want Canton, Ohio. And I’ll make that one day. I just hope I’m still vertical when it happens.”
After his football career, Brown became a restaurant owner, most notably of Roger Brown’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, a staple in downtown Portsmouth for the past two decades.
Brown attended high school in Nyack, New York, and starred at Maryland State (now Maryland Eastern Shore) from 1956-59. His teams were 24-5-1 and he led the Hawks to the CIAA title in 1957 and was named an NAIA All-American in 1958 and ‘59.
Brown headed to Maryland State hoping to improve his grades, then transfer to a bigger school. But he liked it the tiny college in Princess Anne, Maryland, and stayed until he was a fourth-round draft choice (42nd overall) of Detroit.
“You know what my salary was that first year? It was $8,000,” Brown told The Pilot in 2015. “Now you know what the guy playing my old position is getting? Can you believe $1,114,000?
“I worked my way up to $30,000 my last year. But I certainly don’t resent his good fortune. If I played today, I like to think that I would be earning the same money he’s getting.”
In Detroit, Brown joined Alex Karras, Darris McCord and Sam Williams to form a defensive front dubbed the Fearsome Foursome. He was traded to Los Angeles in 1967 and joined a trio to form another Fearsome Foursome — Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy.
Brown was a Pro Bowl performer in six straight seasons from 1962-67 and played in 138 games — 124 as a starter.
“In my 10 years with the Lions and the Rams, I never missed a game,” Brown said in 2015. “I had broken hands and broken bones. But probably not as many as I caused.
“I had 12 operations.”
The NFL did not officially begin counting sacks until 1982, but Brown was well-acquainted with opposing quarterbacks. He sacked Green Bay legend Bart Starr seven times, including once for a safety, in a 1962 regular-season game — a Lions victory dubbed the Thanksgiving Day Massacre.
Brown was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009, and despite pleas from fans and Brown’s contemporaries, the Pro Football Hall of Fame hasn’t called.
Brown was chosen for the Lions' all-time 75th anniversary team in 2008.
“I don’t like to stick my chest out, but I don’t see why I’m not a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Brown told the Baltimore Sun in 2013. “I look at those being elected today and their records don’t exceed mine.”
Starr joined the chorus of players who have lobbied for Brown, writing a letter to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s senior selection committee in 1998.
“I personally believe the strength and character of an exceptional Sports Hall of Fame are directly commensurate with the quality of its members,” wrote Starr, who died in 2019. “Roger Brown brings that quality with him and deserves to be inducted in our Hall of Fame.”
Former Washington Redskins star quarterback Joe Theismann also wrote a letter in support of Brown, adding, “Although he has not been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame (where he should be) I’m hoping his time will come.”
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