Q&A: Tom Brown gave ‘every child a chance to play’

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On a beautiful, hot July morning I walked across a parking lot to get a cup of coffee and meet one of our local legends, Coach Tom Brown.

It was my first time meeting him, but I’ve been a fan for a very long time.

And not because of his professional sports accolades either – which are impressive – but for his unwavering approach to youth sports and sportsmanship as a whole.

He’ll turn 75 in December, and Brown has announced his retirement from coaching at the Tom Brown Rookie League, something he has overseen for more than 30 years.

As a professional player for both Major League Baseball and the National Football League, Coach Brown certainly made a name for himself athletically. He played in the first two Super Bowls as a defensive back for the Green Bay Packers, from 1964-68, and for the Washington Redskins during the 1969 season.

He’s beloved among Packers’ faithful for his end zone interception of a pass thrown by Cowboys’ great Don Meredith, preserving the Packers’ 34-27 victory in the 1966 NFL title game.

Brown played outfield and first base for the Washington Senators of Major League Baseball in 1963. A switch hitter who threw left-handed, Brown played in 61 games for the Senators.

His commitment to this community through his youth sports program has touched so many lives and yet he remains one of the most humble individuals I’ve ever met.

As I approached our meeting place, I noticed Coach Brown was already there (I was 10 minutes early) and he was engaged in a conversation with someone. It was obvious that she too was a fan.

After I introduced myself we walked inside and three more people (moms of former Rookie League players) came over to say hello.

Q. This must happen to you all the time. People coming up to you to say hello or thank you?

A. (Smiling) I don’t go out much.

Q. You are somewhat of a legend around here. How does that feel?

A. I am satisfied with my life.

Q. I am a big fan of what you do for kids and their parents through the Rookie League. How did you get started here?

A. I learned so much from the great Coach Vince Lombardi. He would tell us, his football players, over and over again that we couldn’t play football forever. He told us we had to “find your niche.”

I didn’t know what niche meant so I had to look it up in the dictionary.

He stressed the importance of finding something (other than football) that you love. And that’s what I did.

I moved to the area and started as the (town) Recreation Director in Ocean City. But I had an idea to bring a summer sports camp to the area. So I quit my job and was ready to get started only to realize I didn’t have the support to make that happen.

I was thinking uh-oh, maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

In 1981, I started with the Salvation Army under Benny Riddick. I worked with kids using a pitching machine. I loved it. I wanted to work with the young kids, the ones that got bored standing in the outfield.

The Rookie League never felt like I had a job. I love what I do. Watching kids start off so shy and unsure of their abilities. To see them grow, in their confidence and ability, is great.

Q. Having come from such an accomplished athletic background, how did you have the patience for working with kids of all abilities?

A. I was one of three boys raised by our mother and father. My older brother went to the Naval Academy and later became a trainer.

My other brother was mentally disabled and it was our job, as brothers, to look out for him. I think I learned compassion from those years of helping to take care of my brother.

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Q. Obviously you had strong athletic ability at an early age. Did your parents push you toward a certain sport?

A. Kim, I don’t think parents pushed back then. My father worked for the Red Cross. He was the Director of Water Safety.

Both my brother and I tried swimming but we hated it. My mother was an accomplished basketball player.

My father would come out and watch me play and never say a word. He was encouraging but never criticized.

My mother was a realist. She always pointed out to me the chances of one kid making it to the pros. With chances like 1 in 30,000 or 50,000, you realize quickly not many get that opportunity.

Q. The Tom Brown Rookie League is known for its emphasis on sportsmanship for players and parents. I’ve heard stories of parents being reprimanded for “coaching” their children. Where does that come from?

A. It comes from going to youth games with my own son and realizing how important it is that every child gets a chance to play. Sports at that age should be fun.

I used to play baseball every day after school and in the summer. Every day. Not because someone told me to but because I wanted to. I couldn’t wait to play.

We played pick-up ball – which you don’t find anymore – and the kids made the teams and settled the calls. When I started coaching, I wanted every player to have that experience of getting to bat and playing all the positions. So we rotated positions. Every player got a chance. The kids really responded to that.

Q. And the parents?

A. Most thought it was good. There were some who wanted to coach their kids or be critical. But that doesn’t help them become better players.

The kids need to think for themselves. They have to make a decision whether or not to run to second or where to throw the ball. When they are young, it takes time to make that decision. And sometimes they make the wrong one.

But that’s how they learn. I used to tell the kids that if mom or dad criticizes your play on the way home, you let me know. Not many did of course, but I wanted them to know that someone (me) was in their corner.

Which reminds me of a great story …

I would tell the kids that when they weren’t sure of what to do next they needed to stop and find the ball so they could make a decision.

I had a dad tell me that he was asking his son on the way home after a game, why he didn’t run to second. And his son turned to him and said, “Coach says it’s my decision.”

We put that line on our T-shirts this year – ‘It’s My Decision.’ It’s really what we are trying to teach them.

Q. Why do you think things are so different now – with kids and youth sports?

A. I think parents can be very unrealistic about their child’s abilities. That puts a lot of pressure on kids.

And when you play on tournament teams and travel teams, by the time kids get to high school they are sometimes done. I think safety has something to do with it. Parents just don’t let their kids out by themselves, so you don’t have neighborhood pick-up games.

Television and electronics, too, keep kids home and inside.

Today, if a kid doesn’t think they are good enough at a sport, they don’t even want to try.

Q. How were you able to be realistic about your own children’s abilities?

A. The focus was never on athletics. Academics needed to come first.

Both my children were good athletes but I’ve always been realistic. I didn’t push them. I’m so proud of who they’ve become.

(Daughter) Jessie is a special education teacher here in Wicomico County and Jimmy teaches public speaking – which I think every student should have to take. They are both coaches. They are just really good people.

Jessie is going to continue coaching basketball at the Rookie League – she was a really good basketball player.

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Q. One of the things you’ve done through the Rookie League is to give scholarships. Can you tell me about that?

A. If parents can’t pay for their child to participate in the Rookie League they receive a scholarship. We didn’t make a big deal of it.

We didn’t tell anyone or ask anyone for money or donations. We just wanted kids to be able to play.

I don’t think anyone has taken advantage of me – but if they did it was worth it seeing those kids with a uniform, having fun playing.

Q. What are some words of advice you might give to parents or players today?

A. What I learned from the great Coach Vince Lombardi still holds true today: Give 100 percent effort all of the time.

What you do during practice should be the exact same of what you do during a game. And that goes for everything in life.

I always practice “Lombardi time” – 15 minutes early is on time. It’s been a great rule to live by.

Q. What does retirement look like for you?

A. I’m satisfied. I’m not hard to please. I go to the gym.  I do a lot of grass cutting.

I watch baseball. I’ve collected a lot of sports memorabilia over the years and I want to go to more sports shows.

This is a great town to live in. It’s close to D.C. and close to the beach. It’s the best of both worlds.

I’m not perfect but I’m satisfied with my life.

The Tom Brown Appreciation Night will be held Saturday, Aug. 1 from 4 to 7 p.m. in The Commons at Salisbury University. Tickets are available at: tombrownsrookieleague.org/Event.aspx.

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