Born: June 9, 1939
John Calvin Brown Jr. was born June 9, 1939 in Camden. John was constantly in motion as a kid and loved contact sports. He joined the Camden High School football team in 1953 and played on both the offensive and defensive line for the Panthers. John grew to 6’2” and weighed over 230 pounds as a senior. Quick, smart and strong, he was recruited as an offensive tackle by Syracuse University.
When John arrived on campus, he found himself isolated in a sea of white faces. He felt incredible relief when he spotted Ernie Davis, the team’s star running back—one of the few black faces among the student body. Although the dorms were integrated, the African-American students kept to themselves. John Mackey, who roomed with Davis, was part of a tight group of black student-athletes. They spent many nights off-campus with members of the black community in Syracuse.
Coach John Schwartzwalder built a powerhouse team in the 1950s. Ernie Davis followed in the footsteps of Jim Brown as the top running back in the country, while John anchored a solid offensive line. Playing across from John at the opposite tackle was Ron Luciano, who went on to fame as a major league baseball umpire. The Orangemen won the national championship in 1959, John’s junior season.
John was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 4th round of the 1961 NFL Draft. He was also drafted by the San Diego Chargers of the AFL. John signed with the Browns made the team in 1962 and played behind veterans Mike McCormack and Dick Schafrath. He was excited when the Browns traded for Davis after the 1962 draft. The idea of blocking for a backfield of Jim Brown and Ernie Davis was a dream job. Sadly, Davis never payed a down for Cleveland. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died in 1963. John became a starter in 1963 after McCormack retired. John was a member of the 1964 club that won the NFL championship. From 1964 to 1967, he played mostly behind Monte Clark at right tackle.
John got a chance to start fulltime in 1967 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played right tackle for five seasons before retiring after the 1971 season. He was replaced by rookie Gerry Mullins. The two would later become good friends. John was in Pittsburgh for the start of the Chuck Noll dynasty, including Noll’s first year when the Steelers went 1–13.
John became a banking executive and maintained his connection to the Steelers after his playing days. In 1990, he became chair of the Art Rooney Scholarship Fund, and was involved in a number of community service and fundraising activites. John named his son Ernie, after his old Syracuse teammate. He was also a great admirer of Art Modell’s. Upon Modell’s death, John reminded Cleveland fans how much time and money he spent trying to find a cure for Ernie Davis, and how he supported the family after his friend’s death. In 2008, with the release of the Ernie Davis biopic The Express, John was dismayed to find that his character, played by Omar Miller (left), was renamed Jack Buckley. He suspected the producers made that decision so they wouldn’t have to pay him.