It’s been nearly 23 years since Gilbert Brown moved to Green Bay in August 1993 to try and forge a professional football career as an enormous defensive lineman, and almost two decades since he helped a dominant Packers defense win Super Bowl XXXI. It’s been 13 years since he retired from the only NFL team for which he ever played a game, and more than eight years since being inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame.
And still, Brown calls Wisconsin home. Not in Green Bay; he’s up there plenty, though, what with his charity work, appearances and just to see the guys play. Rather, Brown has chosen Milwaukee to make his difference, living here part of the time – he also has a home in Detroit, where he grew up – while spending seemingly all of his time giving back to this community, giving talks to schools, giving out free lessons at his football camps and, in general, just giving a whole lot.
Brown, who played 10 seasons with the Packers and was an integral part of the 1996-97 teams that made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, has dabbled in business, coaching and various types of philanthropy since hanging up his cleats. But these days, he spends most of his time working with his foundation, which raises money for 144 charities in Wisconsin – with all the funds staying in-state – and helps countless children, especially in Milwaukee’s inner-city, where he focuses much of his efforts.
Through The Gilbert Brown Foundation, the old "Gravedigger" – his nickname honored his celebratory tackle dance – now runs three football camps for kids, speaks to students about bullying, offers school scholarships and donates supplies and auction items and money to hospitals, shelters, youth sports groups and numerous other organizations and more.
Brown has been fundraising for his foundation in person at many locations in the southwestern part of the state; details on locations and times are at the end of the article.
We spoke with Brown to discuss a range of subjects, from his extensive charity work and anti-bullying advocacy for kids, to teammate Brett Favre’s Hall of Fame induction this weekend – Brown says he was the "best quarterback on the planet" but admits he booed No. 4 when he went to Minnesota – and his thoughts on the Packers chances this year, as well as his experience coaching Green Bay’s lingerie football league team, his voracious adoration of fried chicken and why he likes Milwaukee so much.
OnMilwaukee: The Gilbert Brown Foundation is so large, with 144 charities and so many kids impacted, what is your involvement? What kind of work do you do and what do you get out of it?
Brown: The only thing I need to get out of it is a smile. I do a football camp in Milwaukee and I do one in Madison, as well. And it’s totally free. I don’t think no other guy’s in the country does that – stay all three days and stay all the way through, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. For some of those kids in Milwaukee, that’s the only meal they got that day.
Knowing that I can do something to change a life or get a smile means the world for me. Sometimes we (athletes) get thrown into being a role model, and the things we do reflect on them because they’re watching us. So I try my best to do the right things and keep my nose clean. But everybody’s not perfect, and that’s the thing we try to instill in them when we’re out there doing camps, doing these things with these kids, is that everybody’s not perfect. But in your travels in life, if you can try to make a difference in one, two or a thousand lives, you gotta give it a shot.
OnMilwaukee: How old are most of the kids you work with?
Brown: It depends. In the foundation, it can be kids from age 1 to whatever; our football camps, we usually start them off at 6 or 7, and they can go all the way up to 18 or 19. In the Milwaukee football camp, I’ve been doing that for 11, 12 years now, so some of those kids that went through, they came back and they’ve been in the military or got a good job or graduated college and gone into other fields, and it’s great to see those guys come back. Those guys can say, "I was sitting there on that knee listening to somebody else talk and now I’m doing it." So it’s a great turnaround. It’s just a great organization.
OnMilwaukee: That’s got to be so fulfilling, such a good feeling to see some of those kids come back having gone to college and gotten a job. Do some of them serve as coaches and counselors at the camps or get involved with your other charities?
Brown: Oh yeah, oh yeah. It’s great to see in those 12 years, you know, we have a kid the first year, and he went all the way through and now he’s a young man and he’s trying to make a difference. So it’s awesome. I just did one in Madison with the Boys and Girls Club, and that was awesome, too. Just trying to do my part.
OnMilwaukee: You’ve been doing this for a long time, but the kids now and in the last few years – high schoolers and younger – most of them weren’t even born yet when you played, so they don’t really know you as a football player the way a lot of people do, right?
Brown: Well, you know, you’ve got parents telling them who I was or who I used to be or whatever, and then you tell them, "Go look it up on YouTube." Social media is so prevalent now, all you gotta do is say, "Go look me up, man." They’ll come back the next day and say, "Wow you was pretty good! Wow you was a bad man!"
But it’s good that I get their attention before they even go through that because, whatever I’m doing, I demand respect and you get respect. The first thing out of my mouth when I see the young kids is "I don’t Discount Double Check, I don’t do that. I don’t got the long, pretty hair, but we did go to two Super Bowls back-to-back." They’ll go back and look at all that stuff; it’s pretty neat.
OnMilwaukee: OK, no Discount Double Check, but do you ever do the Gravedigger for them?
Brown: Oh no, I don’t do that no more. I always tell people: I didn’t do that for fun. I did that for a reason. So I ain’t gonna be two-stepping and grave-digging all the time. My last time on the field was the last time for that.
OnMilwaukee: And I suppose if you’re doing the Gravedigger on the field now, it means you probably just tackled some poor kid, which wouldn’t be great.
Brown: (laughs) Right, right.
OnMilwaukee: With the foundation taking up so much time, what else do you do here in Milwaukee?
Brown: Well mainly I’m going to high schools, middle schools, wherever, to talk about bullying, you know. I’m pretty much a retired guy that’s having fun. Trying to change lives and do certain things to better myself and others.
OnMilwaukee: Your involvement with anti-bullying is really interesting to me, especially because of that football background, that locker-room culture. It seems like recently in the NFL, with bullying, maybe it’s not necessarily changing, but there’s at least more of an acknowledgement of it now. Why did you take such an interest in bullying, especially as a guy famous for being very big and strong and manly? What’s your message to kids and why do you do it?
Brown: I always tell kids there’s a difference, man. When you’re on that field and you put that helmet on, you can be anybody you want to be. Anybody. But once you take that helmet off and you start walking in them streets, walking around the hallways, you’ve got to be a gentleman. Throughout school, football players, for the most part, were the guys that helped the guys that were being bullied in certain situations; they were kind of like the policemen for that.
But now it’s a whole different realm, from hazing to cyber-bullying, there’s so many different forms of bullying right now, it’s crazy. And I always tell everybody, the girls are the worst. The girls are the worst. And one of the reasons why it really gets me is that, can you imagine a kid, 7 years old, crying themselves to sleep at night – crying themselves to sleep at night – and nobody to turn to because if you do, they’d say you’re a bitch or whatever, so they have to keep that up inside of them. And to me, I mean, just even thinking about that, I’ve got kids …
I always tell everybody, I say, When was the last time you guys sat down and ate dinner as a family? You got Sally over there on her phone, Billy’s over there playing video game, listening to his iPod, you got mom cooking the dinner, dad’s in the other room and everybody’s eating like that. When was the last time everybody sat down at the dinner table and ate as a family, because that’s when you find out all about your family – sitting around the dinner table, eating and listening and paying attention to your kids. And I also tell folks, I understand you gotta pay the bills, gotta put the food on the table, but don’t work so much that you do not know your child, because your child may be begging you for help and you’re not even paying attention.
OnMilwaukee: You mentioned the thought of kids crying themselves to sleep. And you read stories about kids being bullied so badly they commit suicide, kill themselves because of it. It’s so sad.
Brown: In my talks, I try not to sugarcoat it because I want them to understand what these bullies are doing to them. And I also tell the kids, "Look, don’t be surprised, when your parents go to work, they’re getting bullied too." Because the workplace is real. It’s all over the place, man, and I’m just trying to get that message out any chance I get to help somebody.
OnMilwaukee: I think a lot of people would be interested, maybe amazed, to hear you’re doing this because, even given what you said about when the helmet comes off, be a gentleman, I think a lot of people still think of a negative, aggressive locker room mentality with football players. But maybe that has more of an impact. When you go to these schools, have you had kids or teachers come up and say, Wow, hearing this from Gilbert Brown, as opposed to my guidance counselor, that really meant something different? Do you think you’re having that sort of impact?
Brown: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the impact that I have is that I can be in an auditorium talking to 500 kids, and some of these kids stand up and say yes, I’m a bully. They identify themselves and they want help, they want to stop it. So the message can be put into them, but it’s gotta be put into them in a certain way that it relates to them and they understand it and they understand that impact. A lot of people stand up there and they say it but they don’t understand the impact because they think it’s just teasing or whatever. But for the person that it’s happening to, it’s devastating. And people don’t realize that.
I tell them, I say, Shame on the principals, shame on the counselors and shame on the teachers, because somebody – there can’t be no more slaps on the wrist, man. I’ve seen people who were bullied when they were kids that have grown up and now it still affects them to this day. So that’s why I harp on it and try to get on them so much, because it’s a devastating effect on someone’s psyche.
OnMilwaukee: After the Miami Dolphins’ Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying incident a few years ago, I’m curious, did you see that sort of thing a lot? What was the bullying culture like when you played?
Brown: See, I got drafted by Minnesota, and I left Minnesota like right before the first game or whatever. In Minnesota there was rookie hazing all the way. I mean I’ve seen a guy get tied, taped and dunked in ice-cold water because he was a rookie. But then whey they cut the tape off, they cut the tip of his thumb off – and he’s a receiver! I’m like, that’s the man’s livelihood.
But once I got to Green Bay, there was no rookie hazing at all. None. Because they give you a playbook and it looks like a dictionary and you’ve got to learn them plays, man, or you’re going to get your butt cut. So if you’re getting hazed and all that other stuff, you can’t concentrate on it, and Green Bay understands that concept. So no, we ain’t doing that here, there’s none of that here.
In so many ways, Green Bay was a blessing because a young guy could come in and learn and understand the game, instead of having to worry about getting taped up, worry about somebody ripping your thumb off because you’re a rookie, stupid stuff like that. In Green Bay there was none of that, so I’ve seen both parts of it. And the reality of it is that (former Packers coach) Mike Holmgren knew that when the young guys come in and try to learn the playbook, he don’t need no distractions. Other teams, it’s a different story, and you’ve seen what happens.
Brown: It’s well-deserved. There’s no other quarterback as tough, smart, knowledgeable and always answered the bell, you know? We lived and died by his arm. And as a defense, we looked at him – I mean, yeah, he threw some interceptions, but we had to go back out there and get the ball back. So it made us a team that really stuck with each other.
To have leaders like Brett Favre and Reggie White, it just made young guys care more and understand the game. And to tell you the truth, I had the opportunity to leave Green Bay, but when you’ve got a quarterback like Brett Favre and a phenomenal defensive player like Reggie White, and you’ve got a chance to go back to the Super Bowl – money is not everything to me. That is. Being comfortable, knowing that you’ve got the best quarterback on the planet that you know will never quit on you. No way in the world I would leave that.
And Brett Favre, to me, is the prototype quarterback, because they broke the mold with that man. Ain’t nobody gonna catch that record he set; I don’t see it. To see things that (media and fans) didn’t see in that training room, in that locker room, how he was hurting and how he was preparing himself to go out there and play. And when that bell rung, he went out there and played – on one wheel, two wheels, whatever it was, he went out there and fought for you. So how can you not respect a man that loved the game so much that he was willing to give his body and his mind and his talent for it? He’s the man. Brett Favre is the man.
OnMilwaukee: As a guy who has maintained a good relationship with the organization after retirement, was it weird or hard to watch what happened after he retired?
Brown: I mean, everybody’s situation is different. But you knew deep down in your heart that something was going to happen so that Brett could come back and retire as a Green Bay Packer. You knew. I don’t know if the fans knew it like we knew it, but we knew it.
You look at it and you say, You’ve got this nice car, and let’s say the car is the Green Bay Packers, and you’ve got this driver that’s driving the car, and this car hits somebody. Do you blame the car or do you blame the driver? See what I’m saying? It’s just plain and simple. And in that instance, whoever’s at the helm doesn’t mean that the Green Bay Packers, as an organization, don’t love you and want you back. Do you see what I’m saying?
OnMilwaukee: Is the driver in this case possibly a person in the front office?
Brown: You can pick the driver to be whoever you want (laughs). The car didn’t do it, the driver did. I’m gonna tell you the truth: When Brett went over to Minnesota, I booed his ass like the rest of them. When he was with the Jets, I didn’t care – yeah, hey, OK. But when he went over there to Minnesota, I booed his ass like the rest of ‘em.
Some fans were different, like, Oh, but it’s Brett. Hell no. He got that purple on; that doesn’t work. When he got out of that purple-maize crap he was in, Hey, I love him, that’s my man. I never stopped loving him, but it was a different thing when he went over there. Everybody was walking around in the purple No. 4s and all that stuff. You need to burn ‘em. It’s a green 4; it’s the only thing that matters.
OnMilwaukee: That was a weird time. I knew people who stuck by him when he went to the Vikings and then hated Aaron Rodgers because of it.
Brown: Yeah, and the thing is, Aaron Rodgers ain’t have nothing to do with it. It’s the car or the driver. Aaron Rodgers didn’t have nothing to do with it, Brett Favre had nothing to do with it, it was just circumstances that happened. But the end result is what we’re looking at right now, and I’m very happy for the end result.
OnMilwaukee: Looking at the team now, what do you think about the Packers chances this season? What do you like or not like?
Brown: They look good, man, they’re really good. But it’s scary if one of their top five go down, it changes the whole outlook of the team. That team is dependent on those top five guys, and them top five guys move the team. Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Eddie Lacy, Julius Peppers, Jordy Nelson. Them guys move the team like no other team, so if one of those guys goes down – God forbid, knock on wood – we in trouble. Because some of them guys you just can’t replace. I’m not saying we ain’t got depth on this team, but them five guys make the team what it is. And if one of them goes down, I feel like we’re going to be in trouble.
But if they don’t go down, and they take one game at a time and win ‘em, I see an undefeated Super Bowl year. I say that every year, though (laughs). I say that every year.
OnMilwaukee: What do you think of the defensive line? Is there enough depth, in terms of quality and quantity?
Brown: It’s going to have to be some unsung heroes that come out of there. And I want everybody to understand something: You can have Eddie Lacy, you can have Aaron Rodgers, you can have Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers – it don’t matter if the big horses up front ain’t doing their jobs. It doesn’t matter.
And for Green Bay, there was some questions last year on the offensive line, hopefully we got them fixed. Defensive line, we’re looking at the young guys, looking at the depth, but it’s going to have to be some unsung heroes that help them win games, because it’s a lot of unproven guys up in there and you’ve gotta figure out who’s going to be the man.
OnMilwaukee: What was it like to coach the Green Bay Chill lingerie team (from 2011-2013), and what happened when that fell apart?
Brown: (laughs) It was awesome, man, just coaching the girls and being a part of something like that. It was a hair-pulling-out type thing, as well, because you’re trying to teach these girls how to tackle, how to block, how to do all this stuff. I figured out if I get rugby players and hockey players, they’ll be more in tune. I was getting some soccer, softball players, I was like (groans). But if you get the physical players, you can teach them the football stuff.
It was a great teaching thing for me, trying to teach these girls how to play the game. It was kind of cool. It was a great learning experience for me. And on the other hand, getting out of it, you know, watching the girls get concussions, the equipment that they had and everything that was going on, it was not my cup of tea. If I do it again, I’ve got to get in a league where everything is up to par with the helmets and different things like that.
OnMilwaukee: You’ve coached other teams, too, right?
Brown: Yeah, Arena Football. Being a head coach, man, you’ve got a lot of responsibilities, and some of these young men, and some of the young ladies, too, I was kind of a father figure to them. And for me, you know, playing that role was helping me, as well, to get the football out of my system, number one. And number two, learning these young people and learning the struggles they have and learning the things that they go through, trying to help them out on and off the field, it’s a great experience and I love coaching.
OnMilwaukee: As a guy from Detroit who played in Green Bay, why do you like Milwaukee and choose to live here?
Brown: Milwaukee’s different, man. Green Bay, back then, the only thing that was going was Best Buy. That was our nightclub (laughs), that was our everything. Down here in Milwaukee, it’s a different atmosphere, different deal, I’m not too far from getting home to Detroit, just five and a half hours.
But Milwaukee is similar to other cities in so many ways, and I connect with this inner city in Milwaukee because of what goes on there. I mean, I can go to JJ’s Fish and hang out and grab me a couple pieces of fish and talk and laugh with people. I can go to McDonald’s, go to Burger King. I can ride down the street and wave at folks, you know what I’m saying, and not act like I’m somebody else. I can just be myself. That’s why I connect with Milwaukee so much; it’s just like going back home to Detroit. Green Bay is like my second home because of the fans and football, but the kids here that I deal with, it works out great.
OnMilwaukee: You mentioned JJ’s; if you had to pick one, what’s your favorite Milwaukee restaurant?
Brown: Oh man, I can’t do that (laughs). You’re putting me on the spot there, I can’t do that.
OnMilwaukee: Can you give me two or three?
Brown: I tell you what, man, I’m a simple guy. I love Church’s Chicken, I love Popeyes; I’m a big chicken connoisseur. I always say, I’ve got everybody on the list, then somebody else’s chicken, then I got KFC (laughs). I don’t have to go to the expensive places; I like the little simple things, like Five Guys Hamburger’s, Burger King, different things like that, where you’re with different people than going to those extravagant places.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll go over to Carnevor and get a nice steak, Carnevor is awesome. But I’m just sort of a laid-back guy, so I like to get my fried chicken and go watch a movie at the crib.
OnMilwaukee: So I’m guessing you know that spot on Capitol Drive where there’s a Church’s right across the street from a Popeyes?
Brown: (laughs) Yes, and I always turn left to Church’s first. I mean, I used to walk home from school in Detroit and I would save my lunch money and there was always a Church’s Chicken on the way home. The man used to know me by name when I walked up in there because I stopped there every day to grab me a two-piece. It was on the way home, and it was just something that I had to do every day, man, and that’s how I fell in love with Church’s Chicken.
On Saturday, Aug. 6, Brown will be at: Blackhawk Campground (Milton) from 10 to 11 a.m.; Hidden Valley Resort & RV Park (Milton) from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.; Lakeland Campground (Milton) from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m.; Jellystone Park (Fort Atkinson) from 2 to 3 p.m.; Scenic Ridge Campground (Whitewater) from 4 to 6 p.m.; and River Bend RV Resort (Watertown) from 7 9 p.m.
On Sunday, Aug. 7, Brown will be at Moran's Pub, 912 Milwaukee Ave., in South Milwaukee from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
On Sunday, August 14, Brown will be at Larry's Funfest at Great Lakes Dragaway from 3 to 7 p.m. to promote his anti-bullying campaign. Attendees can win a chance to race him down the 1/4 mile track, and he also will be signing autographs and selling merchandise.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.