Noie: Former Notre Dame wideout Tim Brown goes from football to fairways

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Sitting a pick-it-up putt from an oversized silver chalice that’s awarded to the U.S. Senior Open champion, former Notre Dame and NFL standout wide receiver Tim Brown admitted Monday he once had a crazy idea.

Closing out a 17-year NFL career while trying to figure out what to do when life afterward commenced, Brown thought he’d walk away from one professional sport and parachute right into another, one he fell hard for during his NFL days. He’d work on his golf game for a few years, join the Champions Tour when he turned the required age of 50 and eventually win. A lot. Maybe even the U.S. Senior Open. That Francis D. Ouimet Trophy would look nice next to his 1987 Heisman Trophy or his duplicate NFL Hall of Fame bust at Brown’s home in south-suburban Dallas.

“I can do this,” Brown remembers telling himself and likely his golf playing partners one day. “But shooting even par isn’t going to get it done.”

Neither would an otherwise decent day of 1- or 2-under. That might get him a top-30 finish. For Brown to excel on the Champions Tour, he’d have to play as well as he did as one of the NFL’s most productive and consistent receivers. The guy who caught over 1,000 career passes (1,094) for nearly 15,000 yards (14,934) scored exactly 100 touchdowns and was a nine-time Pro Bowler.

The 52-year-old Brown was one of the best of the best on Sundays. In golf, he was just one of the rest, another guy who thought the game looked easy to play, until he actually had to do play it. Like a pro. Brown realized he was far from it.

As for one day maybe winning the U.S. Senior Open? Brown’s good with being an honorary chairman, along with fellow former Irish and NFL standout Jerome Bettis, when the 40th edition of one of the tour’s five majors comes to Warren Golf Course on June 24-30.

Brown will leave the shot making to likes of Masters champions Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson. That dream of one day playing on the Champions Tour as a way to scratch the competitive itch? Yep, just a dream. Didn’t take Brown long to figure that out playing one day with a collection of PGA pros. In football terms it was the varsity (them) against the junior varsity (him).

“They’re just different breed, man,” Brown said with his trademark smile and laugh following Monday’s press conference inside the Warren clubhouse. “When they hit the ball, it makes a different sound. When they putt, it looks different. It’s just amazing.”

Brown looks at today’s Champions Tour golfers much the way fans watched him do what he did on the floor of old Notre Dame Stadium, then with the Los Angeles (then Oakland) Raiders for 16 seasons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for one.

Ripping drives down the center of fairways, getting to greens in regulation and burying putts that have crazy breaks all are much like what Brown did in football — making those tough catches in traffic, moving chains with third-down receptions or finding the end zone.

“They play the game at a different level, just like I played my game at a different level,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t expect some amateur to come out and run routes like I ran routes or catch balls like I caught balls.

“You really appreciate what these guys are doing.”

Giving it a go

Brown was about five years from seriously considering attending Notre Dame when his elementary school principal made the correlation between his God-given athleticism and golf. The principal noticed the then-11-year-old’s impeccable hand-eye coordination and mentioned that he wanted to teach the kid golf.

Gulp!

“Golf?” Brown remembers asking. “Any sport but golf. In Texas, 100 degrees, last thing you want to do is chasing a little white ball around. Now I’m doing it all the time.”

Brown focused solely on football for more than a decade before suffering a left knee injury during the 1989 NFL season opener. The Raiders knew, as they were known to know, that Brown liked to play tennis during offseasons. Once he shredded the knee, they demanded he try a different sport. He picked up his golf clubs and headed for the driving range.

First time out, he hit 200 balls. They went every which way. Left. Right. Brown figured only about two sailed dead-solid-perfect down the imaginary fairway. The rest likely would have been lost. Didn’t matter. He was hooked.

“That really started the whole deal,” Brown said. “I love golf.”

Golf became part of the daily routine after Brown retired in 2004. Preparing for the annual July trip to Lake Tahoe for the American Century Celebrity Championship, Carrying a 3.1 handicap, Brown plays at least four times a week. He’s also insisted each of his four kids give the game a chance. It’s not an option not to try it.

“Man, this is an incredible sport,” he said. “This is something that I see myself doing until I really can’t move anymore.”

Brown looks like he still can go over the middle and dominate. He may be a few pounds heavier than his NFL playing weight of 195 pounds, but other than that, life’s good. Brown said Monday he hasn’t taken so much as an Advil in 15 years. He doesn’t take pain pills to deal with what so many former pro football players deal with in retirement. He’s living — and loving — a good life.

A life that no longer includes chasing a pro dream. He’s played Warren often, but has yet to break 80. The course will be set up as a par 70 for next month’s championship. He’ll be back to watch the pros do what they do, and not wonder if he might do the same.

“I’m just hitting and hoping,” he said.

Brown was the biggest name at Monday’s press conference that was supposed to feature David Toms, the defending U.S. Senior Open champion. But for the second time since late-January, weather kept Toms from South Bend.

Back in winter, Toms’ flight was canceled because of extreme cold. On Monday, wet weather over the weekend forced him to play in Monday’s final round of the Regions Tradition in Birmingham, Ala.

Toms did appear via a taped video message. There also was a photo of him sporting a white No. 40 Notre Dame football jersey. Brown was asked if the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Toms looked the part of a football player. Say a cornerback?

“Kicker,” he said as the audience roared.

Brown admitted it’s still weird to realize that in less than 42 days, golf’s one-time greats will be out on the Warren driving range with a clear view of the Golden Dome off to their left. A tournament that’s basically been 17 years in the making finally will be real. For them. For Brown. For Notre Dame.

“It’s a long process,” said John Foster, Warren’s general manager and head professional. “It’s something that we’ve all wanted here at the university. We didn’t know if we could do it.”

Once they did, Brown couldn’t wait to be part of it.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “This is another opportunity for Notre Dame to show off Notre Dame. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Tim Brown speaks during a US Senior Open press conference on Monday, May 13, 2019, at Notre Dame's Warren Golf Course in South Bend.
After winning the 1987 Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame, wide receiver Tim Brown went on to a long NFL career.