Legendary Notre Dame football All-American defensive end Ross Browner dies at 67

By John Fineran
ND Insider
Ross Browner (89), a former two-time national champion defensive end for Notre Dame died Tuesday. He was 67.

Ross Browner, perhaps the most decorated defensive end in Notre Dame football history and a member of its 1973 and 1977 national championship teams, died Tuesday from reported complications of COVID-19. A former star for the National Football League’s Cincinnati Bengals, Browner was 67.

A standout at Warren (Ohio) Western Reserve High School, the 6-foot-3, 262-pound Browner, known for a friendly demeanor off the field and his ferocity on it, was the first of four brothers who played college football.

Brother Jim joined him at Notre Dame while younger brothers Keith and Joey would play for Southern California. A son, Max Starks, played offensive tackle at Florida and then on two Super Bowl championship teams for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The world has lost a Titan,” Starks posted on his Twitter account. “Our hearts are heavy, but he is at peace now.”

Browner played in the Ohio all-star game and remembered an encounter he had with the late Paul Brown, who was the Bengals founder and owner. Brown asked him where he was going to college. Browner told him he was going to attend Notre Dame and play for Ara Parseghian, who played for Brown in college and professionally. 

Brown said he would follow Browner and then drafted him in 1978 with the eighth pick of the NFL Draft.

“’Hey, I didn’t’ want to play against you, so I had to pick you,’” Browner recalled Brown telling him.

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Browner was a true starter his freshman season at Notre Dame when the Irish went 11-0 under Parseghian after beating Alabama 24-23 in the 1973 Sugar Bowl. He finished the season with 68 tackles.

Four seasons later, his Notre Dame career ended with the Irish beating No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl to finish off an 11-1 season under coach Dan Devine. Browner won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top football player and finished fifth in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy. 

Browner was a unanimous All-American his final two seasons at Notre Dame and won both the Outland (1976) and Lombardi (1977) trophies. He finished his college career with 340 tackles, 77 tackles for loss (totaling 515 yards), 12 fumble recoveries, 10 deflected passes and two blocked punts for Notre Dame teams which went 39-7. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

The Bengals picked Browner with the eighth overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft and he became a starter during his rookie season.

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In that rookie season Browner won the team's most valuable player honors, posting a team-high eight sacks during in 1978. His career year came in 1981 when Browner had 10 sacks in the regular season for the eventual AFC champions. 

In Super Bowl XVI on Jan. 24, 1982, Browner set a game record for tackles by a defensive lineman, including one sack of former Irish teammate and quarterback Joe Montana. But Montana’s San Francisco 49ers prevailed in the game played at the Pontiac (Michigan) Silverdome 26-21.

Cincinnati Bengals DE Ross Browner (79), congratulates former Notre Dame teammate and San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana following Super Bowl XVI on Jan. 25, 1982 in Pontiac, Mich. Browner died Tuesday at age 67.

Browner played nine seasons with the Bengals, and he ranks fifth all-time in Bengals history with 59 career sacks. He led the team in sacks in three different seasons and averaged almost seven sacks per year with Cincinnati.

At both Notre Dame and in the NFL, Browner was known for his big laugh.

"You could hear it all over the place,” former Bengals teammate and wide receiver Isaac Curtis said. “He brought sunshine into the locker room. He just had that energy that was contagious.”

Following his NFL career, Browner was involved in several businesses, eventually ending up in real estate and settling in Nashville, Tennessee. He is survived by his wife Shayla and two sons.

The Cincinnati Enquirer contributed to this report.