When I heard that Long Beach legend Willie Brown had passed away a few weeks ago, I was on a family vacation in Mammoth. Willie was one of Long Beach’s true legends, and I was sad to hear that he’d left us; I spent most of the rest of the day thinking about him and reflecting on his legacy.
One thing that struck me was that if Willie had been from Mammoth, I probably would have seen his name on the sign coming into town. A very small number of cities anywhere in America have produced an athlete as great as Willie, who was All-City and All-CIF in football, baseball, and basketball while at Long Beach Poly, leading the football and basketball teams to CIF championships his senior year.
Then he went to USC to star as a tailback and, since he didn’t have a ring in baseball yet, to win a College World Series with the Trojans’ baseball team, which he led in batting average (.352) and runs (39). He was also USC’s first I-formation back on the gridiron and won a national championship with the school’s football team in 1962, then captained the team in 1963.
His exploits at USC earned him induction into the school’s Hall of Fame, and he’s a member of several Halls of Fame in Long Beach, including the Century Club and the Poly Football Halls of Fame.
He went on to a three-year NFL career, an exemplary coaching stint at USC and decades spent mentoring Trojans as part of the school’s academic center for its student-athletes. Those accomplishments are almost besides the point, though. What Willie accomplished in high school and college was far beyond what most towns could claim of their best and brightest products.
Willie, because he was from Long Beach, hasn’t been celebrated to the extent that he should have been. He came from an era in the city when there were greats all around. That could be on the football field, where he was part of the “ICBM” backfield his senior year with three other outstanding backs. It could be in the neighborhood he grew up in, sharing a duplex with Dee Andrews, a fellow star at Poly and a current Long Beach City Councilman.
Brown was even surrounded by stellar athletes in his own home growing up. His brother Oscar was a standout baseball player at USC and with the Atlanta Braves and his brother Ollie was the first draft pick of the San Diego Padres and is in the Long Beach Baseball Hall of Fame.
Of course, Willie wasn’t the kind of guy who would have asked for his name on a building anyway. When I interviewed him for a story about him going into the Poly Hall of Fame he spent most of the interview asking me about my wife’s aspirations to be a teacher.
He was comfortable being a legend in a city that’s produced many. He was happy to be part of a community. It reminds me of something the football and volleyball star Chris Lewis said to the LA Times back in 1998, when he could have walked around with a swollen head.
“You can’t really get a big ego about anything at Poly,” he said. “I could never think I’m the best thing this school has ever had, because I’m not. There’s been a lot of great players and a lot of history coming through Poly.”
That’s as true of Long Beach as it is of Poly, of course. But there’s no denying Willie Brown deserves as much respect and recognition as any one of Long Beach’s famous sports heroes.
Brown’s services will be at Poly at 11 a.m. on Friday. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations to be made to the Willie F. Brown, Jr. Fund in the Long Beach Education Foundation. The fund will provide for the “urgent needs of individual student-athletes such as food, shoes, transportation, clothes, and equipment,” according to the Brown family. “It will also provide academic scholarships, recognition, field trips, and travel. This account will support students from the neighborhood who were just like Mr. Brown was in high school.”