It’s been a long road for Dennis Brown.
It began in Long Beach, where he starred on the gridiron for Jordan High; it wound through the San Francisco and the NFL’s Super Bowl, where he took home a ring with the 49ers; it took him to rock bottom in Seattle, where he struggled with alcoholism; and finally back to the Bay Area, where a successful television and radio broadcasting career has given him a unique perspective on this strange football season.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Brown. “I’m not walking the streets, I have a gig, and my gig is sports.”
Despite having played on the biggest stages, Brown said he still clearly remembers the bus ride from Sizzler to Veterans Memorial Stadium to play in his first Milk Bowl as a Jordan Panther.
“I used to dream of it,” he said. “I was so freaking nervous on the way going, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for: the Milk Bowl. That was one of the most exciting things in my life.”
After Brown’s family moved to Long Beach, he was bused to Hoover Junior High, where he said he felt out of place as one of the only non-white students attending the Lakewood school.
“They didn’t really accept a black kid from the inner city,” he said.
Brown would go on to become a well-known athlete at Lindbergh Junior High and at Jordan, while his family lived at a nearby apartment off Atlantic. He graduated in 1986 and headed for the University of Washington. Brown had plenty of scholarship offers as a USA Today All-American, but passed up UCLA and USC to become a Husky.
“I actually gave a verbal commitment to USC but my grandmother told me you’ve got to get out of LA,” he said. A recruiting trip to Colorado showed him snow for the first time, a trip to Seattle showed him that there were fish besides catfish and red snapper.
“I had salmon for the first time and came home and told my grandma, she said, ‘You gotta go see the world, go see something else.’ I’d never been out of Long Beach or LA.”
After starring at the Unviersity of Washington, where he was a two-time All-American, Brown was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round in 1990, a surreal moment for the Long Beach native, who had a poster of Jerry Rice and a poster of Ronnie Lott on the wall of his dorm room.
“I got a call during the draft and John Marshall, the defensive line coach, said, ‘Congrats, you’re a 49er. I said, ‘A 49er?!’ They had just won back-to-back Super Bowls, I had never even contemplated that.”
The very next day Brown was flown out to the Bay for a press conference and to get settled into his locker. He was sitting in his locker looking at his new jersey number of 96 and admiring his equipment when the biggest stars in the world came in: Lott, Rice, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Charles Haley.
“Man it really sinks in, and you know these guys are serious business, they’re trying to win Super Bowls,” he said. Lott handed him the business card of his realtor and told him he’d be expected to get a place near the practice facility and to show up to work every day ready to go.
Brown was the team’s Rookie of the Year and was a Super Bowl champion with the Niners in 1994. After seven years starting for the team, he was released in 1996 after sustaining a serious injury, an abrupt end to a stellar career.
The end of Brown’s playing career brought about years of turmoil, a story that is sadly familiar to many NFL alums. He moved his family to Seattle and got a job in the corporate world in sales.
“I had a lot of anger because of the way my career ended, and I hated going to work every day,” said Brown.
He went through a divorce and battled alcoholism and depression.
“I was still mourning my career,” he said. “A lot of us go through this.”
Brown knew he needed help, and he called former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who no longer owned the team but was still involved (his nephew, Jed York, owns the team).
“I called Mr. D and I said, ‘I’m not doing really well and I need some guidance,’” said Brown.
DeBartolo connected him with Lott, who convinced him to move back to the Bay Area and to get involved with the 49ers Alumni Foundation.
“I needed a team captain and that was Ronnie,” said Brown. “He calls you on your bullshit.”
Back to the Bay
The Alumni Foundation helped get him back to a stable place, and for the last 13 years he’s been one of its most public members, winning the 49er Alumni Service Award nine times for his volunteer work. Mostly recently, Brown has been working with a food bank that provides thousands of meals to hungry Bay Area families every day.
His work with the foundation also opened the door to a successful broadcasting career with NBC Sports Bay Area, and he’s hosted several television and radio programs around the team, as well as a new podcast with The Athletic.
As a result he has a particular view of this bizarre NFL season, which is being played mostly in empty stadiums.
“The 49ers opener with the Cardinals, there’s nobody there, it feels like a practice, it’s just strange,” he said. “I’m just walking around during the game and I can hear them barking out audibles in the 200 level. You’re calling a game and you’re used to 60,000 people and excitement and you look down and it’s a completely empty stadium. It’s strange but that’s what we got, and I’m glad we got it.”
He’s also grateful for his long and winding road, and proud of the gold football with his name on it that sits in a trophy case at Jordan, a gift from the NFL to the high schools of every Super Bowl winner from the game’s first 50 games.
“I’m lucky, there’s a lot of guys out there who self destruct like I was,” he said. “There are guys who’ve been out of it or who are in the streets. I was lucky enough to have an organization that cared about me. When I wake up in the morning I feel like, ‘Yeah, this is what I should be doing.’”