His right thumbnail, blackened and cracked after being caught between a teammate's helmet and shoulder pads during practice early this season, hurts the worst. Yet pain still shoots from Ray Brown's right ring finger, which he fractured in an NFL game 10 years ago, causing stitches and wiring to be snaked through it so he could continue playing.
"I had to wear that only a couple of weeks," Brown recalled.
The 6-foot-5, 318-pound Redskins offensive lineman uses a specialized clip to slightly expand his wedding ring before wearing it on his finger, where swelling has made the ring impossible to slide on naturally. Brown's middle fingers are mangled, the knuckles enlarged from calcium buildup.
After turning 42 last Sunday, Brown became the first offensive lineman in the modern era to play the position at that age. Coach Joe Gibbs considers Brown's story worthy of a Hollywood script about eternal youth. Brown's athletic ability gives him flexibility and allows him to run faster than most of Washington's offensive linemen. Teammates heap the 18-year veteran with superlatives for his status as one of the most durable players in league history. He is only the fourth NFL player over the past two decades to start a game at age 42.
"Nobody can say you can't play forever," linebacker LaVar Arrington said.
Nonetheless, Brown's age shows in his hands, his fingers gnarly fingers from dislocations left to heal on their own. Offensive linemen typically have the ugliest hands in the NFL. And Brown's hands have suffered such extensive damage from an NFL career, which began in 1986, that he has a habit of keeping his fingers from plain view.
"I'm a 42-year-old guy, I feel 42. That's no big deal," said Brown at Redskins Park this week. His hair is a short-cut Afro with no discernable gray. He wears a diamond stud on his left ear. "The wear and tear, you will see it in my hands," he said. "Those are the hazards of this game. That's why I keep them in my pockets as much as possible."
The tradeoff has been a storybook career that remains riveting if only because it hasn't yet ended. Washington's starting right tackle — who has played mainly guard during his NFL career — is on his second stint with the Redskins; he previously played in Washington from 1989 to 1995. Brown's first team, the St. Louis Cardinals, now plays in Arizona. He was drafted in the eighth round from Arkansas State; the NFL draft no longer lasts eight rounds.
The former college tight end has fond memories about today's road opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, where he played from 1996 to 2001 before joining the Detroit Lions. Brown made his only Pro Bowl appearance while a 49er, after the 2001 season, at age 39. Brown was among five teammates who garnered the honor, including wideout Terrell Owens, but Brown was the only one to receive a standing ovation in the locker room when the names were announced.
"It was great," remembered Brown, who didn't give up a sack in the 2000 season but didn't get the nod. "I probably had played better before, but I was just grateful."
Brown is the NFL's second-oldest position player by one day less than two months to Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jerry Rice. Brown's first child, a 22-year-old daughter, is older than Redskins rookie safety Sean Taylor. Brown is the only Redskins player to attend a racially segregated school, in his home town of Marion, Ark. It became integrated after Brown, who is black, completed first grade.
A few current Redskins were on the club in 2002, when cornerback Darrell Green started four games at age 42. But the memory doesn't diminish their awe of Brown. "It's amazing that a guy can play that long, especially an offensive lineman," said left tackle Chris Samuels, 27. "You would think that maybe a punter or a kicker can play that long."
Brown hasn't garnered kudos merely for being an NFL senior citizen. Brown initially was expected to be a reserve; he was signed after right tackle Jon Jansen suffered a season-ending injury during Washington's preseason opener. Brown will be making his ninth consecutive start and 11th in 13 games. (Kenyatta Jones started at right tackle in Washington's season opener, then was replaced by Brown.)
"You could do a movie on him," said Gibbs, who also coached Brown from 1989 to 1992. "A guy that comes in at that age, and he winds up playing guard and tackle for us. To play that long is phenomenal."
'He's a Phenom'
Before joining the Redskins, Brown had not played tackle since 1994. But in his first start this season, Brown kept the Giants' Michael Strahan — who holds the NFL's single-season sack record — without a sack. Despite being part of an offensive line that has been spotty this season, Brown has performed his best against the NFL's elite pass rushers; Brown has allowed one sack in a total of four games against Strahan, Adewale Ogunleye of the Chicago Bears and Jevon Kearse of the Philadelphia Eagles. Kearse collected the only sack among the group, during Philadelphia's Nov. 21 victory over Washington.
"If I didn't know his age, it wouldn't even be a conversation because of the way he's playing," guard Randy Thomas said of Brown. "It's crazy to be on the field any way at that age."
Backup quarterback Mark Brunell added: "He's a phenom. He's still getting it done at age 48 or whatever he is."
Brown's forte is run blocking, using his strength and physical prowess, but Brown also possesses the athletic ability to be a solid pass blocker. Brown has displayed remarkable durability for a player of any age. He hasn't missed an NFL game since 1991 when he was out for the season after elbow surgery. Brown was also on the injured reserve in 1990. When Brown came off the bench in the season opener, it snapped a streak of 160 consecutive starts dating from 1993.
"How can you play in the NFL [for] 20 years?" said Joe Bugel, who oversees Washington's offensive line and coached Brown in 1989. "His body just gets better and better every year. Usually when you get older, your body starts failing on you."
In early November at Redskins Park, Washington's coaches argued about who was the most flexible Redskins player. Defensive tackle Brandon Noble, at 6-2 and 304 pounds, is known for his loose limbs. But Washington's offensive coaches swore on Brown. After practice, Gibbs gathered the team on the turf field, in the pouring rain, to have the bet settled: Each big man would sit on the field and see who could lower his forehead closest to the ground. Brown and Noble did a split before proceeding. Defensive players hooted for Noble; offensive players — plus veterans from both groups — cheered for Brown.
The contest ended in a tie when both players showed enough flexibility to touch their foreheads to the wet turf. But Brown received the most praise for having more than a decade, plus 20 pounds, on Noble. "I didn't know that he was a genetic freak. It was crazy," said cornerback Fred Smoot. "Noble can get down, too, but Ray Brown is 42."
Gibbs added: "He's extremely flexible for a big ol' guy and he's taken great care of himself. That's an example of a guy that's well trained, and watches every aspect of his life."
Brown stretches each night before going to bed, and requests extra stretching drills from the team's trainers.
Brown's hands were relatively unscathed — few scars and all straight fingers — when he joined the NFL after being selected 201st overall from Arkansas State. In college, Brown was a 240-pound blocking tight end in a wishbone offense. Brown was a late bloomer who started eight games during his first three NFL seasons with the Cardinals. Brown didn't become a regular starter until his seventh NFL season, in 1992 with the Redskins.
Although Brown has had one of the longest careers of any NFL player, he still gets jitters before every game. "Of course. That will never change," Brown said. "I've just always had those anxieties. Man, I don't want to get beat. I still carry around that whole tag -- that I'm an eighth-rounder. You always got something to prove."
Back to the Redskins
Despite making the Pro Bowl in his final season with the 49ers, the club released Brown to clear $1.5 million off the salary cap. Brown played in all 32 games for the Lions over the next two seasons. Both seasons, the Lions gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL. In 2002, Brown was named the team's top offensive linemen. But after last season, the Lions chose to go with younger players, uncertain if Brown would continue defying Father Time.
Brown spent time at home in San Jose, working out and awaiting a call from an NFL team. He went through a 90-minute workout almost daily on a desolate hill near his house, alternately running and walking for a total of 4.5 miles. Two neighbors, veteran 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield, the former Redskin, often joined Brown.
"I have to tip my hat off to him," Young said. Brown's most daunting workouts occurred in the sweltering summer heat of Marion, where he is having a community center built.
The Redskins called Brown on Aug. 9, hours after Jansen was injured. Two days later, Brown signed a one-year contract worth the league minimum of $750,000. The Redskins expected Brown to be model of professionalism while contributing as a reserve.
When Brown speaks in his booming voice, every word holds cachet to younger teammates. "I'm trying to get him to feed me whatever knowledge can help me in over the long haul," Thomas said.
But Brown provides another intangible as the only current Redskin who previously played for Gibbs. Bugel said that the experience helps Brown enable teammates to better understand some of Gibbs's stories from the old days. Brown and reserve quarterback Tim Hasselbeck — whose father, Don, was an NFL tight end — are the least befuddled when Gibbs sprinkles names from the past in addresses to the team.
"They didn't know who Conrad Dobler or Merlin Olsen were," Brown said of two former NFL stalwarts. Olsen "might as well be the guy on 'The Little House on the Prairie,' selling some flowers. I watched them as a kid. I know those guys. These guys [teammates] are too young."
The Redskins have seen enough of Brown that Gibbs, 64, hopes the offensive lineman returns next season, even if it's as a reserve. Brown hasn't yet decided if he will accept the open invitation. He plans to discuss the matter with his wife, Ashley. The couple has an 8-year-old daughter, Miriam, and 2-year-old son, Trey.
Brown says that the decision will be in his family's hands.
Redskins Notes: The NFL fined running back Clinton Portis and safety Sean Taylor $10,000 apiece for violating the league's uniform rules in the Eagles game last Sunday, league sources said yesterday. The two were each fined $5,000 for the same offense two weeks ago. They have been wearing all-burgundy socks; under league rules, they are required to wear shorter, white socks over the burgundy socks. . . . Taylor was also fined $10,000 for unnecessary roughness for an incident in which the league said he hit an Eagles player after he had gone out of bounds. He wasn't penalized for the hit during the game. It's the second straight week the rookie has been fined for unnecessary roughness; a week ago he was fined $7,500.