June 25, 1992 is one of the most memorable evenings of my life and that’s not a good thing.
I had dinner with my parents to celebrate my father’s birthday. The place was Brooksville, Fla., where I was a cub reporter, mainly covering high school sports for The Tampa Tribune. But I also covered everything that involved sports in Hernando County.
It had been just 90 minutes earlier that I left my apartment with no messages on my telephone answering machine (cell phones weren’t common yet). After a nice time with my parents, I returned home and there were 25 messages (the most my answering machine could hold). I knew something was terribly wrong.
I started playing the messages and heard terrible news. Jerome Brown, the biggest thing to ever come out of Brooksville, was dead. He and his 12-year-old nephew, Gus, had been killed in a car accident. Brown was 27 and an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles. I instantly had to get to work on what was, at the time, the biggest story of my young career.
If there is any statute of limitations on letting out secrets and sources, it has long since passed. Besides, I seriously doubt my source would mind this disclosure. My source was the late and great Walt Riddle, who, for years, was The Tribune’s Hernando County version of Tom McEwen.
Riddle had covered Brown at Hernando High and knew him as well as anyone. Two years after Riddle left The Tribune, I had the honor of sitting in his old office. He was a mentor and friend and, eventually, he shared a secret Brown had told him before his death.
Brown’s contract was going to expire after the 1992 season. The same was true for Philadelphia’s All-Pro defensive end Reggie White. The next year was going to be the first true year of free agency in the National Football League and here is something that will knock the socks off of those who follow the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What Could Have Been
Riddle told me that Brown and White had already made a pact to sign with the Bucs the next season. Yes, Brown and White were going to be Buccaneers. They already had formed the nucleus of the NFL’s best defensive line in Philadelphia. There’s no doubt they could have done the same thing in Tampa Bay. Both were the best in the NFL at their positions and both were in the prime of their careers. Putting them together in Tampa Bay might have turned Sam Wyche into the second coming of Vince Lombardi.
Would notoriously cheap owner Hugh Culverhouse have actually forked over the money to get them both? Well, that’s another story. So, let’s not interrupt Brown’s pipedream about playing close to Brooksville. Put him and White together in orange and white and the franchise’s woes could have been over before Culverhouse died and long before Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden came along. Put Brown and White together in orange and white and Tampa Bay could have been a champion nearly a decade before that actually happened. The franchise’s history would be very different. With those two together, anything would have been possible.
This could have been one of the greatest stories in NFL history. Instead, it’s one of the saddest. After Brown’s death, White did end up in free agency the next year. But that was with Green Bay, a place where White had enormous success and eventually led the Packers to a Super Bowl championship. The same thing could have happened in Tampa Bay.
But life isn’t always fair. Brown died at the height of his career. White got to finish a Hall of Fame career. But he also died way too young. On Dec. 26, 2004, White died of what has been reported as complications of a heart condition and sleep apnea.
Pat Yasinskas is an occasional contributor to Bucs Report. He began covering the NFL in 1993 and has worked for two major newspapers, two major websites and currently is a freelance writer for national magazines and websites. He also has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter on three occasions.