I never got to thank Timmy Brown for the favor.
Brown, the gifted Eagles halfback and kick returner who became a moderately successful Hollywood actor, died Tuesday at 82.
He was, with the possible exception of Tommy McDonald, the most exciting Eagle of the 1960s. The good-looking running back from Ball State was fast, daring, and competitive.
Against the Cowboys in 1966, he became the first NFL player to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in one game. A three-time Pro Bowler, Brown twice led the NFL in all-purpose yards.
His talent and charisma made a lot of Eagles fans like me happy during a lot of unhappy seasons. But that’s not why I wanted to thank Brown. Instead, it was for something that happened in the star-crossed sports summer of 1964, an afternoon when his mere presence spared me from humiliation.
As a youngster, I spent countless weekends visiting my widowed grandmother. She’d take me to movies, to Center City department stores and, if her Social Security check arrived in time, to Atlantic City for a Steel Pier show and an Italian dinner at the Knights of Columbus.
By June 1964, those visits were becoming less regular. I was 14, beset with normal teenage urges and tired of making excuses to friends who wondered why I preferred to spend so much time with an old lady who lived with two sisters in a three-room Roosevelt Boulevard apartment.
That Friday afternoon, riding the subway there, I wondered if this would be my last stay-over visit.
Saturday morning, my grandmother decided we’d take the bus to AC. That meant, as always, that we’d be attending the Steel Pier stage show. If the lineup that day included an aging crooner, a comedian or two and maybe a juggler, it wouldn’t be so bad. I just hoped there wasn’t another teen idol.
On another AC trip four years earlier, the headliner had been Frankie Avalon, who had the nation’s No. 1 song, “Venus.” The sea of throbbing, screaming teenage girls must have wondered why a 10-year-old boy was there with his grandmother. But that kind of thing didn’t yet bother me.
Four years later, it was a different story. I shrank in my seat as the theater again filled up with young girls and my diabetic grandmother extracted a Planters Peanut Bar from her purse and loudly urged me to eat it.
“Get something in your stomach, Frankie. You’re a growing boy.”
Occasionally, the row of girls sitting in front of us got a little too boisterous and she’d loudly bark, “Sit down, young lady!”
The girls responded with laughter that was, I was certain, directed at me, the gawky geek being baby-sat by his grandmother.
Who had the girls come to see? It surely wasn’t Totie Fields, the bill’s headliner, a whiny comedienne whose schtick was her corpulence. Turns out there was a young singer, maybe Fabian or Bobby Vee, I don’t remember. Whoever it was, his gelatinous pompadour seemed out of place in that first summer of Beatlemania.
The girls screamed at him. And I sank deeper into my chair.
A few acts later, my predicament nearly unbearable, a familiar face emerged from the wings and entered the spotlight. It was Timmy Brown.
Brown was a complex and interesting athlete. He arrived here in 1960 after the talent-rich Packers released him after one game as a 27th-round rookie in 1959. Almost immediately, he announced a desire to enter show business. He’d sung and tap-danced in college, and for much of his Philadelphia career commuted to New York for acting lessons.
Football fans here adored his flash and style. Philly sportswriters, on the other hand, weren’t sure what to make of him. Daily News columnist Bill Shefski called Brown “a superstar with the temperament of a stage actor,” an athlete who had “a mood to match every one of his lizard-like moves.”
Most of Brown’s eight Eagles teams were lousy, but at least we got to cheer a colorful star whose name and ability made him our version of the league’s best player, Cleveland’s Jim Brown.
I’d seen Timmy Brown play at Franklin Field a time or two, but here he was, a real Eagles star, standing right in front of me. That realization came as a relief. Suddenly, I had reason to be there. I could look those snickering girls in the eyes. That’s why I came with my grandmother. That’s why I was willing to endure the noise and the fat jokes, the sideways looks and the laughter.
I was there to see Timmy Brown. He was a football player.
More of a football player than a singer, it turned out. Brown opened with Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” He performed his new single, “I’ve Got a Secret,” which ought to have remained one, then had the squealing crowd join him in singing “This Land Is Your Land.”
When I learned of Brown’s death, I searched in vain for a review of that long-ago performance. I did find one from his week-long stint at Valley Forge’s Tally-Ho Lounge later that month.
The kind Variety reviewer noted that Brown “could very well be a new idol of the younger set,” but acknowledged that he “as yet is not recognized for his vocal capabilities.”
I didn’t care what he sounded like. He’d saved me.
That was my last AC trip with my grandmother. I don’t think I ever spent another weekend at her place. She died 10 months later.
The Eagles traded Brown to Baltimore in 1968, by which time Fabian and Bobby Vee had both combed out their pompadours. Beatlemania had faded, too, and it wasn’t long before the Steel Pier discontinued its live shows.
Brown eventually abandoned his singing career, but not before performing a song in the 1975 movie, Nashville. He did better with the acting, appearing in the critically acclaimed film M*A*S*H and, for one season, as a regular in the TV adaptation. He worked occasionally for a few more decades and, in 1973 was a color analyst for CBS’ NFL telecasts.
As for me, I got to see many more football players up close. None was as welcome a sight as Brown that afternoon in Atlantic City.