|Cornhusker Preacher: Ron Brown '79|
If football is a religion in the corn belt, the University of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium is its temple. It's also Ron Brown's office. But it was a controversy involving a more traditional form of religion that earlier this year drew national attention to Brown, a Cornhuskers' assistant football coach. Writing in the March issue of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes magazine, he claimed that his candidacy for a head-coaching job at a major university was scuttled because of his outspoken and conservative religious beliefs. (Brown refuses to identify the school, but the Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper, reported that it was Stanford University. Stanford officials have denied the allegation.)
"If they had a problem with my skin color they never would have come out and said it," Brown says. "They had a problem with my faith, and they had no problem saying that."
The incident was not the first time Brown's religious views have triggered conflict. He's been labeled a bigot and a homophobe for condemning homosexuality, as he did in 1999 on a weekly radio show. That prompted critics to call for Brown's dismissal, saying his views violate the University of Nebraska's nondiscrimination policy and the U.S. Constitution's guaranteed separation of church and state. His foes have also charged him with abusing his university affiliation to proselytize. School officials, though, have defended Brown's right to speak his mind, as long as he isn't appearing as a university representative or representing his personal views as school policy.
Brown's connection with Nebraska football has given him the clout to set up Christian summer camps for underprivileged kids. As a coach for one of the country's best college football teams, he also receives nearly 200 speaking requests a year and is a regular guest on television and radio programs. But Brown is not shy about using his visibility to endorse Jesus instead of Nike.
"We have one football coach," he says, "that does commercials for a dry-cleaning business. We have another that sells pizza. They're not saying that everyone eats that kind of pizza, or that everyone does their dry cleaning at one place, but they're lending their name to that. I'm not selling Christianity to anyone. I'm giving you my name and I'm letting you know that I'm a Christian."
Brown, who was adopted at age two and raised on Martha's Vineyard, began playing football in high school. In college he twice earned All-Ivy honors as a defensive back. (He was elected to the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986.) Brown had always dreamed of getting drafted by an NFL team, and when his name wasn't called in the draft his senior year, he says it forced him to reevaluate his life. "It all began to hit me," he says, "that the stuff I was going after really wasn't going to fulfill me and the stuff that was really going to fulfill me and give me a meaning in life was a relationship with God through Jesus Christ."
Over the years Brown tried out unsuccessfully for a handful of NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. In 1983, he was hired as Brown's head freshman football coach, and four years later he joined Nebraska as receivers coach, the position he's held ever since.
"This is like a hammer," Brown, who is married and has two children, says of the platform his job provides. "I can take this tool and build something wonderful with it."