I’ve met thousands of professional athletes in my lifetime. Everyone from Johnny Unitas and Wayne Gretzky to Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio, some great experiences and some incredibly disappointing but none compare to one 20 minute encounter at a pizza shop in Glen Burnie, MD just a few years ago.
This story however, begins a few years prior on October 24th, 2004. My father had just been diagnosed with Stage Four Pancreatic Cancer earlier in the week and it had metastasized to his liver, lungs and bones. I was told he had weeks, maybe months left with us and while his physical self was deteriorating before my eyes, his spirit stayed strong and it was quite evident on this day.
It was a normal Ravens home game Sunday for me. I was an avid autograph collector so I started the morning at the stadium waiting outside the player’s lot, hoping to meet some of the players and get a few autographs as I often did on game day.
My father and I made plans that once I got home from my autograph seeking that I’d meet him at my parent’s home and we would go together to his favorite South Baltimore bar to watch the game. One of the first players in that morning was Orlando Brown.
“Zeus” was always very focused on his entrance to the stadium, only occasionally stopping to sign autographs before games but always friendly even when he didn’t stop. On this specific day however, instead of giving me his autograph he asked “You wanna go to the game today?” Why he picked me out of the hundreds of fans waiting, I’ll never know. I knew I had plans but I reacted without thinking and graciously accepted the ticket and thanked him. There was no doubt in my mind where I was spending that day but the gesture alone certainly lifted my spirits, even if just for that moment, during such a rough time. I was twenty-five years old, an only child of parents who had been together for almost forty years, with a five month old son of my own and watching my father’s final days before my eyes.
Dad insisted on driving us to the bar that day even though physically he probably shouldn’t have been driving but hey, who was I to tell him no?
We spent the day amongst some of his best friends, in a place he enjoyed so much and had the kind of Sunday I previously assumed I would have many times over for many years to come. Unfortunately the disease progressed just as quickly as the doctors warned and he passed away just six weeks later on December 7th. It was the worst time of my life, yet such a small gesture from someone who didn’t even know me became one I’ll never forget.
What I didn’t know at the time is that the man who handed me that ticket on that day was hurting the same way I was.
A few years later, I pull into the parking lot of Ledo Pizza in Glen Burnie to see a car I had seen so many times before. A Rolls Royce Phantom with novelty tags that read “ZEUS”. My now four year old son and I enter the restaurant to see the man himself, all six-foot-seven, three-hundred-sixty plus pounds waiting with one of his sons for their order. I was immediately taken back to that day, some 4 years prior, and felt compelled to thank him once again.
I introduced myself and reminded him of his gesture on that day and then told him why it meant so much to me. He then asked if he could tell me a story and of his own. Of course, I was all ears.
Zeus shared with me that his mother had passed the day before the season opener that season, of how Coach Billick told him he didn’t have to play, and how he felt the need to play because it helped keep his mind off things.
He added that he believed the team lost that day because they played with such heavy hearts after learning about his mother’s death.
We continued our conversation, exchanging sorrows over losing a parent and how devastating those losses were. The pain for both of us was as fresh as the day of each respective passing.
My son was getting restless and his pizza cold so we talked a little about football and went on our way but before leaving he took a picture with my son, picking him up and almost putting him on his shoulder.
On that day it wasn’t about football, it was about two men who shared a bond through grief and due to a unique set of circumstances, were able to share that with one another. On that day, the man we all know as “Zeus” showed up big again for a Ravens fan who had cheered him on so many times before but this time, that cheer came in the form of a handshake and a thank you for his time that day and for a moment I’ll never forget.
My condolences go out to the family, friends and fans of Mr. Orlando “Zeus” Brown. May you forever rest in peace, my friend.