For a mountain of a man who goes toe to toe with high-test talking heads like former football stars Howie Long and Dan Marino, James Brown makes a surprising admission when we meet.
The setting is the Hunter’s Inn, a restaurant in Potomac. On a Monday evening, families are dining, businessmen are doing deals, two guys who’ve been fishing are telling tales at the bar. Brown—everyone calls him JB—is the only African-American in the place except for the waitstaff. It’s familiar territory for him. He works and travels in a largely white, first-class world, far from his roots in subsidized housing in a DC neighborhood now being bulldozed to make way for development near the new Washington Nationals ballpark.
Sitting down with us is Jeff Fried, JB’s friend and adviser. They order calamari salad. It arrives. JB closes his eyes, lowers his head, and prays. They dig in. We talk. Fried leaves to spend time with his family. I ask JB where he spent the afternoon.
He says, “I just came from the last grief-counseling session for my mother.”
Mary Ann Brown died in June 2006 after a battle with cancer. She was 72. The people who attended the funeral at her DC church “represented all the Benetton colors,” he says. “It was like a state funeral.”
His emotions are still raw.
“She poured herself into me,” he says. “She didn’t go to college, but she had a PhD in common sense. My dad worked two jobs. They never had their hand out, but they sent four of us to private school. I hope my life is a testament to her.”
JB has achieved his greatest public success so far as the host of two popular pro-football shows, The NFL Today on CBS and Inside the NFL on Showtime.
“Typically,” says Inside the NFL producer Peter Radovich, “this business has a lot of cattiness and jealousy, a lot of resentment between the personalities. JB is one exception to that rule.
“Athletes are blessed with talent,” he adds. “JB is blessed with likability.”
During the days I spend with JB, he talks about lessons learned from his mother, such as how she laid down the law over homework: “My brothers and sister had to be at the kitchen table doing homework when the streetlights came on.”
JB was a basketball star at DeMatha High, a powerhouse coached by the legendary Morgan Wootten. One evening, practice went past dark. Mary Ann Brown called school.
“Is James there?” she asked.
“He’s on the court,” a secretary said.
She asked to speak with Wootten.
“My son has to be home at 7 pm to do homework,” she said, according to JB and Wootten. “No homework, no basketball.”
“She meant it,” JB says.
Pretty soon I’m telling stories about my mother, who passed away in 2001. We’re both getting moist around the eyes when JB looks up and says, “At heart, I guess I’m just a mama’s boy.”
Mary Ann Brown would be proud of her eldest son at age 57. He doesn’t drink or smoke or curse. He works hard. Every week during football season, he takes the train to Philadelphia midweek to tape Inside the NFL and goes to New York every weekend to do live hosting on The NFL Today. In between, he runs Brown Technology Group, an information-technology firm he owns with Reggie Brown (no relation) and his brother Terence. He married well and raised a daughter, goes to church and Bible-study classes. He’s the patriarch of an extended family that includes siblings, nieces, and nephews—and a granddaughter.
Now, as they say in sports-speak, JB has a chance to take it to the next level.
He attained his greatest exposure as host of Fox NFL Sunday, pro football’s most popular pregame show, from 1994 to 2006. He won a Sports Emmy for best studio host. He left Fox for CBS with a contract that opened the door for him to do news.
Could he see himself anchoring the nightly news?
“Heavens, yes,” he says. “I hope I’ve shown I can be credible in commenting on issues other than sports.”
Jeff Fried, who helped negotiate news into the CBS contract, says JB is pitching stories to 60 Minutes.
“It’s a natural transition,” Fried says. “Two of the greatest attributes in the public eye are integrity and trustworthiness. JB has both.”
Using my best investigative techniques, I tried to pry open doors into any dark corners of JB’s life. I wound up trying to answer two questions: How did he get to be so sweet? And is it possible for him to become a black Walter Cronkite?
To answer the “sweet” question, I sought out Virginia “Mama” Washington in North Michigan Park, the DC neighborhood not far from Catholic University where JB grew up.
“I often wonder why I latched onto James out of all the kids in the neighborhood,” she says. “He had a way about him. He was mannerly and respectful even back then. He wasn’t swell-headed.”
Washington and her husband, Louis, moved to Faraday Place, Northeast, in 1958, the same year the Browns moved to a small brick duplex on the next street. Their backyards faced each other.
“It was an ordinary neighborhood,” she says. The shelves in her tidy sitting room are jammed with photos of children and grandchildren. “There were teachers and government workers mostly. It was very quiet. The kids growing up here respected their elders. Many became doctors and lawyers.”
And most played sports. “We liked to see our kids organized and not on the street,” she says.
She disappears and returns with a black-and-white photograph of a Catholic Youth Organization baseball team, circa 1964. JB is sitting in the front row, his long legs folded up to his chest.
What made JB such a sweet kid?
“His mom,” says Washington. “She instilled in all her children the basic morals. She was also a strong person. She was the backbone of that family.”
His father, John, was 20 when JB was born; his mom was 16. They lived first in subsidized housing at Third and K streets, Southeast, near the Navy Yard. John Brown saved enough money so the family could buy a house uptown on Farragut Place in North Michigan Park.
“Dad was all about working two and three jobs,” JB says. “He had to do that to provide for a family of five kids and allow my mom to stay at home. He showed his love by working.”
Virginia Washington’s son, Louis Jr., carpooled to DeMatha with JB. She watched his rise to stardom on the hard court. “That’s how he got recognized,” she says. “Coaches were after him even when he was an innocent little fella.”
Morgan Wootten, the basketball coach at DeMatha, saw something special in James Brown. “JB made varsity as a sophomore,” Wootten recalls. “I coached All-Americans who played JV until they were juniors or seniors.”