Curious about the changing selection of photos appearing behind former NFL executive Scott Pioli during his appearances on NFL Network? Each image is from a framed cover of a sports magazine, chosen to highlight some of the lesser-known stories from football history that deserve to be widely told. For example, Pioli has focused this season on featuring some of the greats associated with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who have not been given their due.
Below, Pioli journeys back his early scouting days, when a sleepy trip to South Carolina State unearthed a 10-year NFL starter, thanks to the persistence of the late, great Orlando "Zeus" Brown.
A series about great football players from HBCUs just wouldn't feel complete if I didn't discuss my trip to South Carolina State in the spring of 1993, when I was a scout for the Cleveland Browns. It was my second year in scouting. Though most of my work was in-house, I did go on occasional road trips to work out potential HBCU prospects. This particular visit led me to Orlando Brown, who provided one of the most memorable scouting workouts of my career.
Fellow Browns scout Brian Adams and I arrived in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to work out a list of players who fit certain measurables and had enjoyed success under legendary SC State coach Willie Jeffries. It was an effort to fill out our draft boards with late-round and free-agent options. Upon arrival, we had to break up some pick-up basketball games in the school gymnasium so we could conduct the workout. (Needless to say, we did not make any friends in doing so.) While we set up drills -- measuring the court and setting up cones, among other housekeeping tasks -- a massive human being standing about 6-foot-7, 360 pounds walked up to me in a cutoff jersey and declared:
"I wanna work out, too."
I asked him his name. Without hesitation, he replied: "Zeus."
"No, your real name," I said.
After he answered, "Orlando Brown," I saw that his name wasn't on our list of prospects. These road trips were very tiresome and tedious, and we didn't normally work out players who weren't on the scouting list. It was a real get-in-and-get-out operation. I told Brown he wasn't on the list.
"I'm gonna work out," he insisted.
Looking at his enormous frame, I said "OK," and off we went.
While Adams worked out the skill-position players, I, having prior experience as an offensive line coach at Murray State, conducted drills with Brown and taught him some fundamentals of outside sets over on the side. We taped everything with a VCR camera and showed the workout to Browns head coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Mike Lombardi. They were impressed with Brown's size and tools, and sure enough, we signed him as an undrafted free agent because of that impromptu workout.
Brown spent Year 1 developing his raw talent under offensive line coaches Kirk Ferentz and Pat Hill. Those two did an incredible job transforming Brown into an outstanding football player who became the starting right tackle in the back half of his second season. He went on to log 10 years in the NFL with the Browns and Baltimore Ravens and was one of the highest-paid O-linemen during his prime. This fall will mark the 10-year anniversary of Brown's premature death due to diabetic ketoacidosis. He was just 40 years old, but his story of growth from humble football beginnings to a lengthy career in the league should serve as a lesson in persistence.
Brown -- whose 24-year-old son, Orlando Jr., just nabbed his second Pro Bowl bid in three seasons with the Ravens -- is one of many former Bulldogs to make a mark on the NFL. South Carolina State has seen 58 players get drafted into the league, including Pro Football Hall of Famers Donnie Shell and Harry Carson, multi-time Pro Bowlers John Gilliam and Robert Porcher, and current NFL players Javon Hargrave (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Shaquille Leonard (Indianapolis Colts). It's worth mentioning that Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Marion Motley each attended the school for one year before transferring elsewhere prior to embarking on their pro careers. And one more notable alum is Ted Crews, the Kansas City Chiefs vice president of communications and the first Black VP in the history of the franchise.
I am proud to be part of Brown's story and often think what the league and I would have missed out on if he wasn't insistent on trying out.