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Late Raiders DB Willie Brown helped make Long Beach a winner

Updated October 26, 2019 - 1:27 pm

When most football people think of Willie Brown, they think of him intercepting a Fran Tarkenton pass in the flat and returning it 75 yards for a touchdown, sealing the Raiders’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. They still can see Brown’s head bobbing inside his helmet as he ran in super slow motion toward the NFL Films cameras and into the history books.

But when Harvey Hyde thinks of the four-time Pro Bowl cornerback and three-time Super Bowl champion, he focuses more on the man than the moment.

“Just a wonderful person,” the former UNLV football coach said of “Old Man Willie” — how the announcers referred to him during that iconic pick 6 on pro football’s biggest stage — who was 78 when he died Monday. “Just a true … good … guy.”

The two were assistants at Long Beach State under NFL Hall of Fame coach George Allen in 1990. They were part of a remarkable turnaround and the last 49ers’ winning season before the football program was dropped.

Hyde said Brown helped give that Long Beach team an identity and a swagger.

“Willie brought who he was,” Hyde said. “Coach (Allen) believed in surrounding his program with recognizable names. He loved to have past pros around the program.”

Long Beach State finished 6-5 in their only season together which it closed out by defeating — you guessed it — UNLV in the 1990 season finale.

Death by Gatorade?

Brown was promoted to head coach when Allen died a few weeks after guiding Long Beach State to that winning season. Many blamed his death on an ice bath he received from his jubilant players after the 49ers beat UNLV — Allen joked afterward the program couldn’t afford Gatorade.

Hyde has another theory. He, too, believes Allen caught a cold — by watching Hayden Fry’s Iowa team practice for the Rose Bowl in cold and rainy weather in Long Beach. But he doesn’t believe that was what killed him.

“The way I hear it is that he had a heart attack at his home when he was by himself,” Hyde said, a theory basically shared by the coach’s son — former Virginia quarterback, governor and U.S. Senator George F. Allen, who briefly was considered the Republican front runner for president in 2008.

The younger Allen said his father suffered from heart arrhythmia, and he believes that is what caused his sudden demise.

Around the horn

— Friday was the 20th anniversary of the mysterious plane crash that killed colorful golfer Payne Stewart, who local author and golf enthusiast Jack Sheehan got to know through Stewart’s friendship with equally colorful PGA veteran Peter Jacobsen. Sheehan wrote two books with Jacobsen and helped recruit him to the University of Oregon.

Sheehan shared an anecdote about Stewart playing a practical joke on famous caddy Fluff Cowan by wearing a fake-teeth mouthpiece to the driving range that made it appear he had been in a fight.

That was the lighter side of Payne Stewart, said Sheehan, who suggested reading the poignant letter his daugher Chelsea posted to the PGA Tour’s website if you want to learn about the other, more important side.

— After getting comprehensively torched by Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, former Raiders’ No. 1 draft pick Gareon Conley was traded to the Texans practically before Marquez Valdes-Scantling performed the Lambeau Leap after his 74-yard catch and run.

It smacked of the day former UNLV defensive back Charles Dimry was burned for five touchdowns by Jerry Rice (and Joe Montana) in 1990, except that Falcons’ coach Jerry Glanville allowed Dimry to suit up for the rest of that year’s games.

— There’s always a Las Vegas connection: On Saturday I wrote about a Crow Nation rodeo family from Lodge Grass, Montana, a dot on the map (pop: 428) that also produced former NFL safety Tuff Harris. Harris played college football at Montana under former UNLV coach Bobby Hauck.

0:01

Sports writer extraordinaire and Las Vegas resident Jerry Izenberg on his induction to the New Jersey Hall of Fame, where he’ll be joining Frank Sinatra, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Bruce Springsteen, Vince Lombardi, Meryl Streep, Buzz Aldrin and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few:

“I get my mail in Nevada these days, but that’s more an antidote for cold weather than an identity.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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