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Illini’s Verdis Brown has a tough act to follow — that of his dad, who once destroyed a guy named Steve Greenberg

‘I’m definitely better than my dad,’ Brown says. Try telling that to my oafish 17-year-old self, who’s still trying to get out of his stance fast enough to at least get in the way of a player who was a strong prospect in his own right.

Verdis Browns — father and son.
Courtesy of Verdis Brown

It was like staring into the saddest, darkest recesses of my own athletic past.

OK, so I’m using “athletic” loosely.

On campus at Illinois recently for a couple of days of football training camp, I perused the roster only to be confronted by a name that was equal parts blast from the past and stick in the eye:

Verdis Brown.

As in: Verdis Brown the 6-4, 325-pound redshirt freshman offensive lineman who starred at Mount Carmel, finished his high school career at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and received scholarship offers from a who’s who including Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

Alas, also as in: Verdis Brown the 6-5, 230-pound Mount Carmel terror who, in 1987, beat a bumbling Lane Tech offensive tackle for not one, not two, but three sacks — including the fourth-quarter, fourth-down one that iced the game — in the state playoffs.

Old Verdis is Young Verdis’ father. I know this because I found the strapping 19-year-old and asked.

The bumbling tackle was, well, me.

“My dad was pretty good,” Brown said. “But I’m definitely better.”

Whatever, kid. Tell that to my oafish 17-year-old self, who’s still trying to get out of his stance fast enough to at least get in the way of a player who was a strong prospect in his own right.

The elder Brown, now 50, went the junior-college route, moving from Chicago to Long Beach (Calif.) City College. I know this because — what on earth was I thinking? — I asked the fresh-faced Illini to get me on the phone with Pops, and he did.

“Is my son better than me?” the elder Brown said. “Never, never, never. No way.”

But that was enough about father and son. We talked instead about tormentor and tormentee.

“Oh, yeah, I remember that game,” he said. “I don’t really remember the three sacks, but I remember the last one at the end of the game. Your quarterback tried to roll out, and I slung him down.”

That about covers it.

We all have our athletic expiration dates, don’t we? Each of us has that moment of realization that, yeah, I probably don’t need to pretend to play this game anymore. For some of us, like me, it comes in high school.

“Look on the bright side,” my tormentor said. “You were a senior. You didn’t have to watch film on Monday.”

Yes, it turns out he’s funnier than I am, too. Hallelujah.

A scrapbook image of Brown the Mount Carmel standout in 1987.
Courtesy of Verdis Brown

I must’ve been in the mood to humiliate myself some more, because I reached out to Lane’s quarterback from that 1987 team, Kevin Krebs, to find out what he remembers about Brown and that 17-7 Mount Carmel victory.

“He was a great edge rusher with a quick first step,” recalled Krebs, an all-Public League standout who went on to play at Northwestern. “Needless to say, when he was lined up opposite you, the pocket collapsed very quickly.”

Everybody’s a comedian!

But back to those aforementioned expiration dates. For others, like Brown — who gave two junior colleges a try and played semipro ball out of Gary, Ind., into his mid-30s — finality hits home a bit later.

“I would’ve kept playing, too,” said Brown, who put in two decades with the City of Chicago in Streets and Sanitation and also has worked in construction. “But the risk of injury and having to take care of a family outweighed it.”

Young Verdis Brown at work during Illinois training camp.
Derek Neal/Illinois Athletics

Brown and wife Bernita have moved to Champaign to be near their son. Isn’t that nice? Here’s hoping Young Verdis’ own end-of-the-football-line is buried somewhere deep in the future. He has been running with the second string in Illini training camp, but there are those who think he’ll force his way onto the field sooner rather than later after the start of the season.

Pops and I, on the other hand? Our gooses are cooked.

“That’s all right,” Brown said. “It’s just great to reminisce with someone about the old days.”

Truth be told, the pleasure was all mine.