Over the years, as I’ve interviewed numerous former Notre Dame Fighting Irish football players, race conversations don’t always come up; but at times they most certainly do. I don’t ever want to force people to talk about subjects they don’t want to discuss, but if tough topics come up, I’m always ready to have those conversations. And, if we can educate others through these tough conversations, I’m all for that as well. When I sat down to speak with former Notre Dame wide receiver Bobby Brown in 2012, he shared some stories with me that I think are very timely right now with all of the tough conversations that are taking place. One took place on the field, and one took place off the field. The first one is that infamous “excessive celebration” penalty called on him in 1999.
Every journey comes with its bumps in the road. Bobby’s redirection on the Notre Dame Value Stream came during his fifth year at Notre Dame. “In the final minutes of the 1999 Notre Dame-Michigan game I made what could have been the game-winning catch, only to be flagged for ‘excessive celebration’ after the play. The referee said that I had taunted the fans by making ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears- imitating a moose. The fifteen yard penalty was enforced on the kickoff so it changed field position and put the defense in a tough situation to stop a shorter drive.”
What the referee and fans saw and what really happened are quite different. “What really happened? The 1999 football season was my fifth year of eligibility. One of the reasons that I was originally considering NOT attending Notre Dame was because they did not have any fraternities and I really wanted to join this national black fraternity (Omega Psi Phi). But once I found out there were other avenues to join the fraternity while still attending Notre Dame, then it was an easy decision for me to go to Notre Dame. During the spring of my fourth year at Notre Dame, I started a process that would eventually lead to me being a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. During this Notre Dame – Michigan game my big brother happened to be in the end zone where I caught that pass, and not only is he also a member of the same fraternity, he has always been my role model. After making what I thought was a game-winning catch, right in front of my brother, I did what was natural to me. I threw up a sign that is closely associated with my fraternity. I had only planned on doing it once that year, the first time I got into the end zone, and this was it. It was a salute to my fraternity brothers around the country. It was quick and I thought it was harmless. Unfortunately, it happened to be mistaken as me imitating a moose or making Mickey Mouse ears to the fans, and it was considered taunting, and he threw the flag.”
“It was tough having to come back to the sideline to watch Michigan’s David Terrell on the go-ahead drive, making taunts at the fans and not getting called. My excessive celebration penalty was definitely a home official call. Only in the Big House. Getting blamed for a loss at 21 years (old) really messes with your sleep at night. No matter how passionate the fans are, the players are still human beings. God only gives you as much as you can handle and as a fifth-year senior, I was definitely able to handle this. If it would have happened to a freshman, it could have destroyed their confidence and their collegiate career. I am happy that it happened to me instead of one of the younger players. I have, over the years, used that experience to push myself to be a better person. Making light of what was once a very tense situation, I even named my entertainment company ‘Excessive Celebration.’ I have been able to take the negative and make it into a positive.”
“The head official wrote me a letter a few weeks later that same season apologizing to me. He had no idea that what I was doing was connected to a historic and positive black fraternal organization. I’m sure lots of people had no idea what I was doing. So by bringing it to people’s attention what I was really doing, it opened up a dialogue that might not have otherwise happened. That fact is another silver lining that I have come to appreciate over the years.”
As a football player at a prominent school such as Notre Dame, where winning is expected, you fall under harsh criticism by those who supposedly love and support you. “There was one fan who kept writing me letters about my moose sign. Another one who claimed it was a gang sign. The Omega Psi Phi fraternity was founded in 1911. It has many prestigious members including Michael Jordan, Ronald McNair and Jesse Jackson among many others, but so many people are unaware of it. I took this situation as an opportunity to promote the values of the fraternity. I grew up in a household where my father was not around for a period of time and several ‘Omega men’ were instrumental in making sure that did not turn me into a negative statistic. It was important for me to support and represent my fraternity in a positive way whenever the opportunity presented itself.”
Bobby is now taking his experiences and using them to help guide and educate others. “I’m now writing a book and the foundation of the book is the excessive celebration penalty, but it discusses the ways that sport allows cultures to collide that would not otherwise cross paths. The occasions that I remember first interacting with diverse groups of people outside my neighborhood were all sports-related: at a track meet, football game or a basketball tournament.”
One of the experiences that Bobby discusses in his upcoming book is the ‘black table’ in the dining hall. “In the book I talk about a bunch of interesting things like the ‘black table’ in the lunch room at Notre Dame. It was not an intentional thing that we did; it was just something that happened without us even realizing it. There were so few minorities at Notre Dame, and so naturally you just all kind of ended up at a table together in the dining hall. My roommate freshman year asked me one day, ‘Why do you always sit at the black table in the dining hall? We always walk in together and then you go sit at that table instead of eating with us (the roommates). Why?’ Before he said that, I had never really thought about it like that. But that is exactly what I did. After he said that to me, I really took notice of things like that.”
I am a big fan of continuing to learn and grow, and my years of writing about Notre Dame have taught me so much. Of course my knowledge of Notre Dame history has grown (and continues to grow) in leaps and bounds, but I’ve learned so much more than just Notre Dame history. I hope you’ll continue on this journey of learning with me.
Cheers & GO IRISH!