Brewer getting due recognition

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Brewer’s career certainly had a quiet start. Born on a houseboat on Steele Bayou near Eagle Lake, Brewer had to cut through wilderness, cross the Yazoo River on a ferry and travel up a gravel road just to get to town.

“When I say we lived out in the boondocks, that’s what it was,” he said. “People have a tendency to brag about how far out in the country they’re from. Those stories become embellished over the years, and it’s hard to recognize what the truth is, but I can tell the absolute truth and beat all of them.”

Brewer had five sisters and no brothers. At an early age, he would play by himself, tossing a football in the air and kick it around in his yard.

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In high school, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 226-pound Brewer discovered that he not had only the desire to play football, but also the talent.

In 1951, he joined Redwood High’s football team in eighth grade and missed only three snaps in his five years on the squad.

He dominated opponents, playing nearly every position on the field, including kicker.

Retired Warren County school superintendent Donald Oakes was a grade below Brewer at Redwood and remembers lining up against him at practice.

“I’ve still got some of the scars to prove it,” Oakes said. “Johnny was the strongest guy on the team.”

Brewer was also a stellar all-around athlete, lettering in baseball, basketball and track at Redwood.

“God gave me some physical talent and I used it,” Brewer said. “Of course, I liked all sports and played all sports, but football was my favorite.”

As a small-town country boy, Brewer never realized just how talented he was until he played in a state all-star game his senior year. On the first play, Brewer nervously stepped to the line at defensive end against an All-Big Eight offensive tackle.

“Being a little bit afraid is a motivating factor. The adrenaline was just pouring out of the pores of my skin,” he said. “They had me on defense to start with, and I came unwound on that guy I mean just pancaked him backed the other way and he’s supposed to be blocking me.”

That dominance lasted all game, and soon the recruiters came calling.

While practicing for basketball, Brewer was approached by Ole Miss’ scouts with a scholarship offer. He was one of 55 freshmen who arrived in Oxford in 1956, only 19 of whom lasted with the team through their senior year.

Brewer doubled at tight end and defensive line for the Rebels. After a successful second-year campaign in which he received Sophomore All-SEC honors, Brewer underwent knee surgery that forced him to miss the 1958 season.

Doctors told Brewer he would never play again, but he came back strong in 1959, helping to lead the “Team of the Decade” to the national championship with a 21-0 Sugar Bowl victory over LSU. The Rebels followed that up with another national title in 1960 with a 14-6 Sugar Bowl win against Rice.

During those two seasons, Brewer picked up a myriad of honors, including first-team All-SEC both seasons and first-team All-America in his senior year.

“Johnny was an outstanding athlete,” Smith said. “Back then you played both ways, and he played tight end and defensive end. It shows that he was a great athlete because he was very successful at both positions.”

But awards and accolades never meant much to him.

“I wasn’t a rah-rah guy. I wasn’t any fun to be around, as a matter of fact,” he said. “I was dead serious about what I was doing.

“In fact, the thing I’m most proud of in my career was that I’ve never had a holding call against me, and I’ve never had a clipping call against me.”

Following his time at Ole Miss, Brewer was chosen in the third round of the NFL Draft by Cleveland. He still had a decision to make because the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League drafted him, as well as the Oakland Raiders of the newly formed American Football League.

“I was offered a lot more money if I’d signed with Oakland, but I decided to go with one of the best in the history of the game, and that was the Cleveland Browns,” Brewer said. “And I don’t regret my decision. I played on some great teams with the Browns. We were right on the door, knocking for the championship every year.”

Brewer began as a defensive end for Cleveland, but switched to tight end after one year. On offense, he was the unheralded lead blocker who sprung many of the runs by legendary running back Jim Brown.

“On the off-tackles and sweeps, which Brown loved, Brewer’s block was perfect and really opened the field,” said former Browns quarterback Frank Ryan, who now lives in Vermont.

Ryan still remembers letting down Brewer in the Browns’ 1964 championship win over the Baltimore Colts.

With Cleveland ahead 27-0 and pressing to score again at the Colts’ 12-yard line, officials were ready to call the game, but Ryan wanted one more play a touchdown pass to Brewer.

“And I missed him, can you believe that?” Ryan said. “He played so well, he deserved to have a touchdown pass, and I missed him.”

The Browns made it to the championship again in 1965, but lost 23-12 to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.

By 1968, Brewer was ready to retire. He had helped establish a life insurance company in Mississippi and wanted to be closer to his off-season job. Rather than retiring, he forced a trade to New Orleans’ new franchise, the Saints.

He played linebacker and defensive end for the lowly Saints for three seasons until his retirement in 1970, but it wasn’t quite the same as playing for Cleveland. New Orleans won only 11 games from 1968-70.

“Looking back, I wish I would have stayed with the Browns,” he said. “It was a great organization, and you couldn’t say that about the Saints at that time.”

Despite battling injuries, Brewer played in every single game of his 10-year NFL career.

“God granted me a good, physical body with a lot of speed,” Brewer said. “I was never carried off a field in a game, and I never missed a game in the pros. It’s not a record, but it’s pretty close.”

Giving up the game he loved was tough, but he made it through.

“When something dominates your life to that extent, it’s an indescribable adjustment that has to be made,” Brewer said of his retirement. “Unfortunately, a lot of guys don’t make it.”

Brewer moved back to Vicksburg, where his children went to Redwood Elementary. He helped start up a YMCA football program in Redwood and coached the team for eight years.

He also served as an assistant coach for Millsaps College while his son, Sean, was a four-time All-Conference athlete.

He continued his insurance business and now works as Vicksburg’s election commissioner.

Despite his humble upbringing, Brewer has gone a long way. Friday’s ceremony in Vicksburg will bring his great career full circle.

“Maybe it’s just ignorance is bliss, but I think believing you can certainly goes a long way,” Brewer said. “Unless you believe in yourself, no one else will.”