Ruben Brown set a gold standard for offensive guard play during his accomplished NFL career from 1995-2007. He was also a dominant performer at Pitt, earning All-America honors. But few remember the key decision early in his college career that helped launch him to NFL stardom.
There are certain times during the year when it's natural for people to get a little nostalgic.
Birthdays. Christmas. New Year's Eve.
Me? I'm a lifelong sports PR guy. I get those reflective sentimental feelings around football training camp.
I realized the other day my first Pitt camp was back in 1991 when it was annually held on the Johnstown campus.
Yeah, it was that long ago.
Curtis Martin was just freshly graduated from Taylor Allderdice and yet to play a collegiate snap. Nirvana's landmark "Nevermind" album was still a month from being released.
Anyway, I was responsible for getting quotes from then coach Paul Hackett after each practice. Serving in this capacity allowed me to be a witness to history.
Following an afternoon workout during the opening week of camp, Hackett announced a positional change. A redshirt freshman defensive lineman was being moved to the offensive front.
His name was Ruben Brown.
Today Ruben's name is synonymous with Pro Bowl offensive line play. Few remember that Brown was a Parade All-American on the defensive side of the ball coming out of high school.
Pitt was stocked on the defensive line in 1991. Two of the unit's stars, Sean Gilbert and Keith Hamilton, would go on to decade-long careers in the NFL. Another regular on that front was Tom Barndt, who would also play in the league.
The Panthers' offensive line was on the thin side and needed immediate help.
That's exactly what Brown provided. He started the next four years at offensive tackle, earned All-Big East three times and, as a senior, was a first team All-American.
Full disclosure: from the time he signed with Pitt out of E.C. Glass (Va.) High, Ruben has always been one of my favorite Pitt players and remained so when he went off to the NFL.
When Brown played in Super Bowl XLI as a member of the Chicago Bears I pitched Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik, who was covering the game, on a Ruben column. Of course, I had to retell my training camp story. ("I was there when he switched positions!" I said proudly, like I was with Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface or something.)
Bob did catch up to Ruben prior to the Super Bowl and wrote a very illuminating piece.
"I was very disappointed," Brown told Smizik in remembering his move to offense. "But I was behind two outstanding defensive linemen. I was upset, but there was a good reason for it, and I was fortunate. I wanted to get on the field and I knew I had a good chance to start."
In the 1995 NFL Draft, Brown was taken in the first round by the Buffalo Bills. He was the 14th overall selection and would reward the Bills' investment by going to eight consecutive Pro Bowls from 1996-2003. Brown would be named to Buffalo's 50th anniversary all-time team in 2009.
Brown concluded his career by spending four seasons in Chicago. He was a vital contributor to the Bears' run to the 2006 NFC title and their first Super Bowl berth since 1985 when another Pitt guy, Mike Ditka, coached them to victory in Super Bowl XX.
In addition to playing in the Super Bowl that year, Brown was named to his ninth Pro Bowl, matching Dan Marino for the most Pro Bowl appearances by a Pitt player since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Now retired, Brown remains highly active with a number of different endeavors. His "Ruben Brown Foundation" is aimed at helping children through various educational, developmental and mentoring programs.
Last December he took a group of kids Christmas shopping for their families to "teach them about giving and the true meaning of season." He hosts a "Game Day Experience with Ruben Brown," where area youth can watch a Bills game with him from a luxury suite.
He is also very visible in media circles, hosting weekly sports radio and television shows in the Buffalo area. His move behind the microphone was a natural one. Brown was always one of the most quotable and cooperative NFL players during his career. In 2001 he was named to NFL.com's "All-Interview Team."
With the enshrinement of two more Pitt players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this month - Chris Doleman and Curtis Martin were part of the 2012 induction class - there has been a lot of discussion about which Panther will make it to Canton next.
Now nearly five years removed from his final NFL season, Brown is approaching eligibility. It's a good bet he will be fitted for a gold Hall of Fame blazer quite soon.
And to think that journey to Canton began in part during a fateful afternoon practice in Johnstown back in 1991.
Follow Ruben on twitter: @Ruben7974
On the web: www.RubenBrownFoundation.com