FOXBOROUGH -- The day they said he couldn't play anymore, Chad Brown's passion for the game hit him as hard as he'd hit so many quarterbacks.
Until then, football had been so much of his life that the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker rarely considered how much it meant to him. Not, at least, in the way you do after it's taken away.
For Brown, that time of introspection came in the months after he was inactive for a game against the Buffalo Bills last Oct. 30. Brown, who had started five of the Patriots' first six games at inside linebacker, never saw the decision coming. But, of course, it was one he had seen other men his age face in years past, when he was young and fast and strong and, most of all, active. Always active. Now he was one of them and a decision had to be made.
``When I was deactivated for that game, it was shocking," said the 36-year-old Brown Friday, a day after agreeing to a contract to return to New England, and barely six months after he thought he'd played his last NFL game (he had been released by the Patriots in March). ``I'd seen some of my teammates have that happen and they kind of took their ball and went home [mentally]. I didn't want to be one of those guys.
``I've seen both sides of it now. It tests you as a person. What are you made of? Why do you play? Do you play for personal glory and accolades or do you play because you love the game? When you're walking to your car and they just told you you're deactivated, it's sometimes tough to have perspective."
Perspective comes with time and maturity. It comes, too, when your mettle has been tested not by success, which he had most of his 13-year career in Pittsburgh and Seattle, but when the tide has turned and you find yourself in rough seas.
For Brown, that time came last year, his first in New England. He had come to the Patriots on a two-year contract after turning down an opportunity to go back to Pittsburgh, where he spent the first four years of his career before joining Seattle in 1997. The Seahawks also attempted to retain him to serve as a designated pass rusher and outside linebacker.
Brown was a man who played on the edge until the day he arrived in Foxborough. But with inside linebacker Ted Johnson's unexpected retirement, Brown was shifted inside, where he found himself in the unfamiliar midst of flying 300-pound bodies.
Brown accepted it, but he was not comfortable. He struggled, although perhaps not as much as the media made it seem, and then he came to the office one day and was more or less told, ``Skip the pads. Go home."
In the weeks that followed that one-game deactivation, bitterness could have taken seed. Brown had seen it many times with veteran players suddenly faced with the harsh realities of professional sports. But instead of bitterness, something else bloomed inside Chad Brown.
``You have to realize that time waits for no man," Brown said. ``Football is a young man's game. I was talking to a rookie offensive lineman. He's 22. I'm 36. He was 8 years old my rookie year. That's unbelievable. But I remember my rookie year [in 1993] in Pittsburgh when Levon Kirkland and I were in at linebacker in my first preseason game and they kept David Little, a veteran, in with us . . . I'm all excited. It's my first preseason game. I told him in the huddle, `I was in the fourth grade your first game.' He slapped me in the helmet and said, `Shut up, rookie!'
``Now I'm David Little. Things change. You have to make peace with it. Do you play for personal glory or love of the game? I've always loved the game. This is what I've done since I was 6. I haven't missed a year of football since. I never had a job more than a few weeks in the summer. This is still what I'm best at. I just felt you should shoot for what you're best at."
As spring approached, the lure of the game began to call him. He didn't have a place to play but he had spoken several times with Patriots coach Bill Belichick as well as with other teams. He believed there was still a place for him in the NFL but there was also a place for him in Littleton, Colo., where he runs a business called ``Pro Exotics" and is raising two children. There, he tends to their needs while breeding and raising nonvenomous snakes and reptiles, a business that is more lucrative than one might think.
This spring, he said, he was ``hatching eggs like crazy and doing great with sales. We had about 50 clutches of eggs [which average five to six eggs per clutch] and they were all high-money animals."
Many of Brown's snakes have been crossbred several times and their uniqueness makes them worth between $2,000 and $15,000 apiece. The success of that business, plus the age of his children, who are 10 and 7, made him ponder if his future was on the football field or in the reptile house. He and his family decided he should follow his heart one last time.
``You get to my age, you have to reevaluate every offseason," Brown said. ``I still wanted to play and I felt I could. I've had the same trainer and the same training regimen for nine years. That was sort of a test. If you're willing to work out four or five times a week, it's a strong indication you still want to be here. I left the yoga workouts to my wife and decided I was going to go for it.
``I didn't play as well as I wanted to on the inside last season, but that will help me have some perspective when I start to coach high school football. Right now, though, I want to reestablish myself a little bit."
So Brown was back on the steamy practice fields in Foxborough last week, looking slimmer than the 240 pounds he claimed to carry. He looked more like a strong safety than a linebacker. But he has always played at no more than 245 and said he tends to gain weight during training camp because he eats better and more frequently.
Chad Brown was happy. He was back in a familiar place, back where things had not gone as well as he had hoped a year ago but where he still had the chance to do what he loves a little while longer. These days, that is enough.
``At my age, any time on the field is special," Brown explained. ``No one plays forever. I've had 14 years, so I savor it all because the end is not five or 10 years away. It's coming soon. I understand that.
``You have to adjust to the reality of your situation . . . You get a little slower, a little older, you have to rely on different things. Maybe you can't give the same effort all the time, so you find other ways. You get deeper into your playbook. You prepare better. None of that lessens your desire to play.
``I'd be foolish not to realize Pittsburgh cut [future Hall of Famer] Rod Woodson. Guys start one season and they're not picked up the next. Who am I? I'm not special.
``You have to remember you're nobody special. I remember what a guy in Pittsburgh used to say to us, Barry Foster. He wasn't the best of teammates but he used to say, `Remember, the coach doesn't love you. It's true. He's not going to pick you over somebody else because he likes you. He's not married to you.' "
Brown had that in mind when he ran Belichick's required conditioning test four times while in Colorado over the summer. He passed each one, something he told his coach about when he called to ask if he was in shape.
``I knew what the test was," Brown said. ``It's one of the markers here. You're quickly in the doghouse if you can't pass it. One guy didn't pass it last year and he was gone in two days. By passing it, I knew I still wanted to play. I'd done what I had to do to play.
``I'm not back here for financial reasons. Actually, it was a tough time to leave my business. When it's time to walk away, I've got a great life ahead of me. I know that. I won't be wondering what I'll do in the morning or when my tee time is, but this is a special place to play.
``Just because you don't win the Super Bowl doesn't mean it wasn't the right choice for you."