They could have been The Shane Matthews Games.
The first could have been The David Terrell Game, or The Terrell/A-Train Game. The second, The James Allen Game. Of course, we already have a James Allen Game, so maybe that second one would have been The Hail Mary Game. Either could have been The Comeback. As a pair, they could have been The Comeback Games, or The 2001 Comebacks.
Since the Cardinals game is now The Cardinals Game, perhaps we could have had The 49ers Game. That seems unlikely — we’ve had a lot of 49ers games — so The 49ers Comeback? Absolutely. The Browns Game? Definitely.
But put them together, in consecutive weeks, with the same damn outcome? There is only one name.
The Mike Brown Games.
Unless you’re Mike Brown. Mike Brown calls them “The Overtime Games.” Which makes sense; one wouldn’t expect Mike Brown to walk around calling The Mike Brown Games “The Mike Brown Games.”
From a historical standpoint, “The Overtime Games” works. And why not? His miracle feat — winning back-to-back games with overtime interception touchdowns — was as magical as it was rare. Football fans everywhere know what you mean when you say “The Greatest Game Ever Played” or “The Catch” or “The Drive” or even “28-3.” What Mike Brown did on those consecutive weekends 20 years ago in the fall of 2001 is every bit as unique. Consider this. Overtime in the NFL started in 1974. The Mike Brown Games were:
- The 5th time one team won two OT games with TDs in the same season
- The 1st time that was done in consecutive games in one season
- The 2nd time that one player won two OT games in one season with TDs
In fact, since Mike Brown’s two miracles, only one team (the 2017 Packers) has won consecutive overtime games with touchdowns, and only one player (Derrick Henry in 2020) has won two non-consecutive overtime games in one season with a touchdown.
Mike Brown remains the only player in NFL history to win consecutive overtime games with a touchdown. That’s 102 seasons, close to 17,000 games — with Mike Brown standing alone.
Yet Brown’s walkoffs weren’t the only “Holy moly!” moments in The Mike Brown Games. In each game, the Bears only reached overtime after double-digit 2nd half comebacks. The 49ers game seemed impossible, one of those “Certainly nothing could top that” moments in sports.
Then the Browns game topped that.
“That locker room was the one where the excitement wasn’t as much as the one (against) San Francisco,” Brown said recently in our interview about these two games. “That was more of like, Man, this is really strange.”
Add it all up and you have one of the most miraculous sequences in NFL history. October 28 and November 4, 2001. Here is the true story as told by the man at the center of it all. Twenty years later, we’re left with one question:
How in the world did it happen?
The magical, powerful, 2001 Chicago Bears
The irony of the Mike Brown Games is that they do the 2001 Bears a disservice. Combined with the Keith Traylor interception, the Mike Brown Games make people think of 2001 as first and foremost a magic act. Five straight losing seasons, 5-11 in 2000 and then poof, 13-3 and the division championship.
In reality, the 2001 Bears were a rock solid group with talent up and down the roster, on both sides of the ball, and playmakers all over the defense. You don’t go 13-3 on luck. The Mike Brown Games epitomized that: Fortune smiled on the conclusions, but team talent drove the Bears back to overtime.
That offense gets dismissed as an afterthought, written off as our traditional, depleted attack. Yet they were tough. All five linemen started each of our 17 games. Free agent fullback Daimon Shelton was a bruising bowling ball of a lead blocker for veteran James Allen and 1,000-yard rookie rusher Anthony Thomas. The tight ends were strong, the receivers dynamic, the quarterbacks — Jim Miller and Shane Matthews — professional.
Those guys could move the ball when needed, and scored literally juuuuuust enough to help the team win. I mean “just enough” because as the season wore on, the big stat of that group was 13: we were 13-0 when we scored 13 or more points and 0-3 when we scored under 13. That was our magic number: get to 13 points and the NFL’s #1 defense, which allowed 12.7 points per game, would do the rest.
Yet in these two games, the offense found touchdown after touchdown when we needed them most.
That defense was led by Brian Urlacher in his first of four seasons as AP 1st team All Pro. In the middle were two free agent defensive tackles who completely altered the identity of that defense: 6’5, 365-pound Ted Washington, and 6’2, 337-pound Keith Traylor.
“They had the team’s ear,” Brown says about the pair. “We listened to Ted Washington. Everyone knew he was a Hall of Famer. He was the man. They are just huge men, and no one could get to the second level of our defense. No one could get to the second level.”
They were joined upfront by two powerful, aggressive ends, Bryan Robinson and Phillip Daniels. A pair of third-year outside linebackers flanked Urlacher: the sack master Rosevelt Colvin and the tackle machine Warrick Holdman. Joining Brown in the defensive backfield was hard-hitting Tony Parrish, fellow veteran Michael Green, and corners Walt Harris, R.W. McQuarters and Jerry Azumah.
As for Mike, in 2000, he started all 16 games his rookie year with the Bears, scoring his first touchdown since high school. Back then he was a superstar running back in Arizona, rushing for 2,023 yards and 31 touchdowns his senior year. In college at Nebraska, he made the move to cornerback as a freshman and then to safety as a sophomore.
Those three traits defined him in the pros: the power, vision and brutality of the best safeties with the ball skills of a corner and the vision and run-after-the-catch talents of a tailback. Entering his second year in the defense under coach Dick Jauron and coordinator Greg Blache, Brown quieted the voices in the back of every rookie’s mind, the ones that say, “Do I belong? Will I make the team?”
“That stuff was gone,” he says now. “I know I’m a starter, and now I am just trying to be better. It was like a big sigh of relief, that year.”
October 28, 2001: The 49ers Game
When the Bears took the field on Oct. 28 against the 49ers, luck and magic were not the reason we were 4-1. Brown knew that before the season started; his hope was that we would make the playoffs. Battling the defending champion Ravens in Week 1 to a tight 17-6 loss was the first sign that he might be right.
“I remember Coach Blache was like, ‘They won the Super Bowl. They’re supposed to be prime time, they’re not even putting them on prime time. That’s how much respect they’re giving you. They know it’s going to be a win, so they’re not even putting them on prime time,’” Brown says.
“I remember being in the locker room, and that was one of those games, like — you don’t call them ‘moral victories,’ but that’s like, Hey man, we’re playing with the Super Bowl champs now. I think that game gave us (the notion that), Okay, we can play. Then we had to just put some wins together.”
Two days after the Ravens game, 9/11 happened. This was the final season before Soldier Field was renovated, a move we memorialized with a jersey patch before playing our home games in Champaign in 2002 — and the attacks of September 11 further heightened this season. On a logistical level, our Week 2 matchup with Jacksonville was pushed to the end of the schedule.
“It’s the gift and the curse of playing what we do,” Brown says about reacting to the terrorist attacks. “It’s hard on the mind because you lose a little bit of feeling, like how you feel about things and your sensitivity. You don’t feel real sensitive to many things. I think we had tunnel vision, at least I did. It was a crazy day. I remember it was crazy in the week coming up to it. But once we knew what was going on then it’s like, Hey, man, let’s just play. That’s the gift that we have as being professional athletes, we get a chance to just go out there and play a game and get our minds off of things.”
The team returned to play September 23, beating the Vikings 17-10 behind Jim Miller, who replaced an injured Shane Matthews and tossed two touchdowns in the fourth.
We then had a bye, blasted the Falcons 31-3 and beat up Arizona 20-13. The early season masterpiece was the next week, a 24-0 beatdown of the Bengals on the strength of 188 rushing yards from rookie Anthony Thomas.
The back-end of the 1990s was a rough time to be a Bears fan. And that era was capped off by our 17-0 loss to the 49ers in Week 16 of 2000, a game in which our offense never crossed midfield, while on the other side, Terrell Owens gained 283 yards in the air on an NFL-record 20 catches.
After the game, then-rookie safety Mike Brown called Owens “the most arrogant player in the NFL.” That set the stage for the rematch in 2001, with both the Bears and 49ers entering at 4-1.
“Let me tell you something about T.O.,” Brown says now. “He has the right to be arrogant. There’s really nothing you can do to stop him. Really. Unless you double him the whole game. He’s that good.”
The Bears entered the 49ers game at 4-1, first place in the NFC Central. They were allowing a league-low 8.6 points per game. All was looking up. The Bears-49ers game was a featured broadcast. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, where just the year before I had to have my father videotape the games and mail them to me a few days later; this game was broadcast in Bloomington.
The game was also selected to be broadcast overseas for American troops, including soldiers stationed in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
“We were told before the game that we had soldiers overseas who particularly would be watching this game,” Bryan Robinson said that afternoon. “We didn’t want to let them down.”
“This might not be our day, guys” — the 49ers take a massive lead
Between the two Mike Brown Games, the Browns game is the one that people remember in more detail, punctuated by not just Brown’s touchdown but an onside kick and Hail Mary before it. Yet the 49ers game had more action, and was a great reflection of everything that 2001 team was about.
The start was bizarre. First, the Niners drive to our 26, get stopped on 3rd and 7, and Big Cat Williams blocks their field goal. Two plays later, from the 36, a San Fran d-lineman goes unblocked on 2nd and 9 and hits Miller as he’s handing the ball to A-Train, causing a fumble that Niners linebacker Julius Peterson recovers and runs back 25 yards for a touchdown.
The Bears punt, the Niners drive 85 yards for another touchdown, the teams trade punts and interceptions, and then with four-and-a-half to play in the first half, Miller gets drilled in the gut while passing, the defender drives him into the ground and Miller is out with a hip injury.
So now we’re down 14-0 and the backup quarterback is in. And yet, it’s a backup everyone knows.
“Shane’s a professional,” Brown says now. “The drop-off (from Miller to Matthews) wasn’t severe. I don’t even think there was really much drop-off. Maybe some arm strength or whatever. I think the guys liked Jim better. He was more of a leader, probably had a little bit more skill than Shane. But once you know that you have a professional coming off the bench, you’re not panicking. You’re not like, There’s no way we can come back and win. We know that we’re in good hands.”
Matthews guided the Bears on a touchdown drive to end the half. Along with a safety on a botched punt snap, the Bears entered halftime down 14-9. The 49ers received the second half kickoff, and on the third play of their drive Garcia went deep to Garrison Hearst, who was lined up wide on Warrick Holdman. Sixty yards, touchdown, 21-9 49ers. Matthews drove the Bears to the San Francisco 10, but on 2nd and 7 his pass toward the endzone was intercepted by Zack Bronson, who ran it back 97 yards for the score.
49ers 28, Bears 9, 8:18 remaining, 3rd quarter.
“It’s like, This might not be our day, guys,” Brown says, laughing. “You’re counting possessions and time. ... Defense is basically, We need to get a turnover or three-and-outs. That’s basically it. You’re hoping. You’re probably being really aggressive on D, trying to get something to happen. That’s the mentality, but it really is play-by-play. You really are thinking to be aggressive. You’re going to probably take a little more chances on routes, trying to go for interceptions. Maybe guess a little bit more on routes if you think something’s coming.”
“Momentum is real” — let the comeback commence!
By the time the Bears’ comeback was beginning, Brown had already overcome his own problem. He left the game in the first quarter with an injury to his left knee — a sprained ligament that ultimately required surgery after the season. The Tribune described it that afternoon as “looseness of the joint.” The pain was not the problem. He required no pain medication. The problem was tactical: His knee was slipping. He could not plant.
“Some MCLs hurt, some don’t,” he says. “I ended up taping my knee the rest of the season. Sometimes it would catch every once in a while, but it was very rare that it would do that. The trainers are very good and they’re able to come up with some outstanding tape jobs, and they were able to hold my knee in place.”
By the time the defense was back on the field, the lead was down to 28-16, as Matthews, Anthony Thomas and Fred Baxter made big play after big play. Because Brown’s touchdown ended this game and the next one, and because five years later the Bears had the famous Cardinals comeback in which all three touchdowns were scored by the defense and special teams, I think the talents of the Bears offense in the 49ers game have become sorely overlooked.
Brown may have made the most memorable play of the game, but the offense got the Bears back, first with Thomas’s 19-yard touchdown run and then with his fellow Michigan rookie David Terrell catching a 13-yard touchdown pass early in the 4th quarter.
49ers 31, Bears 23, 4:08 remaining in the game.
“David Terrell — he was so good, man. He was really good,” Brown says. “That’s one of my favorite players that I’ve played with. He just had some issues with making some bad decisions and hanging around probably some people he shouldn’t have been hanging around. Also, he didn’t like to practice. But on Sundays,” he says, smiling widely, “on Sundays, he came and he was amazing. … He was a gamer. He could have been really, really good too. He could have been one of the best I think, for Chicago at least.”
Now a one-possession game with four minutes to play, the Bears D turned up the heat, forcing a three-and-out. Once again, the offense rolled. Matthews and company took over at the 49ers 33 with just under three minutes left and completed eight passes to Dez White, Marty Booker, Baxter, Thomas and reserve tight end John Davis. Matthews had linked with Baxter to convert a 4th and 1 before the Thomas touchdown and here they connected to convert a 3rd and 3.
“I can just remember the energy in the crowd — you could just feel it,” Brown says. “The mojo was definitely on our side.”
Momentum is real? I ask him.
“I think that it’s real man,” he says. “I definitely believe so.”
On second and goal from the 49ers four, Matthews rolled to his left and found Terrell tip-toeing the sideline in the endzone for what looked like a touchdown. As the officials reviewed the play, which was on the 49ers sideline, Brown was on the opposite 30 to get the best view, looking far across the field and checking the replay board.
When that official signaled touchdown, the fans entered a frenzy. Brown and his teammates did too. 49ers 31, Bears 29, setting up the two-point conversion, which we nailed with a quick handoff to Thomas, whose knee just barely stayed above ground before the ball crossed the plane. The officials checked the replay on that too, and again upheld it. Soldier Field went bonkers.
49ers 31, Bears 31.
“We were like, ‘Yes!’” Brown says. “Now you’re like, Man, let’s get this coin flip.”
Mike Brown, interception, 33 yards, touchdownpic.twitter.com/0M7ojxDT3t— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 19, 2021
“The ball was just floating up there” — Mike Brown makes history
We did not get the coin flip.
To start overtime, Paul Edinger’s kickoff went out of the endzone and the 49ers set up at the 20. Mike started the play about 12 yards back from the line of scrimmage. Parrish led all Bears DBs in 2001 with six tackles for loss, and he opened the play up in the box, bringing pressure from the left.
Garcia took a three-step drop and fired a pass to Owens in the slot, away from Parrish. Owens reached for the pass but pulled back just a bit while turning up field, reacting to the approaching Urlacher.
“He saw him, man,” Brown says. “He didn’t complete his route because he was going to get crushed by Lach.”
The ball popped up. Brown was coming in to contribute on the would-be tackle.
“The ball was just floating up there, then I catch it,” he says. He followed his high school running back instincts and all of his coaching — find the numbers. He reached the sideline and out in front of him was 49ers tackle Derrick Deese, trying to maneuver to stop Brown, who could hear McQuarters behind him, calling for the ball.
“He’s like, Pitch it! Pitch it! Pitch it!” Brown says. “And I was about to pitch it, right? Then when I got to the offensive lineman, I’m like, He won’t be able to touch me. He couldn’t move.”
When Brown crossed the goalline to win the game, a 33-yard interception return, his left knee finally gave out.
“That’s why I fell down,” he says. “The football god was like, ‘No, I’m going to sit you down.’ (Laughs.) That was crazy. The crowd was going bonkers, man. That was loud. Super loud. The whole team comes over. Then, this is what makes Ted Washington a great leader. ‘Soldiers’ was something that we were saying — we were going to be soldiers and all that. When we’re over there, the whole team’s over there, Ted Washington gets into the middle and he just starts jumping up and down going, ‘Soldiers! Soldiers! Soldiers!’ We all start saying that.”
Brown wanted to continue celebrating with his teammates but was mobbed by reporters. The fans — those who hadn’t left early — were in another stratosphere. Just in his second season, Brown was in the thick of true sports chaos. This is crazy, he thought to himself.
Little did he know, it would happen again.
November 4, 2001: The Browns Game
The Bears spent the week wrapping their heads around what was becoming a magic year. They were 5-1 with defensive touchdowns in three of the prior four games. Having dispatched the 4-1 49ers, they now faced the 4-2 Browns, a team fresh off the bye week. The 49ers game was a TV winner, drawing a 25.9 rating in the Chicagoland area, so CBS moved the Browns game from noon to 3:15 for a national audience, assigning its A-team of Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms.
The defense was powerful, especially the run defense, which ranked second in the league, while the offense was coming along. Among rushing leaders, Thomas was first in the NFC in yards per carry at 5.9. Booker was third in the NFC with 39 receptions. Matthews earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors; in the fourth quarter against the Niners, he was 13-14 for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
As for injuries, Brown thought he would play that Sunday, though he was still hurt. Dick Jauron named Jim Miller the starter if his hip was healed, with the full support of Shane Matthews, who eventually did get the start. Bears fans packed Soldier Field for yet another huge game.
And then it started just like the last one did.
On the second play of the game, Matthews dropped back and boom! He was sacked by Wali Rainer. The ball popped loose. Courtney Brown recovered and ran it back 25 yards for a touchdown. The week before, Julian Peterson had opened the scoring with a 26-yard fumble return off a Bears quarterback. From the sideline, the coincidence gave Brown the slightest of pauses.
Man, he thought, didn’t that happen last week?
“You just keep playing, but there’s like a little pause of like, Man, what is going on?” he says. “And also a little like — we’re all human — a little thought like, Uh-oh. Maybe all the bad juju’s gonna happen in this game. Right? The payback. The karma is coming back. Yes, that happens real quick, but then you’re like, Man, let’s just go play.”
“Damn man, I lost the game” — Mike Brown struggles against the Browns
The Mike Brown Game was almost the Courtney Brown Game.
And Mike Brown was almost the goat, not the GOAT.
The comeback in the 49ers game began with a little more than eight minutes left in the 3rd quarter. In the Browns game, with two minutes left in the GAME, all seemed lost. Cleveland defensive end Courtney Brown was the player of the game: 3 sacks, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble returned for a touchdown and a tackle for loss on the A-Train.
Mike Brown, meanwhile, was one of many Bears who had mentally conceded.
“We thought we lost, man,” he says. “I remember a lot of guys were taking the tape off on the sideline. I was one of them taking the tape off my hands like, Man, we lost.”
His game had been one to forget. In the third, tied 7-7, the Browns went for it on 4th and 1 from the Bears 31. Tim Couch ran play-action and found Quincy Morgan streaking across the defense, in front of Brown. Mike made the tackle at the 3 and Cleveland scored the next play, even drawing a pass interference on Brown.
The Browns went back on the attack after an interception, gaining 17 on a run and another 20 on a pass. On 1st and 10 from the Cleveland 45, Brown leapt for an interception that could have changed the game. Instead, Couch’s pass bounced off his hands and straight to Cleveland receiver Kevin Johnson, who beat Tony Parrish to the endzone. Brown apologized deeply to Parrish.
“Too short, man,” he says, watching the clip today. “No vert! Oh man, that should have been an easy pick.”
Browns 21, Bears 7, 3:08 remaining in the 3rd.
“I remember this play, man,” he says. “I felt bad. I remember that was probably when I was taking my tape off. I was like, Damn man, I lost the game, bro.”
The fans thought so too. While some fans left the 49ers game early, you couldn’t exactly say that Bears fans left the Browns game “early.” Still leading 21-7, the Browns ran seven straight run plays in the fourth to grind the clock down from five-and-a-half minutes down to two when they punted. Shane Matthews completed a short pass to James Allen, and then threw a sideline pass to Marty Booker for 14 yards. The ruling on the field was an incomplete pass, and the officials reviewed it.
“While we have a moment, we’ll tell you that the executive producers of the NFL on CBS are Sean McManus and Terry Ewert,” Gumbel said, running through the CBS broadcast credits.
The call was overturned. Matthews hit Dez White for 12, Terrell for 9, Allen for 17 and called timeout — 1:02 remaining. Matthews hit White on the sideline for 13 yards to get to the 14, and hustled the offense to the line for the spike. A Browns defender struggled to get off the field on a substitution and Cleveland drew a penalty for 12 men on the field.
“We remind you,” Gumbel said, “60 Minutes comes your way next, except on the West Coast.”
Officials reviewed White’s catch, and as the Bears prepared for a 1st and 5 from the 9 with 36 seconds left, Brown saw what we all saw: the empty orange chairs of Soldier Field.
“When the people started walking you know the game is over, bro,” he says. “You see the score: that was 14 with 36 seconds left.” He laughs. “Do you know how much has to happen?”
“We had pros, man” — Matthews and Allen save the day
Trailing 21-7 with 36 seconds remaining, I had several reasons for encouragement. First, we were 5-1, playing with our backup quarterback, and would still be in first place with a loss. Second, the 49ers game. Third, in 1999 against the Saints, Shane Matthews turned a 10-0 deficit with two minutes remaining into a 14-10 win, with two touchdowns to Curtis Conway.
On those two drives, Matthews went 7-8 for 50 yards and a touchdown, and then 5-6 for 67 yards and a touchdown.
And two plays after that Dez White play was ruled a catch, Matthews hit Booker for a nine-yard score, capping off a drive where the passing game completed seven of eight passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Browns 21, Bears 14, 28 seconds left.
I was pacing at this point, head bobbing like Rain Man, holding the teenciest bit of hope. Any fans still at the game were waking up just a bit. On the sideline, Mike was just like the rest of us.
“You’re like the biggest fan — you’re watching it happen,” he says. “There’s no pressure on you. You don’t have to go back out there, so ... I was watching like you guys, like, Okay, we know we’re going to do this onside kick, right?”
Thus began perhaps the most miraculous comeback in Chicago Bears history.
With 28 seconds left, Paul Edinger lined up for the onside kick. The ball took a soft bounce and then on its next bounce popped up about 20 feet into the air. Jerry Azumah soared above everyone and tipped the ball, keeping it inbounds and setting off a mad scramble on the Bears’ side of the field.
“Look at all the guys on the sideline,” Brown says, watching the replay. “That’s what’s so hard. It’s amazing that more players from the sideline don’t just naturally jump into the pile.”
For 55 seconds, the refs worked to get to the bottom of the pile and determine possession. Suddenly, the Bears players closest to the pile began to celebrate. Michael Green was first, leaping up. Bryan Robinson and Than Merrill signaled for the first down. Marty Booker and Stanley Pritchett started pointing. Azumah madly started pumping his fist. Autry Denson did too. The crowd was rising, shouting, cheering.
The refs, who seemed disoriented, figured out which way they were facing and called it: Bobbie Howard with the recovery. BEARS BALL!
The Bears offense took over in Browns territory, on the 47, with 24 seconds left, down 7. This was still a huge hill to climb, but the color had returned in our cheeks and the light to our eyes and hope had replenished. Leading the way were our Week 1 starters at QB and running back, both now backups: Shane Matthews and James Allen.
“I’ve been telling myself, ‘When you get in, make plays so they don’t want to take you out,’” Allen said after the game.
On 1st down, Matthews hit Allen for four. On 2nd down, they connected for nine. The Bears used their third timeout at the Cleveland 34 with eight seconds remaining. The fans who had stayed held their breath. Matthews lined up in shotgun with Allen to his left. Booker, Terrell and D’Wayne Bates lined up to the right, with Dez White on the left.
Cleveland rushed three. Allen snuck out of the backfield, ran up the middle and trailed Booker, Terrell and Bates to the right corner of the endzone. White raced that way.
Matthews stepped up.
Jump ball between receivers and defenders. Allen sneaking in. A mass of desperate hands knocks the ball to the right.
Clock expires. Allen dives. Booker dives.
“That’s amazing. They worked on that,” Brown says. “James Allen, man. See? Pros, man. Finishing. That’s what I’m saying. We had pros, man. They were just pros. They’re going to do everything they had to do, doing their job. That was the one thing I’ll talk about 2001. Everyone was like, Do your job, man. Do your job.”
“Tomorrow, all the headlines will say Mike Brown,” Bryan Robinson said afterward. “But to me, James Allen is the player of the game.”
On the final play of regulation, Edinger knocked in the extra point. Bears 21, Browns 21. Overtime again. This time, we won the toss. Bears would receive. Yet even with the Bears getting the ball, Greg Blache had defense on his mind. He approached Brown with a question:
“Can you do it again?”
“He did say that to me,” Brown says, laughing. “I was like, Well, I don’t know.”
“Mike Brown has done it again!”
Despite his four turnovers, Shane Matthews had a sterling game: 357 yards and two touchdowns. On our final two drives of the 4th, Matthews went 10-11 for 122 yards and both touchdowns. Overtime was not as kind. Allen had a short run on 1st down, Matthews was incomplete to Booker on 2nd down and complete to White for 5 yards on 3rd and 7. Brad Maynard punted 52 yards and the Browns took over at the 12.
On 1st down, Couch found Kevin Johnson for 12. The Bears defense stiffened. Rosy Colvin flashed through on the left side and sacked Couch for a loss of five. The Browns had 2nd and 15 from the 23.
And then, it happened again.
And it started with our unheralded defensive ends. First, Phillip Daniels laid a pancake rush on Browns left tackle Roman Oben, knocking him flat on his back and getting to Couch two seconds after the snap. Couch threw to his right, away from Daniels, and Bryan Robinson got his hands up to tip the ball.
Mike Brown, interception, 16 yards, touchdownpic.twitter.com/qC8Qd5Zafi— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 19, 2021
“Just right place at the right time,” Brown says now. “The ball gets tipped. I’m way on the other side. I’ve got the (running) back over here in the flat. … I’m not even part of the play.”
That Robinson tipped ball was in the air for a lifetime. It flew high and across the field, and had everyone’s heads turned except for Brown. There it is, he thought. I cannot believe this.
“That’s batted into the air — INTERCEPTED AND THE BEARS ARE GONNA WIN IT!” Gumbel exclaimed on the call. “MIKE BROWN HAS DONE IT AGAIN!”
“I have nothing special to say,” Brown said after the game. “It has nothing to do with me. It could have been anyone.”
“It was a shock,” he says now about seeing the football. “Literally, I could not believe it.”
This time, there was no lineman to dodge. With a clear path to the endzone, Brown smiled wide, carrying the football with one hand as he crossed the plane. Since he was so far out in front of the pack, he was able to run straight into the tunnel as the Bears fans went berserk. His goal was to reach the locker room before any members of the press intercepted him so that he could celebrate with his teammates prior to doing interviews.
“That’s a real walk-off for you,” he says. “A run-off.”
He was also excited that at least on this touchdown, he didn’t fall down in the endzone.
“But the black top (in the tunnel) is right underneath that tarp, and in cleats, once you hit anything that’s not grass, it gets real slippery,” he says. “I really didn’t do anything that whole game. I think maybe I was involved in a couple of tackles, and then I dropped that pick. Once I hit the black top, I go sliding down and like scrape up my elbow, my whole side of my leg. I’m like, Man, once again, after all this, had a great play. I’m over here bleeding,” he says, laughing. “Didn’t do anything the whole game.”
In the locker room, Brown and his teammates couldn’t quite fathom what they had just done. Almost two years earlier, Nov. 7, 1999, Bryan Robinson had made his famous blocked field goal to beat the Packers in the first game after Walter Payton’s death. Robinson entered the Browns game with a heavy heart, thinking of Walter...
...and here he was, with yet another game-winning tipped ball.
“We spoke earlier this week about Walter Payton, and how much he meant to us,” Robinson said postgame. “Then two years almost to the day, the same thing happens.”
As the offense was mounting its comeback, Robinson and his fellow hero defensive end Daniels were together on the sideline. “I said, If we win this game out, we are destined to go places,” Robinson said. “We are a team of destiny.”
Mike Brown was equally amazed.
“That one (the Browns game) was more luck than anything,” he says now. “There was some skill involved — the Hail Mary was a skillful play. That’s something that has been worked on. The onside kick is something you work on. Not full go, but you practice it. But it’s not something you expect to happen. And both of those happen, and then another tip? It was just a weird. That’s one of those things where you’re like, Okay, this is something different.”
“It’s probably my favorite team” — reflections on a special group
The Browns win pushed the Bears to 6-1, and put us on a path to a stunning and beautiful 13-3 division-winning season. We ended the regular season on January 6, 2002, the game against Jacksonville that was moved because of 9/11. In the final regular season game at what is now called Old Soldier Field, the Bears pasted the Jags 33-13, behind 160 yards rushing from Anthony Thomas and one of the wildest plays Bears fans have ever seen, a 67-yard interception return from big Keith Traylor.
The Associated Press named Jauron Coach of the Year and Thomas Offensive Rookie of the Year. Five Bears were named to the Pro Bowl: Kreutz, Urlacher, Washington, Big Cat Williams and special teamer Larry Whigham. The Pro Bowl voting left Mike Brown out, but he received an even bigger honor, named 1st Team All Pro by the Associated Press.
The Bears hosted the Eagles at Soldier Field in the divisional round and were upset 33-19. Miller, who had returned as the starter the week after the Browns game and took every snap for the rest of the season, was knocked out by the Eagles in the second quarter, bringing Matthews back, a fitting though disappointing curtain call for the man who engineered two of the most iconic wins in franchise history.
The Bears struggled in 2002 with an absurd rash of injuries while playing in Champaign during the Soldier Field renovation, and would not reach the playoffs again until another surprise season in 2005. That one was the forebearer to a Super Bowl appearance the next season, and since the Lovie era was so successful, that 2001 team gets overlooked. There are even fans who think about 2001 and accidentally place Peanut and Briggs in the mix.
But no matter. When it comes to 2001, those who know, know.
“I would say for me, just because I was young, it’s probably my favorite team,” Brown says. “We used to have barbecues, man. We hung out, bro. Fred Baxter would throw barbecues. It’d be the defense and offense. He would throw a barbecue in a little apartment. He’d have all these huge men (at), I’m telling you, like a one-bedroom apartment. We’re all in the back on a charcoal grill grilling, everyone’s bringing meat. We’re all in the back, in the grass, everybody’s got lawn chairs just hanging out, having a good time around each other. I didn’t have any children, I didn’t have any responsibilities, so it was easy for me to do that stuff. Even the older dudes that had those responsibilities were still hanging out and doing all that kind of stuff.”
Today, Mike lives in California with his family. They are working on attending as many MLB stadiums as possible. True to form, the family won’t leave until the game is over.
After our interview was over, one thing was still nagging at me. Mike talks about the two touchdowns in terms of good fortune. “Right place, right time.” “It could have been anyone.” Twenty years later, how does he now view those two special games? Were they a miracle? Luck? Destiny? Or just sports? I emailed him to ask.
“Sometimes all the energy, which includes all those things — faith, luck, destiny — come together to make memorable, lifetime moments,” he wrote back. “You never know when they will happen. Stay till the end!”
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.
Thank you Mike Brown for your time and candor!