Nnamdi Asomugha. Byron Maxwell. Cary Williams. Bradley Fletcher. Mention any one of those names to a Philadelphia sports fan and you’re likely to see a look of disdain, discomfort and disgust. The cornerback position has been largely underwhelming, to put it kindly, for the Eagles the last half-decade. Big-name free agent signings that were downright disappointing seem to have defined a pass defense that’s been inconsistent at best and horrific at worst. Who could forget Nnamdi’s legendary arm tackles or the time an Arizona tight end carried Byron Maxwell on his back like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back?
The cornerback position hasn’t always been that bleak in Philadelphia though. In fact, there was a time when the Eagles possessed arguably the league’s best secondary year in and year out. Names like Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Lito Sheppard and Asante Samuel all cemented their place in the hearts of millions of Eagles fans. When I look back at Philadelphia’s cornerbacks and the tremendous success they’ve had, however, there’s one man that, to me, truly embodied the hard-hitting nature of the legendary Jim Johnson’s defense. That man is Sheldon Brown.
Born in Chester County, South Carolina on March 19, 1979, Sheldon Brown’s love of sports began at a young age and by the time he graduated high school, Brown had made a name for himself in both football and baseball. Opting to stay rooted in his home state, he attended the University of South Carolina where he excelled as one of the Southeastern Conference’s best defensive backs, twice earning All-SEC honors. After four years at USC, Sheldon Brown declared for the NFL Draft hoping to further capitalize on his college success.
At the time of the 2002 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles were coming off an unexpected and impressive Championship game appearance and appeared to be poised for a Super Bowl run heading into the next season. While third-year quarterback Donovan McNabb was the face of the franchise, the defense was the pulse to which the team’s heart beat. Sprinkled with Pro Bowl talent, the Eagles secondary seemed to be set for the most part, with veterans Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor anchoring the ascending unit. Despite their sustained success, Eagles Head Coach, Andy Reid, sought to be proactive with the cornerback position by investing high draft picks in it, especially when taking into consideration Vincent and Taylor’s age (31 and 28, respectively). So with the 59th pick in the 2002 Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected South Carolina’s own, Sheldon Brown.
Sheldon Brown, in many ways, entered a perfect situation. Unlike many rookie cornerbacks that are immediately thrust into the fire against the game’s top receivers, Brown benefited from the mentorship of Vincent and Taylor while mostly contributing on special teams. By the time the 2004 season began, Sheldon Brown was awarded the starting role – a role he would embrace and solidify for years to come. Through his first three seasons as a starting cornerback, Brown collected a total of 8 interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns) and developed a reputation as a physical, fundamentally sound, shutdown CB.
While Brown was viewed as a key cog in a stellar secondary, he had yet to make his name known nationally. That was until “The Hit” happened. It’s so permanently etched in my mind, I remember the exact moment I witnessed it, and the adrenaline rush that followed immediately thereafter, like it was yesterday. The date was January 13, 2007 and the red-hot “Cinderella” Eagles were riding a six game win streak into the divisional round of the playoffs in New Orleans. Early in the game, Saints quarterback Drew Brees lofted a swing pass to rookie sensation Reggie Bush with the intent of getting the young playmaker in open space. Sheldon Brown, anticipating the pass, violently charged towards Bush and BOOM! Bush, in an effort to show he could shake off such a collision, quickly jumped up, but the pain proved to be too much. He slowly dropped to the ground and began crawling towards the huddle. Sheldon Brown was now a household name.
Brown’s career continued to flourish in Philadelphia. 2007-2009 saw Brown deliver more of the violent hits he had become known for (his hit on Steven Jackson in the 2008 opener is among the best), while also managing to intercept 9 more passes in the process. After the end of the 2009 season, however, it was clear the organization was prepared to move in a different direction after Brown’s request for a new contract fell on deaf ears. Thus, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns after 8 memorable years with the franchise.
Although he never made a Pro Bowl, Sheldon Brown also never missed a game for the Eagles after becoming a starter in 2004. It’s often been said that “the best ability is durability” and Brown proved that on a consistent basis throughout his Philadelphia tenure. He finished his Eagles career with 19 interceptions but will always be remembered as the dependable and dangerous defensive back that could decimate an opponent at any time.