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Alan Stewart Carl

Twenty-Nine Failed Beginnings to “The Tag Brewster Story”

 

At the age of twenty-five, Tag Brewster weighed a hundred and thirty-one pounds. In pads. A bit small for a linebacker—even in 1971, and even on the laughable Buffalo Bills who spent most of their soul-crushing season standing around expecting a young O.J. Simpson to do something revelatory. But the only revelation from that 1-13 season was the heroic play of the little linebacker.

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At the age of twenty-five, Tag Brewster stood at five-foot three. In cleats. A tad short for a linebacker—even in the physically diminutive year of 1971 and even on the mind-sucking Buffalo Bills who spent their entire waste of a season listening to O.J. Simpson complain about the foul case of corns that kept him from becoming the hero everyone believed he should be. As it turned out, the only hero from that season was the short linebacker with the even shorter career.

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Career Stats: Brewster, Taggart

1 game played

1 sack (not an official NFL stat in 1971)

1 fumble recovered for a touchdown

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At the age of twenty-five, the abnormally small, perennially unused Buffalo Bills linebacker, Tag Brewster, sat in the fecal-stench of the Buffalo Bills locker room as interim coach Harvey Johnson flipped through the playbook. Johnson—an old mudder, a helmet-smacker, a tape-and-spit kind of man—squinted down at Brewster. “What position do you play, son?” Linebacker. “We’re short on linebackers.” I’m pretty short. “Are you even on the team?” Yes, sir. I’ve been waiting to get this over with for years. “Four years?” Johnson said. “Just see if there are any pads small enough to fit you.”

***

“So, yeah, I was up around the twenty yard line, about thirty rows back.” Donald Bolinski is telling me this story. We’re sitting in a neon-and-wood Buffalo bar and everything is shimmering with years of settled grease. Bolinski—intoxicated and red-faced—is telling me about a player of whom I’ve never heard. “And it was cold, even for here and we were in no mood for nothing. Patriots driving. Oh and eleven here we come, right? Then, pow,”—Bolinkski makes an uppercut motion that just misses my chin. “There’s this kid out of piddledick Texas. Tag Brewster. Tag f’n Brewster.” Bolinski’s eyes have that indomitable look that comes over old fans when they’re telling me something they’re proud to remember. “What was it the Juice said when he left?” he asks. “Something about wishing he could’ve heard us cheer for him like that. Can you believe it? The Juice.”

***

War Memorial Stadium shook as a little man ran from the fans shouting his

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At the age of twenty, Army corporal and new father Norman Brewster hit an M4 Sherman tank outside Landstuhl, Germany. Observers say the force of his body pierced the armor of the tank like an artillery shell. They gave a hero’s burial to the parts they could recover.

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In the mid-to-late 1970s, it was not uncommon for dozens of Buffalo Bills fans to cram into cars and drive down to Texas for the chance of catching a glimpse of

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At the age of seventeen, Tag Brewster came home from Bandera High to find a large, white-suited man sitting with a look of great eagerness in his mother’s chair. His mother, for her part, stood near the kitchen, her gaze focused on Tag. “Let me ask you, son,” the man said, leaning forward and placing his hands on his knees. A college ring bulged from within the fat of his finger. “You want to chase cows all your life or you want to be a legend?” Tag continued staring at the man’s swollen hands. He hadn’t much considered the negative implications of chasing cattle. In fact, he’d always quite liked the way the cows lowed and the grass crackled against his shins. So he didn’t answer. He didn’t say a thing until his mother stepped forward and spoke. “You’ll play for this man,” she said. “You’ll play for this man and do them great things. That what your father couldn’t.” And Tag, as always, said, “Yes ma’am.”

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“He left it all on the field.”

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At the age of twenty-five, Buffalo Bills linebacker Tag Brewster hit a quarterback like the man wasn’t even there, like he believed he was back in the fields of central Texas, bull running at heifers and stumbling calves. Racing forward. Whooping to himself and to his mother back in Bandera where, at that very moment, she was kneeling in the dirt before Christ and candles, whispering her only child’s name. Seventeen-hundred miles away, Tag took hold of the ball and crossed the goal line at a full-on sprint. Like he’d never meant to be there at all.

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November 28, 1971: NE: 20 BUF: 27

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At the age of eighty-four, Eileen Brewster lies on a bed in a ranch house in Bandera, Texas. She has removed her breathing mask and is struggling to speak about her son. “They used to come around always,” she says to me and closes her eyes against illness or perhaps against memory. “They used to follow him and call his name and come season after season until he just stop going anywhere at all.”

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When does a hero cease being a

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At the age of twenty-four, Orenthal James Simpson sat on the sideline, watching others play. Three seasons in and he was a nothing, a washout, abandoned in the north and losing carries to a guy named Wayne Patrick, a 10th round draft pick when Orenthal had been first overall. Imagine him there: thinking of Southern California where he’d always been warm and had always been on the field. Then imagine, in that moment, the air quaking like an artillery blast. And imagine Orenthal turning and seeing a little man running free to the end zone, the stands shaking like they had never shaken for Orenthal. Now, imagine what he thought about that.

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NFL Rushing Yards, Simpson, O.J.: 1969-1971 (Before a sack by LB Brewster, Taggart)

1,927

NFL Rushing Yards, Simpson, O.J.: 1972-1974 (After said sack by LB Brewster, Taggart)

4,379

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At the age of twenty-five, Buffalo Bills linebacker Tag Brewster scored a game winning touchdown, running through the end zone and right out of War Memorial Stadium. As the legend has it, he just kept on running. And running. And running until the fields of his home returned and the cattle fled before his rush. His mother stood on the porch with her hair pulled back, watching the cows agitate and stamper and part. “I’m coming home,” Tag said, setting the football onto the slats of the porch. “I’m done with that,” he said. “Well,” his mother said, taking Tag’s hand and looking towards where the candles had burned to nothing inside. “If you think this all you done meant to do…”

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Who from the 1971 NFL season remains a hero in your memory? Staubach. Csonka. Mean Joe Greene. Consider what those names signify, why those men remain heroes forty years on when so many others

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“Eighteen seconds.” This is former Buffalo Bills linebacker Tag Brewster speaking to me earlier this year. “Eighteen seconds and nothing was ever

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Sweat smells. Toilet smells. Ice lining the rim of beer.

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At the age of sixty-five, Taggart F. Brewster sits in a pained posture in his ranch house in Bandera, Texas. He is a small man, sun-withered and unshaven, his head cocked as he stares through his window at a field empty save for the juniper and mesquite. From the next room comes the gasp and trickle of his mother’s breathing machine. There’s a strong smell of trash. Soda cans and newspapers hide a good portion of the floor. “I was hoping people’d finally forgotten about that,” Brewster says, turning and nodding towards a stone wall above a fireplace. I look and see a shelf with framed military medals and combat boots and what appears to be the end part of a World War II-era tank turret. Hidden amidst it all is a deflated football, dark brown, leather cracked. “Mother makes me keep it,” Brewster says, staring at the ball as if maybe it isn’t even his. “Don’t it kind of look like a big old eye just watching you?”

***

“That’s his jersey right there.” A man name Donald Bolinski tells me this as we sit in a dim, beer-thickened Buffalo bar. The name on the back of the jersey he points to says Brewster. “Can you guess whose jersey used to hang right beside it?”

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At the age of sixty-four, inmate #1027820 sits behind the glass of The Lovelock Correctional Facility in Pershing County, Nevada. “Tag,” he says, his eyes not making contact with mine. He’s grown a beard since I last saw a photo of him and he looks more fragile than I imagined. “Tag Brewster.” He leans away and I wonder if he’s considering the year 1971. If he’s remembering a crowd shouting a name that wasn’t his.

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At the age of eighty-four, Eileen Brewster touches my hand as she tries to speak about her son. Her eyes are dark and swim within themselves. “He got no kids, you know” she says, looking up at me. “This thing you here about. It’s his leaving.”

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At the age of

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Even in the smallness of his ranch home, the man I’ve come to meet looks diminutive, his years of near solitude clear in the way his hands tremble and twitch in his lap. “One play,” he says, looking out at fields that once held herds of cattle. “Eighteen seconds.” His hands continue to tremble.

***

“Kid left it all on the field.” That’s all Orenthal James Simpson will say after I’ve come all this way for an interview. “Kid left it all on the field,” he says. As if he believes the field is all there should be, the only measure allowed.

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“Well, mostly, I sit here and think about heifers and steers and calves and bulls. You know, when I was young, I used to

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At the age of twenty-five, Taggart Francis Brewster lined up as a right-side linebacker for the winless Buffalo Bills. The call was for him to drop into a zone. But when the play began, a hole opened so wide it was like he could see from New York all the way to Texas. He believed it was wide enough to carry him home. He believed nothing would ever follow.

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