CJ Brown’s MLS career was perhaps a bit improbable.
A hard-nosed defender that caught the eye of MLS club’s in 1997 during the USISL San Francisco Seal’s Cinderella run to that year’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal, Brown was selected first overall by the Fire in the 1998 MLS Supplemental Draft.
The pick was the beginning of a 13-year career which saw the defender help the club capture six domestic championships. Brown’s career has been characterized by passion, humility and hard work, tenets set by the likes of Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik, Frank Klopas, Chris Armas, Bob Bradley and Peter Wilt.
On Tuesday, the club announced that C.J., now an assistant coach for Real Salt Lake, would join that group of six in the Ring of Fire on Toyota Park’s east-side fascia when the two teams meet on May 9.
“Honestly I’ve been trying to figure out words to describe it since [Andell Managing Director] Javier Leon called to tell me,” Brown told Chicago-Fire.com Tuesday morning. “It’s obviously a huge honor to be considered and be put in the Ring with those guys.”
Showing the humble side he’s come to be known for, Brown continued, “I personally look up to them. I don’t think I compare to any of them as a player or person but it’s really awesome to know they look at me in that way. Being looked at in that way by the organization and these guys is huge to me because I felt like I did everything I could for the club. It’s a special feeling for me, the guys I played with, my family – my parents, my kids and wife -- all the coaches that have been a part of me growing and me becoming the player I was.”
While the examples shown to him by the likes of Nowak, Kubik, Klopas and Armas in the early days certainly helped, perhaps the biggest reason for C.J.’s strength and endurance were his recognition of who he was.
“From early on I thought I was pretty in-tune with myself and knew what I was about. I didn’t score a lot of goals, I wasn’t a finesse player, I wasn’t a guy that could play on the ball and be fancy. I was a hard-nosed defender. I came to training the same way I came to games, I wanted to win in training just as bad as I wanted to win every weekend.”
And C.J. won a lot. The Fire Original joins fellow Ring inductee Chris Armas and goalkeeper Zach Thornton as the only three players to be a part of all six of the club’s domestic championships.
Beyond that, Brown became a league standard bearer in longevity with one club, with his 372 games played putting him third all-time in competitive appearances for one MLS team behind only Jaime Moreno with DC United (415) and Cobi Jones with the LA Galaxy (392). He also holds club records for MLS (296), Playoff (35) and U.S. Open Cup (25) appearances.
“I think I approached it the best way I know how – it was a great, great job I had. It was fun, it was something I loved to wake up and do every day so I put all I had into it whether I was on the game field, practice field or wearing a Fire polo at an event. I tried to represent the club and the badge the best way I knew how, making sure people knew I thought the Fire were the best thing ever.”
With so many games and years under his belt, Brown understandably has a lot of memories from his time with the Fire, combining relationships made with the on-field success he tasted.
“I spent 13 years [in Chicago] so obviously the first thing you look at is the double in 1998. You never anticipate that happening, you never anticipate playing much your first year. [Brown played 28 of 32 regular season games in 1998.] I have memories from relationships of people I grew up with during my time in Chicago. Fans that I met the first day that I keep in touch with now, the supporters in Section 8 and the memories you have hanging out and partying with them. Just coming from Soldier Field, seeing Toyota Park being built. I was able to see the Fire grow, it was like our child. We brought it up, watched it thrive and it’s a part of my family.”
May 9, 2012
The tears that streamed down C.J.’s face upon his first return to Toyota Park with RSL last June showed evidence to what the Chicago Fire means to him.
Speaking of what this year’s ceremony will be like, Brown said, “I know it’s going to be a very emotional time for me because Chicago has a deep place in my heart. I truly am going to do whatever I can to get my parents out there. They’ve been going through some rough times and I think they need to be a part of this somehow.”
More than that, the ceremony will be a fulfillment of one of the goals he always had as a Fire player.
“It’s going to be kind of crazy. I remember coming on the field, looking up before games and thinking ‘I want my name up there one day.’ Once it’s up there, it’s up there. You look up and see it’s a good group of guys that truly get it and are great players and great people. To see that my name will be among that company, if I never live in Chicago again, my name is still there. Having my name up in Toyota Park, known for being a good person and someone that matters to the club, I think it’s better than any type of money or bonus. It’s something I worked very hard to be a part of and that night will be very emotional for me.
The CJ Dance
Knowing Section 8 Chicago will hope for the jig made famous by Brown and carried on by current Fire captain Logan Pause following home wins, the longtime Fire defender was bullish about bringing it back to Toyota Park in May.
“I only bring out the CJ dance when we win and I’m not playing anymore,” Brown laughed. “I have to see if I remember it to be honest, I’ll have to go back and watch some videos. That is a very lasting memory that a lot of people talk to me about. It’s a special moment so maybe that’s a time it needs to come back out.
“But I have to get in shape before I do it.”