Former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt and then-coach Bob Bradley already had their eye on San Francisco Bay Seals center back C.J. Brown when they arrived at the 1998 pre-draft combine.
Bradley, a former D.C. United assistant, had seen the tough center back when the Bay Seals made an improbable run to the US Open Cup semifinals the year before, where they lost to D.C. United. After Wilt and Bradley talked to Brown, they were sure they wanted to make him the first pick in the Supplemental Draft for the expansion team.
“I just remember being very impressed with how composed he was, and how polite and professional,” Wilt told MLSsoccer.com. “You could see right away he was a good fit for the type of team we wanted to put together.”
Brown will be inducted into the Chicago Fire’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, an honor for a definitive franchise player who retired in 2010 with a club-record 372 appearances for the Fire during 13 seasons. Brown, who is now an assistant coach with Real Salt Lake, becomes the seventh member of the Ring of Fire.
Not a bad ending for a guy who actually hoped he would end up with his hometown San Jose Clash during the early days of the league.
WATCH: Klopas’ first memory of Brown
“When you leave to go to that combine, you’re hoping your hometown team wants to pick you,” Brown told MLSsoccer.com. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
Brown was known for his tough on-field personality on the field throughout his career. His 296 regular-season appearances are tied for 15th all-time in MLS.
“He had his goatee and he looked like he wanted to eat you for dinner,” former teammate and fellow Ring of Fire inductee Chris Armas told MLSsoccer.com. “He understood how to roll up the sleeves and compete in every training, and in games.”
But his off-field persona was completely different. His willingness to connect with fans made him one of the most adored players in Fire history.
“People are paying money to watch us knock the ball around,” Brown said. “To go up to somebody and sign an autograph or an autograph for a kid shouldn’t be a big deal. If there are 100 kids out there, I’m going to sign autographs for 100 kids.”
Brown was named Chicago Fire Humanitarian of the Year from 2001-03 for his roles with the Chicago Fire Foundation, Teammates for Kids, his soccer academy and other charitable ventures.
His willingness to sign autographs and to make appearances on behalf of charities was unparalleled among Fire players.
“It wasn’t a show with him, it was real stuff, and the fans feel that,” Armas said. “His wife calls him ‘the mayor’ because when she’s getting tired, getting ready to leave at 10:30 at night after a game, ‘the mayor’ is shaking hands and talking to people.”
The Fire lost a fateful coin-flip in 1998, which allowed the Miami Fusion to have the first pick in the MLS College Draft. The Fire got the the first pick in the Supplemental Draft, where they picked Brown, starting a relationship that was one of the best in franchise history.
That’s not a bad consolation prize.
“C.J. represents to me, what the Chicago Fire should be,” Wilt said. “That’s a hard-working, talented athlete who is also a good teacher and a great representative in the community.”