BY CHRIS BEAVEN
Repository Sports Editor
Their football journeys followed different paths during vastly different eras in a timeline spanning pre-World War II America to a post 9/11 world.
Some won state titles and national titles. Some tasted life in the NFL, and one fought and died in the Battle of the Bulge nearly seven decades ago.
But they all left their own unique imprint on the fabric of Stark County high school football.
And that’s what earned Keith Best, Dean Brown, T.J. Downing, John Grimsley, Phil Martin, Mike Rejina and DeMarlo Rozier each a spot in the Stark County High School Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014.
“When you think of the group of people in the classes that have come before, this is a pretty elite group of who’s who in football to join,” Downing said.
This is the 13th class to enter the hall of fame, which now features 95 former players, coaches and officials.
“When you think of Stark County, you think of football,” Rozier said. “To be included in Stark County’s high school hall of fame, it’s a big honor and dream come true. You can’t ask for much more as a high school player.”
The class features four former McKinley Bulldogs from four eras of the program — Martin from the 1950s, Grimsley from the ’70s, Brown from the ’80s and Rozier from the ’90s. Rejina and Best starred at Lincoln in the ’40s and ’60s, respectively. Downing is just a decade removed from making his impact at GlenOak.
“It’s pretty special to happen this young,” Downing said.
The position breakdown is three former backs (Martin, Rozier and Rejina), a couple of linemen (Brown and Downing) and two linebackers (Best and Grimsley).
Unfortunately, three of the men earn the honor posthumously. Rejina was killed 69 years ago in the Battle of the Bulge. Brown and Grimsley each died young, still in their 40s.
BROWN STAR ON STATE RUNNER-UP
“This is tremendous,” said Michael Brown, Dean’s brother. “He really would’ve been happy to know that the people of Stark County recognized his achievements on the field.”
Brown’s achievements were many.
He emerged as a star on McKinley’s 1985 state runner-up team, which finished 12-1. He was an All-Ohio pick and a Parade Magazine First Team All-American.
Brown then lettered all four years at Notre Dame, starting at offensive tackle on the Fighting Irish’s 1988 national championship team. The Colts drafted him in the 12th round in 1990, and he also spent time with the Chargers and Chiefs.
Michael Brown, though, thinks of his older brother as far more than a football player.
“Oddly enough to Dean, football was just a way to a means,” Michael said. “He saw it as an opportunity for him to get out and experience different things. Whether it was the camaraderie that came on his high school team, playing at Notre Dame and traveling all over the country at the highest level to his brief stint in the NFL.
“Most of the conversations I had with Dean concerning football were not what took place on the field, but what he was able to experience off the field.”
Dean’s post-football career included working 11 years for a holding company in Chicago before becoming the dean of the largest charter school in inner-city Washington, D.C., in 2003. He returned to Ohio in August 2012 when he became the principal at Nexus Academy in Cleveland. He died suddenly from a blood clot three months later. He was 44. Nexus, which has seven campuses across the country, already has named a leadership award for students in Dean’s memory.
“He was a youth minister and was just a youth advocate,” Michael said of Dean. “The opportunity came for him to work in education and he jumped on the opportunity.”
GRIMSLEY MADE NFL IMPACT
Grimsley, part of a multi-generational family to star at McKinley, was a three-year regular for the Bulldogs at linebacker, kicker and punter. He was an All-Ohio pick as a senior in 1979.
Grimsley went on to star in college at Kentucky before the Houston Oilers drafted him in the sixth round of the 1984 draft. He made the Pro Bowl in 1988 and spent seven years in Houston before ending his NFL career by playing two seasons in Miami.
He died in 2008 after an accidental gunshot wound. He was 45.
Rejina started 35 straight games at Lincoln in the early 1940s. He earned all-county honors as a senior in 1943, and is remembered as a powerful fullback who also is believed to be the last player to drop-kick a field goal at Fawcett Stadium. He lettered in football, baseball and basketball all four years at Lincoln.
REJINA DIES IN BATTLE
Rejina entered the Army soon after his graduation and was killed during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944.
Best earned all-county honors twice as a linebacker at Lincoln. As a senior in 1967, he also was first-team All-Ohio.
Best continued his career at Kansas State and then spent one season in the NFL with the Chiefs in 1972. He also played in the World Football League with the Chicago Fire in 1974.
DOWNING AT OSU
Downing was a three-year starter and two-time all-county pick at GlenOak. He was a first-team All-Ohio selection as a senior in 2001.
Downing then headed to Ohio State where he was on the 2002 national championship team. He became a starter for the Buckeyes as a junior and senior, helping them go undefeated in the regular season in 2006 to reach the national title game. He also was part of an OSU offensive line that helped Troy Smith win the Heisman Trophy.
Downing, though, still remembers the high quality of competition he saw in high school.
“You’ll find as good of a high school player in Stark County as you will anywhere in the country,” he said.
MARTIN PART OF TITLES
Martin was a two-year starter at McKinley, helping the Bulldogs win state titles in 1955 and 1956. He rushed for more than 1,100 yards those two seasons, highlighted by a 191-yard performance on just 15 carries against Massillon as a senior. He scored three TDs that day in a 34-7 McKinley win. He also had a six-touchdown game that season and finished the year with 122 points, earning second team All-Ohio honors.
ROZIER TOPPED COUNTY
Rozier enjoyed a record-setting career at McKinley, earning all-county honors twice. His senior year, he set a McKinley record with 192 points, helping the Bulldogs win a state and national title in 1997. He was named Repository Stark County Player of the Year in 1997 and was an All-Ohio pick, as he rushed for 1,514 yards on 191 carries.
Rozier finished his career with 2,389 yards rushing and 294 points. He was “pleasantly surprised” and “elated” to get voted in this year.
“Especially when I saw guys who played in my era start to go in,” Rozier said. “I wanted to make it in there and join that great group of guys.”