Steelers' Starks grew up not knowing of ties to famous NFL family

Updated: August 5, 2004, 5:13 PM ET
Associated Press

LATROBE, Pa. -- For nearly three-quarters of his life, Max Starks had no idea he was a member of one of America's most famous football families.

Now he hears about it all the time.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie tackle arrived at his first NFL training camp last week, former NFL stars Joe Greene and Russ Grimm regaled him with stories about playing against his father, former star defensive lineman Ross Browner.

If he makes the Steelers' roster, and that's a near-certainty for the third-round draft pick, Starks will become the fifth member of his family to play in the NFL, following his father and three uncles.

It wasn't until five years ago -- after Starks already was an established high school player in Orlando -- that he learned of his ties to the Browners.

As Starks was getting ready for a recruiting trip to Southern Cal, his mother, Elleanor Starks, decided he needed to know his heritage.

Max was born in January 1982, eight months after his mother and Ross Browner had ended a relationship. Ross Browner's brother, Joey, was a former Southern Cal player, and Max's mother knew her son likely would hear on the trip how much he resembled the Browners.

Max's mother then wrote a letter to Ross Browner, telling him about the son he never knew he had, and Ross Browner arranged to meet him. They have stayed in touch since, and they talked last month about what Max should expect during his first NFL camp.

"He told me what was out there and how I need to approach it every day, and that definitely helped," Starks said.

Imagine not only learning about the father you never knew you had, but that you might have the best lineage of any NFL player not named Manning.

"It was unexpected, and it was tough to deal with at first because what you think you know, you don't know," Starks said. "It was a learning experience for me and a learning experience for him, also. We've both grown and our relationship has definitely grown because of that."

Starks, whose given name is Max W. Starks IV, has not allowed the developing relationship with his natural father to interfere with that of the man he always considered his father, Max Starks III, even though Max III and his mother split up in the early 1990s. Now that he's an NFL player, he is learning increasingly more about the Browners.

Ross Browner was an Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and Maxwell Award winner at Notre Dame, the No. 3 pick in the 1978 NFL draft and a nine-year standout with the Bengals. Joey Browner starred at Southern Cal before becoming a six-time Pro Bowl player with the Vikings. Jimmie Browner played two years in Cincinnati and Keith Browner was another Southern Cal star who played five NFL seasons, mostly with Tampa Bay.

Still, Starks doesn't think others will expect more of him because of his family. The Steelers drafted him mostly because of his size (6-foot-7, 340 pounds), strength, intelligence and solid play at Florida, which runs an NFL-style offense under former Steelers assistant Ron Zook.

"You need a cab to get around him," said Grimm, the Steelers offensive line coach.

"I haven't been treated any differently because of it," Starks said. "Some people mention my father, such as Mr. Greene and Russ Grimm, and it's definitely been fun to listen to the stories they told about him and how he played. It's pretty cool. It definitely was a fun thing to learn."

Starks is getting a chance to beat out veterans Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham at the Steelers' most wide-open position, right tackle, but probably is more a long-term project. Florida's offense is built around the pass, while the Steelers traditionally run the ball more than any NFL team.

"The telltale sign will definitely be the preseason games and how I handle myself in a pro situation," Starks said. "I think right now my biggest concern is getting better every day ... and learning their offense so I can understand the nuances, so when it comes to game-type situations, it's more of a reflex as opposed to me thinking about it.

"But I definitely think Pittsburgh was a good fit for me. I'm a big, physical lineman, I like to run block and pass block and this definitely was one of the best fits I could have had."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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