Although Gilbert Brown, former nose tackle for the Green Bay Packers, made a career out of overpowering offensive linemen, he’s made his post football years all about empowering kids. Last Friday, the students of Lac du Flambeau school listened as “The Grave Digger” spoke about a cause near to his heart: anti-bullying. 

Brown has known a few bullies in his time. From having a chair break underneath him when he was the class Santa Claus to the time his mother sent him to school in plaid pants. It’s the pain he felt then, as well as the sacrifices his mother made, that motivates him today. 

“Being through it myself I know how they feel,” Brown said. “I felt it before … I don’t want them to feel like I was feeling.”

Brown has been touring schools in Wisconsin for the past 10 years, dropping knowledge on students in plain speak with a forceful edge. Sometimes his voice booms. Sometimes it teases (especially if the student is a Viking fan). But throughout back-to-back presentations last Friday for the students of LdF, he never wavered from his message: If you are being bullied or see someone being bullied, tell someone. 

“There is no reason for you to feel afraid that somebody is bothering you, and don’t be ashamed to go to somebody and ask for help … because all these … teachers and counselors … they love you and they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t care about you,” he said Friday.

LdF principal Ron Grams echoes the sentiment. 

“(We need) to make sure that these kids are loved,” he said. “They’ve gotta know that we care about them and (that) we’ll do what it takes to show that someone cares.” 

Encouraging the students not to be followers, Brown asked them, “What does a bully need?” After a few murmurs from the crowd Brown answered his own question. “An audience.” 

“The difference between you and that bully is you’re living in the real world and they’re living (in) some other world, because they’re trying to be somebody else while you’re trying to be yourself,” Brown said to the kids getting bullied. “And I would rather be myself than anybody else.”

Jennie Friedley, a school counselor at LdF, says the school’s policy focuses on the 3R’s, which are part of the social emotional learning program, Second Step. Recognize bullying, Refuse it (i.e. stand up for yourself) and Report it. 

Suzi Hartzheim, another LdF school counselor, highlights the importance of building relationships with the students so they “feel comfortable coming to you, so that you will actually do something if they do. That you’re going to investigate it and address it.”

LdF assistant principal Ben Fieck says there is a conflict resolution staff on hand to sit students down and help them problem solve, “whether it be in a mediation or some type of restorative conversation to repair that conversation with that peer.”

Grams pointed out that, “spending time with your adversary is the best thing that can happen.”

Brown acknowledges the challenges kids face today with the advent of social media are even greater than what he went through. 

“It’s been ramped up … because (for me) it was just from 8 till 3:15 but now it’s 24 hours a day.”

Fieck says the school is getting on board with the Sandy Hook Commission, Know The Signs Program and looking into a 24/7 anonymous hotline students can call which could potentially be dispatched to the police or to the school, “depending on if it’s a suicidal type of situation or a bullying situation.”

It’s not only the bullies Brown is trying to protect kids from on social media, he’s also trying to protect them from themselves. Cautioning the kids to be aware of what they post. He said everything has consequences.  

“When it’s your time to shine,” Brown told the students, “I want you to shine.” 

While Brown was close with his mother, his dad “was a dad that ruled by fear,” Brown says.  

“He didn’t never want me to tell him I loved him … and the only time I could tell him I loved him was when he passed away,” he told the students. “I don’t want to be like that …. I want (my kids) to understand … that they can come to me and talk to me about anything without me being the one that’s going to flip off the deep end. You gotta listen.”

As for what parents can do to protect and promote awareness around bullying, Brown doesn’t hesitate. 

“Know your child,” he said. “I always tell people no matter how busy they are in their day … always find time to sit down at the dinner table and eat dinner with your kids, because that’s when they’re going to open up, that’s where you’re going to learn more.”

Things took a lighter turn during the questions and answer portion of the presentation. 

When asked how it felt to win a Super Bowl, Brown began, “For all you Viking fans, let me explain it to you …” saying no matter what the students want to be, they have the opportunity to be the best in the world. 

“I fought since I was in the ninth grade to be a champion,” Brown said. “It’s the best feeling in the world because you are the best in the world.”

When asked how much his watch cost, Brown quickly replied, “Don’t matter how much my watch cost. It didn’t get me to where I am today.”

Today, Brown is still motivated by the woman who motivated him so many years ago. 

“Every morning when I wake up, when my feet hit the floor I tell myself, how can I make (my) mama proud of me today. That’s the most important thing I can do. How can I not disappoint her today.”

He hopes his words help LdF students to find equally strong motivation. 

“I sat in those seats just like you guys are right now,” he said to the students. “We had a speaker stand here (and) it didn’t come in one ear and go out the other, it stayed in the middle and bounced around for awhile. And if I can touch five of you, I did my job. If I can touch all of you, I’m the man.”