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From the Omni International Hotel, where the Cincinnati Bengals are staying this week, it's a short walk to Overtown, a section that the chamber of commerce does not recommend to tourists.

Eddie Brown made the walk on Monday in the company of a teammate, James Brooks.Brown is no tourist. The wide receiver grew up in the area and in adjacent Liberty City.

"We wanted to get haircuts," he said. "A lot of places were closed. We saw a little of the (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) parade. Then we had lunch at Popeye's Chicken."

Brown thought he might encounter some old friends from the neighborhood. That was not the case. What he saw depressed him. It was worse than he remembered. Boarded-up stores. Men his age hanging out. Still, he was not prepared for the news when he returned to his hotel room after fulfilling a cable television commitment on Monday night.

According to reports, violence had flared in Overtown after a motorcyclist, Clement Lloyd, was killed and his passenger injured in a high-speed chase with police. The passenger, Allan Blanchard, later died of head wounds sustained when the motorcycle crashed.

Bottles were thrown. Gunfire was exchanged. Streets were cordoned off. It triggered memories for Brown, memories of a difficult time in his hometown.

Two key members of the San Francisco 49ers, who will play the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, were teammates of Brown at the University of Miami. But neither Kevin Fagan nor Danny Stubbs, defensive ends for the 49ers, was a native. Of all the participants in Sunday's spectacle at Joe Robbie Stadium, only Brown was a witness to Miami burning in 1980.

He was 17, a star athlete at Miami Senior High School, at the time of the first and most destructive of the four serious racial disturbances that have plagued the city in this decade. Strangely enough, he was on his way home from a movie theater in the Omni complex, several floors below the hotel room he occupies this week.

"We were living in Liberty City then," he said. "I was on a bus. The buses had to stop running. I was on the last bus going out. I saw the flames. I could hear the gunfire. But I didn't find out until I got home what it was all about.

"It took at least three, four days to get back to normal. The first two days were the worst. People were out there looting. I only went as far as my front porch. I didn't have any desire to go outside."

That incident contributed to an image that has taken Miami years to overcome. The situation has been exacerbated by an influx of refugees from Cuba, Haiti and now Nicaragua, transforming the city into a modern-day Ellis Island. And the television show "Miami Vice," with its emphasis on crime and drugs, has not helped.

Fagan and Stubbs said they tried to assure teammates that such unrest was not an everyday occurrence. "I was mostly shocked when I heard about it on the radio," Stubbs said. "It's not the Miami I know. I think you've got to be careful in all big cities. Even when we played in London, they told us where not to go."

The timing of the violence was a blow to Miami Superhost '89, the committee that is promoting the NFL championship game as a celebration of what it terms "an international metropolis pulsating with the energies of its growing multi-ethnic population."

"Miami's a large and complex urban area," committee president Charles Scurr said, "and there are going to be problems. We're not trying to shy away from them. But it's important to put this in perspective and do the whole story of Miami."

Scurr did admit that when he got word of the incident Monday night his first reaction was "expletive deleted."

Said Brown, "I feel frustrated and embarrassed. We're here from Cincinnati and San Francisco to play a game, and there are a lot of people from other states here. I wanted it to be better. This is a positive place for me. I was born here."