Derek Brown’s feet are a blur as he tucks the football under his arm, sidesteps a defensive tackle and drags a linebacker into the secondary.
Carrying a football always has been easy for Derek Brown, ever since he strapped on his helmet and raced through the youth leagues in La Habra. He just wishes life’s options came as easily as they do in football.
Brown has been on the University of Nebraska campus for more than a year, but the closest he had come to the football field was installing the plumbing in the stadium’s weight room expansion.
Sitting out a year after failing to meet academic requirements has its price.
“I didn’t even want to watch practice,” Brown said.
But on this humid, 90-degree August day, Brown is the one being watched. He’s back in full gear, playing in his first full-contact scrimmage as a college I-back.
He shows few ill effects from the layoff. His first carry, a sweep to the right, gained eight yards. Three plays off tackle netted 15 more yards.
After gaining 28 yards in six carries, Brown was pulled from the scrimmage by running backs coach Frank Solich. Solich told Brown he was done for the day.
“No,” Brown said. “I want to play.”
“Then go ahead,” he said.
Brown carried two more times, gaining eight yards, before the scrimmage ended.
“I was upset when they took me out,” Brown said, who moved up from the freshman team to second-string varsity in only a week of practice. “I went to (Solich) and told him I wanted a fair shot. All I want is a chance. That’s why I came here.”
Opportunities weren’t exactly abundant when you came to Lincoln a year ago, were they, Derek?
Sure, you’re second-string as a freshman, and the folks back home will get to see you on TV when the Cornhuskers open their season Saturday at home against Baylor.
But last August, you loaded your belongings into the back of your Toyota and left La Habra, wondering if you’d ever get to play. You hoped, someday, to show why you were named Southern California’s top high school player in 1988.
When you arrived here, there were no scholarships, no free meals, room or board waiting for you.
There were only bills for tuition, books and dormitory rent. While the other freshmen were learning how to run 47-gap, you were fitting together water pipes with a local plumber.
You had no complaints, Derek. Neither did your friend, Johnny Mitchell.
Both of you were All-Americans in high school--Brown as a tailback at Servite and Mitchell as a tight end at Chicago Simeon. You were both considered the top players in a promising freshman class.
At least on the football field.
While scoring touchdowns wasn’t a problem for you, scoring on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was. You had to sit out your freshman year after failing to meet Proposition 48’s academic requirements.
Both of you came to Lincoln anyway, enrolled in classes and worked. Nebraska coaches encouraged you to take classes to prepare you for another entrance exam, the American College Test.
“The coaches showed me where Johnny and I could get help,” Brown said. “But they couldn’t help us. We had to do it on our own. It was all up to us.”
The plumbing company you were with landed a major project--expansion of Nebraska’s strength complex. You were on campus every day, working in the weight room instead of working out.
“It would have been so much tougher if Johnny wouldn’t have been there too,” Brown said. “He had to go through the same things I did. We would get up early to go to work, finish about 3:30 and then go lift together.”
Boyd Epley, Nebraska’s strength and conditioning coach, watched as you and Johnny installed the new ceiling sprinklers. He encouraged you to enroll in his conditioning course to keep in shape.
Epley’s training program made you stronger, Derek. You gained nine pounds, all muscle, and dropped your time in the 40-yard dash by nearly three-tenths of a second. Epley says you made unbelievable progress.
“The rest of Derek’s life hasn’t been such a smooth road,” Epley said. “The academic problems pushed him to take a job he didn’t want to, just to make ends meet.
“He had a rocky time, and that stressed him in a lot of ways. But I never saw that in the weight room. He put it all behind him. You have to admire a guy for going through all that adversity, but he’s still got a few roads ahead of him.”
Derek Brown knows hard work, and its rewards. After all, things don’t come easy to a guy who says, “Life’s hard, things happen,” with the detachment that tells you he’s studied the subject.
His father and mother were divorced when he was too young to understand why. When he wasn’t playing football, he and his brother, Mark, worked part-time to help pay the bills.
“When I’m not working, that puts a lot of pressure on my mom (Shirley),” Brown said. “I want to do my part. I feel I have to. Since my father left, I guess I put myself in the position of being the head man. That’s pretty hard on me because I’m still young and sometimes I just don’t know what to do.”
So football became Brown’s break. The first time he touched the ball in a high school game, on a kick return, he ran it back 90 yards for a touchdown.
He finished his three-year career at Servite with 4,663 yards rushing, second on Orange County’s all-time list to Valencia’s Ray Pallares (5,398 yards). Brown rushed for 2,301 yards as a senior, a county single-season record.
But those statistics and numbers meant nothing to Brown once he got to Nebraska. Ask him his favorite number and he won’t tell you 21, his jersey number. It’s 19, his passing score on the ACT last January.
Mitchell passed the test two weeks after Brown did. Both players learned they had four years of eligibility remaining.
Yet, Brown and Mitchell didn’t celebrate their test scores. Instead, Brown publicly criticized the concept of taking entrance exams.
“I hate it,” he said. “I think it’s real stupid.”
Brown said he has no problem with the academic requirements, but he objects to paying to take the tests.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “The SAT and ACT are just trying to get your money. You could be a 4.0 student and you could still get a low score on the test.
“The tests have nothing to do with your schoolwork. I totally dislike them. They should go by how you did in school.”
Nebraska linebacker Mike Petko, a former Servite teammate, understood Brown’s frustration. Petko struggled to maintain a C-average at Servite, eventually transferring to Katella midway through his senior year.
But at Nebraska, Petko has a 3.2 grade-point average in consumer science, with a concentration in finance and stock market trading.
“Derek’s the kind of guy who takes on everything with a challenge,” Petko said. “He handled the whole situation like a man. He performed to the task, and that’s what you have to do. That’s just the kind of guy Derek is.”
With his academic problems behind him, Brown was eager to show his Nebraska teammates and coaches why he was one of the most sought-after high school running backs in the nation a year ago.
He scored 2,516 points on the school’s athletic index, which measures an athlete’s power, strength, speed and jumping ability.
His score was the highest by a Nebraska freshman running back and was second overall to Mitchell among this year’s freshmen.
Brown, 5-feet-10 and 179 pounds, led the freshmen in three categories: 10-yard dash (1.51 seconds), 40-yard dash (4.49 seconds, electronically timed, 4.35 hand-timed) and the agility run (3.96 seconds).
Epley said Brown spent his time during the layoff wisely.
“You can let something like that destroy you,” Epley said. “You can get slower or faster during that time. But Derek adjusted to his situation and made the most of it. Our motto here is the great ones adjust, and that certainly applies here.”
Brown said he had something to prove the first week of practice.
“I felt disrespected by some of the players,” Brown said. “They were hearing all this stuff about me. They didn’t want to hear it, they wanted to see it. All I wanted to do was put on the pads and show what I could do.”
He also showed the coaching staff a thing or two. Solich, who has coached Nebraska backs Mike Rozier, Roger Craig, Doug DuBose and Tom Rathman, said Brown’s work ethic ranks among the best he has seen.
“He wants to be on the field every second,” Solich said. “If you look back at the great backs we’ve had here, they all have that work ethic.”
“Derek has set a good example for a lot of players who don’t have their grades in line,” Epley said. “Maybe athletes can save themselves a lot of problems by getting their grades in order and not waste a year of their life.
“Derek has turned things around, but he has paid the price.”