Running in the Family : Taft's Jerry Brown Is Youngest in Line of Tailbacks That Began With Charles White

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before Jerry Brown could fully comprehend what was taking place before him, he made a personal statement of sorts: Ho-hum, sigh, yawn.

Way back when, about 1984, Brown's relatives used to bring him along to watch high school football games featuring his talented brothers.

The little pipsqueak would fidget in the grandstands at San Fernando High as thousands of fans marveled at the exploits of his kinfolk.

Brown's brothers elicited untold ooohs and aaahs while excelling at the X's and O's, but all the little tyke was interested in was Zs.

"I went to lots of San Fernando games, but I always used to fall asleep," Brown said.

Boring stuff? Hardly. It was as though Brown already had reached a conclusion:

Hey, I can do that too.

In fact, when he was 5 years old, Brown couldn't wait to suit up and prove it.

"I used to take newspapers and stuff them under my shirt for shoulder pads, and I wore this fake helmet," Brown said. "Me and my friends would play all day."

Lo and behold, being a ballplayer was no peewee pipe dream. More like a matter of time.

Like many of his relatives before him, Brown is a tailback. In his case, he redefines the word. He is the tail end, the back of the family line.

Brown, a sophomore at Taft who leads area City Section rushers with 492 yards, represents the last of the Valley's most storied football brethren.

Brown's high-profile relatives have been playing football in the San Fernando Valley for three decades. Half-brother Charles White led San Fernando to City titles in 1974 and 1975, won a Heisman Trophy at USC and an NFL rushing title with the Rams.

Older brother Leonice Brown, a 1991 San Fernando graduate and sophomore tailback at Colorado State, has hit the 100-yard plateau in back-to-back games and leads the team in rushing with 413 yards in 53 carries.

Brown's nephew, tailback Russell White, rewrote the state record book at Crespi and is considered a top professional prospect as a senior at California.

Jerry isn't the lone ballcarrier left in the fold, however. His brother, Johnnie Brown, a senior at Poly who has rushed for 220 yards, also is making a run at the family rushing title.

In short, Brown's half-brother won the Heisman, a nephew is a Heisman candidate and several other siblings also made names for themselves. The family tree must be a redwood.

Jerry, 16, is the ninth son of Hattie White. All but one of the brothers played high school football, all but two of them were running backs.

Brown, to be sure, is a running back by providence. It was as much a part of his DNA as having ears, arms or legs. And he definitely has legs.

After four games, Brown is averaging 8.6 yards a carry. The yardage total would be higher had Brown not suffered a bruised forearm last week against San Fernando. He finished with 78 yards in seven carries and was held out most of the second half.

In Brown's second varsity start, he shredded Gardena for 195 yards and two touchdowns.

"He has deceiving speed," Gardena Coach Mike Sakurai said. "He's the type of running back that, no matter how well you do, he can make an athletic play. It's very hard to prepare for a back like him."

Considering his bloodlines, Brown entered Taft with above-average fanfare and extraterrestrial expectations. It did not take long for Brown, who lives in the San Fernando attendance area and attends Taft on an open permit, to convince his teammates that his ability matched the hype.

Midway through the Gardena game, while Brown was in the process of scoring on runs of 25 and 52 yards, the Taft bench started chanting "The Real Thing."

As was the case with several of his brothers, touchdowns happen in a flash. Brown has both the wicked family cutback and breakaway speed. He can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and hopes to get faster as he matures.

But then, this is the way it's supposed to happen in this family. Anything else would be a letdown. Brown was a standout on the area's Pop Warner fields and fully expected to carry the mantle. The family coat of arms should be called a coat of legs.

Evidence of the family devotion to the sport is everywhere. For instance, the walls of Brown's bedroom are festooned with photos of everybody from Charles to Russell, and a self-portrait.

Scratched out on binder paper, the caption under the live-action drawing reads, in newspaper-type headlines: "Brown Runs For 2,000 Yards."

Johnnie, often referred to by his middle name of Tony, lives in the Poly attendance area with his father. Johnnie also has a self-portrait on the bedroom wall. It shows him on the front page of a sports section, straight-arming an imaginary opponent with a Heisman-like pose.

Charles' Heisman Trophy, it seems, was once on display at the home of the Browns' grandmother. The Browns recall seeing it on the fireplace mantel as toddlers, not fully understanding its significance. Now, of course, everyone wants to erase Charles as king of the family hill.

Yet the expectations that go along with being one of Charles' brothers can be a two-way street, and this particular road is divisive. Charles, the Brown brothers say, has been as cold as the storied statuette he won in 1979.

"It's good and bad, being in the family," Jerry said, scratching his chin and staring at his feet. "It's good because we have a lot of talent and because of all the recognition we got when my brothers came up and played.

"It's bad because of Charles. He messed up. He never comes around. We need him, but he never helps. We could have moved to a house or something, but he never helped us out."

Jerry and his mother live in a modest apartment in Pacoima, one of the toughest areas in the Valley. Jerry, like his brother, Leonice, before him, makes no effort to conceal his disappointment with Charles, who has maintained little contact with his siblings. "We see him about once a year," Jerry said. "He don't even call. I don't think he knows where I go to school."

James Gordon, 25, is the fifth-oldest brother and another former San Fernando standout. The family legacy, even then, was a mixed bag.

Gordon, who helps look after his two youngest brothers and regularly attends their games, described himself as a "mediocre" defensive back. It was difficult trying to live up to the standards set by Charles and Terry Anderson, the fourth-oldest brother, but it also instilled considerable pride.

"I can remember one game against Crenshaw," said Gordon, who graduated from San Fernando in 1985. "I ran out there thinking that this was the same field that Charles played on, the same field that Terry played on. There's no way we were gonna lose.

"You know, (Charles) was everyone's hero growing up. But we never really heard from him, except maybe at Christmas. Growing up, there was very little contact. And there's very little now."

White did not return several phone calls for this story.

All three of the Browns have vowed they will not turn their backs on each other. Jerry and Leonice in particular have been outspoken about the lack of contact with Charles, an assistant athletic director at USC who has had several well-chronicled personal problems.

"He should have been coming to see us, taking care of us," Jerry said. "One dude said if he ever sees Charles at our apartments, he's gonna sock him in the face. I laughed."

Nonetheless, all three Browns wear No. 12, the number worn by Charles at San Fernando and USC. Jerry said he considered donning No. 4, which Russell White wears, but decided not to break the fraternal pattern.

Johnnie said the decision has more to do with the rest of the family and should not be construed as a tribute to Charles.

"Terry wore it because Charles wore it, James wore it because Terry wore it, Leonice wore it because James wore it, and so on," Johnnie said. "It's a family tradition."

It makes Gordon wonder what might have been had Jerry and Johnnie played together at San Fernando. Jerry concedes he didn't want to "share the ball" in the Tigers' multiback wishbone attack. Johnnie briefly played with Leonice at San Fernando as a sophomore in 1990 before injuring a knee. With him playing for Poly, it makes for some tough Friday-night decisions for the family.

"They usually go watch whoever's playing at home," Johnnie said.

Home is where the two youngest brothers compare notes. Johnnie regularly checks in with Jerry to compare feats. Compare characteristics, though, and there are few.

Johnnie is outspoken, neat and well-organized. In fact, Jerry has been pounded by his older brother for swiping clothes out of the closet. In this respect, the running backs are like brothers everywhere--Jerry says the pair have slugged it out about five times.

Jerry, the quietest of the Browns, smiles when he says that he was a "pain in the butt" to have as a younger brother.

The brothers are similar physically. At 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, Jerry is taller than Johnnie, who is 5-9, 170. Stand Leonice next to them and the trio's facial resemblance is uncanny.

Johnnie is a speed back, a breakaway threat who could turn the corner with ease before the injury. Some have compared Jerry's running style to that of Russell. Both are gliders, smooth customers who don't appear to be moving as fast as they actually are. Charles was an overachieving grinder whom former Ram Coach John Robinson once called the toughest guy who ever played for him. Jerry could use some of Charles' zeal.

"If Jerry improves his mental toughness, if he learns how to give a blow as well as take it, he could be in the same talent range as Russell," Gordon said. "Johnnie might have been the best of the three before the injury."

Despite their brotherly differences and spirited rivalry, Johnnie does have one regret: He can't watch his brother in action.

"I really wish I could see him, but I gotta go handle my own business," Johnnie said.

And in any business, everyone is concerned with the bottom line. In this case, that would be Jerry, the diaper dandy of the bunch.

Then again, since nephew Russell is always considered one of the running backs in the White-Anderson-Gordon-Brown pantheon, perhaps the statement needs to be slightly amended.

Terry's son, Jason Anderson, is a 12-year-old from Pacoima who is terrorizing opponents on the same fields once frequented by his uncles.

"If he keeps his head into it and keeps his grades up, we can expect big things from him," Gordon said. "He really stands out. He could turn out to be very good."

Jason's position?

Tailback.

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