UCLA tailback Brittain Brown learned at a young age to leave defenders in his wake
The old Walter Payton video shows the Chicago Bears running back delivering as many hits as he receives, lowering his shoulder, extending his arm, continually punishing defenders while his legs churn through one failed tackle after another.
At one point, wearing his famed white headband, Payton labors his way up a steep hill to reveal offseason workouts that took more than a day to recover from.
It was all the inspiration Brittain Brown needed.
The boy would watch the VHS footage, rising for Saturday morning workouts with his older brother in the hills around their suburban Atlanta home.
“We’d be running those hills,” Brown said, “just like Walter Payton.”
Sundays became a weekly homage to Adrian Peterson. Brown watched the Minnesota Vikings running back whenever he could, mesmerized by his unique blend of speed, power and size. He estimated he’s watched each of Peterson’s highlights 20 times.
UCLA is working to address issues that flared up during its win over Arizona as it enters the toughest portion of its Pac-12 schedule.
“I think he’s the best running back to ever do it,” Brown said. “He can juke you, spin on you, lower that shoulder and run you over, catch the ball. He almost never got injured and when he did, he came back and had the greatest season of all time, so he just really inspired me.”
That influence is reflected in more than the No. 28 that Brown wears as a tribute to Peterson.
Brown runs angry, his teammates like to say, pounding those who get in his way. The graduate transfer running back rarely goes down on initial contact, driving his 6-foot-1, 205-pound body forward until he becomes the next defender’s problem.
“He’s got conviction when he runs, when he makes a decision,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “We talk about it, not speed to the hole but speed through the hole, and he’s definitely a speed-through-the-hole type of guy.”
Arizona saw that burst last weekend when Brown found an opening midway through the fourth quarter and raced through it. He almost stumbled a few yards past the line of scrimmage, planting his hand on the turf to keep his footing before sprinting into the end zone.
As Keith Brown watched his son on television, he screamed the name of Brittain’s older brother, Blace, realizing the sand workouts the siblings had completed in the offseason near Blace’s Alabama home had helped Brittain maintain his balance in one of the biggest moments of the season.
There was also more than a touch of his father on display. Keith Brown was a cornerback at Army who played sprint football, a varsity sport that emphasizes speed, before serving two tours in Operation Desert Storm as a combat engineer who cleared obstacles out of the way of advancing forces.
Blace Brown played receiver and defensive back alongside his brother in high school for one season before starring at Troy. He now plays for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
Brittain’s name came from his parents’ love of travel, his father adding the extra “t” to make it unique. Blace was named after Keith’s roommate at West Point.
Growing up, the boys’ father would rouse them for those Saturday morning runs. He also arranged for workouts with a former hockey player to teach toughness and coached them through middle school, telling them to cherish contact.
“With physics,” Keith Brown said, “the one who’s moving the fastest and not afraid is going to bring the most pain.”
The brothers’ competitiveness was instinctive, the boys waking their father to tell him who ran the fastest, who did the most push-ups, who had the biggest muscles.
“We went toe to toe in everything,” said Blace, who’s 16 months older than Brittain. “Our parents let us punch it out in the back of the car a few times.”
They always made up, leading to inevitable sadness when they had to part ways. Brittain picked Duke because it combined winning academics with major college football. But his career was marred by a shoulder injury that never fully healed until he underwent surgery as a junior.
Attending UCLA for graduate school provided a chance to play in Kelly’s run-dominant offense while learning from a former NFL coach. Brown ran for a career-best 219 yards against Stanford and averaged 6.6 yards per carry in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the most by a Bruins back with at least 80 carries since Shawn Wills matched that average in 1988.
Chip Kelly has been unable to breakaway from his staunchest critics, but the next three games could determine if UCLA is indeed making progress under him.
He returned to show what he could do in a full season and has teamed with Zach Charbonnet to form one of the nation’s best running back duos, the Bruins (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) averaging 217 yards rushing a game to rank second in their conference and No. 22 in the nation heading into a game against Washington (2-3, 1-1) on Saturday at Husky Stadium.
Before every season, Brown writes several goals on his iPhone. His most recent set — 1,000 yards rushing, six yards a carry and reaching the Pac-12 championship — are all attainable given he’s rushed for 441 yards, four touchdowns and 6.3 yards per carry at the season’s midpoint.
Brittain and Blace talk on the phone before each other’s games, always using the same signoff: “Slice and dice.” It’s a reference to Batman villains preparing to inflict mayhem.
“That just means go get after it,” Brittain said, “and do what you do and do your thing.”
It’s something Brittain does well, having learned from the other idols to leave defenders in his wake.
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