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His NFL father's premature death, weight issues, and a colossal combine embarrassment have taught Oklahoma OT Orlando Brown Jr. about the rewards of perseverance

By Jeffri Chadiha | Published April 18, 2018

NORMAN, Okla. -- As soon as Oklahoma's pro day concluded, a crowd of reporters raced to the middle of the school's indoor practice facility, eager to meet with former Sooners star quarterback Baker Mayfield. Thirty yards away, a towering 21-year-old with wireless headphones covering his ears gathered his belongings and quietly strolled toward the door, confident he had answered some questions of his own.

If Orlando Brown Jr. felt any pressure leading into that event a month ago, he definitely appeared carefree after it. He stopped to fist-bump a couple teammates, waved at a handful of students that helped staff the workout, then stepped outside to joke and laugh with his agents under a nearby tree.

Brown had good reason to feel relieved about his pro day. He had entered it as a walking punch line, the player who had performed so poorly at the NFL Scouting Combine that many talent evaluators believed he had obliterated his chances of becoming a first-round pick. The numbers were so abysmal -- he tested last among all participating offensive linemen in several categories, including an effort on the bench press that ended with him pumping out just 14 repetitions of 225 pounds -- that even he joked he had to avoid Twitter for a few days. However, after producing 18 reps on the bench and running a faster 40-yard dash (5.68 seconds compared to 5.85 in Indianapolis), Brown had regained a decent measure of respectability back on campus.

Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner, was the main attraction of that pro day, but Brown was the player who provided the biggest statement: Don't ever count him out. He has learned more than a few tricks about handling adversity, from the days when his weight ballooned to over 400 pounds to the devastation he felt after his father's sudden death in 2011.

"I didn't look at (the Combine) from a pity standpoint because I know I've been down before," Brown said. "At the end of the day, we're talking about football. I know measurables will be used to compare me to other prospects and I respect that. But once people watch my film, they will see what I'm capable of. I may only be an 18-rep bench-press guy but I move people on the field and I push them around."

Brown's optimism comes from a simple place. Football always has been in his blood and, with that being the case, his destiny. His father, Orlando Brown Sr., spent 10 years in the NFL as an offensive tackle. Brown's dad is most notoriously remembered for his 1999 season with the Cleveland Browns, when referee Jeff Triplette threw a penalty flag that smacked Orlando Sr. in the right eye and nearly ended the player's career. Orlando Sr. also earned one of the best nickname's in NFL history -- Zeus -- because of his mammoth 6-foot-7, 360-pound frame.

As a unanimous All-American in 2017 and the Big-12 Offensive Lineman of the Year his last two seasons in Norman, Orlando Jr. already has made quite the name for himself at the college level. The larger question surrounding him has always revolved around how he handles his body. If he manages his weight and continues to refine his craft, he'll become more agile and capable of enjoying a productive career. If he can't, then the jokes that followed his combine performance certainly will multiply exponentially.

Even during Brown's pro day, it was apparent NFL decision-makers see him more as a player whose greatest upside comes from the fact he's so young (he turns 22 on May 2) and that he's still growing into his body. When asked about Brown's pro day performance, one AFC scout said, "He did better. I honestly don't even know how much stock to put into what happened at the combine. If you watch the tape, you see what he can be. The big deal for him is that whether he plays the right side or left side, he needs to show he can handle speed. He will see fast guys on the right side as well."

Another AFC scout added: "I wasn't expecting him to blow it up at the combine. Regardless of what you think of him as an athlete, his size is what sets him apart. He's better suited to be a right tackle but he has a lot going for him. He's smart. He has a good feel for the game, and when he gets his hands on guys, he engulfs them."

That ability to manhandle defenders is something that has distinguished Brown throughout his time at Oklahoma. Mayfield actually laughed off Brown's glacially slow 40-yard dash at the combine, while pointing out that the most important number associated with Brown is the one he posted during Oklahoma's 12-2 season in 2017: zero sacks allowed. Brown also didn't spend much time dwelling on the lost opportunity at the combine.

"I just didn't feel like myself," he said. I started off bad with the bench press and I didn't know how to put it behind me. Once I got away from the things I had practiced (for the bench), the breathing and everything else, then the running went bad. It was tough in the moment."

That honesty surely helped Brown when he met with teams over the last couple months, along with his intelligence and desire. When Brown first arrived as at Oklahoma, Sooners co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh had just been hired from West Virginia. What Bedenbaugh gleaned when he turned on the tape of his new recruit stunned him. All he saw that day was a fat kid who "wasn't very good."

These days Bedenbaugh marvels at Brown's improvement. "From the first day Orlando got here up till now, it's astronomical the leaps he's made," Bedenbaugh said.

"Orlando didn't test this way but he plays strong," the coach added. "He's a smart player. He understands defenses and what the offense is trying to accomplish. He'll ask about coverages. Whatever weaknesses you have, you can overcome them if you understand football. Orlando puts a lot of time into studying the game."

That diligence has plenty to do with Brown's overall mindset. When he was in middle school, he approached his father in tears, eager for the chance to finally play football. Orlando Sr. didn't want any of his three sons to play the sport until they were in high school, largely because he hadn't gotten into the game until that point in his life. Brown had the bug, though, so the father was willing to relent, but only if the boy was going to play with some serious passion.

Orlando Jr. agreed on that day he wouldn't stop playing football until he had spent at least 10 seasons in the NFL and assembled a résumé worthy of the Hall of Fame. "I made certain promises to him that I plan on keeping," Brown said, referring to his father. "As far as motivation, his death is certainly a part of it for me. But this is also what I love to do. I really want to be known as one of the greatest to ever play this game."

Brown's introduction to football started predictably -- with him following his father to work. He hung out at the Baltimore Ravens facility when he was in grade school and he often landed jobs as a ball boy during training camps back then. One day, Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis watched the enormous kid running around on a field after practice and told Orlando Sr. what the father surely already knew: "The boy is going to be as big you one day."

When Brown finally did start playing in junior high, the game didn't come easily. Good-hearted by nature, he didn't have the natural tenacity that his father wanted to see in him.

"He would leave my games," Brown said. "He was really big on me being physical and I wasn't. His thing was that football came down to two things -- intimidation and being physical -- and if he didn't like what I was doing, he would just leave. I would have to catch rides home with teammates because he would say, 'Orlando, I'm gone.' "

"Orlando was a nice kid," said Brown's mother, Mira. "I heard it from his teachers and his coaches. Everybody loved Orlando. He was the big guy with the big heart. But he was such a nice, respectable kid that his dad had to tell him the truth. If he wanted to do this as a career, he was going to have to get some dog in him."

Everything changed for Brown in the eighth grade. Three games into his second season of competitive football, he faced a team with a defensive lineman who could match Brown's size. Brown eventually heard so much about the matchup from his coaches and teammates that he lined up on the first offensive play with a menacing glare in his eyes. When the center snapped the ball, Brown drove the kid 20 yards downfield, then jumped on top of him to draw a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The stunning part of that moment wasn't the way Brown snapped. It was the way Orlando Sr. vaulted from his seat in the bleachers and raced down to the field to cheer his boy on.

"As that game and that season went on, people became scared of me," said Brown. "Once I realized you could strike fear in another player, I fell in love with it."

Brown was 13 at the time and just starting to meet his father's high expectations. Two years later, on Sept. 23, 2011, he realized how unpredictable life can be. Brown was a student at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md., when a teacher instructed him to go to the office. As Brown walked down the hallway of the private, all-boys school, he saw teachers sobbing and a priest choking back tears as well. When he checked his phone and saw a tweet that read, "Rest in Peace, Zeus," he looked over at his teacher and asked, "Did my father die?"

Police actually had discovered Orlando Sr. dead in his Baltimore home a few hours earlier. Autopsy reports identified the cause of death as diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition that can cause kidney failure or fluid to amass in the brain (Orlando Sr., who was only 40 years old when he passed, apparently didn't know he had diabetes). By the time Orlando Jr. arrived at the house, all he found was an assortment of items on his father's bed. They included an NBA2K '11 video game -- a birthday gift for Brown's younger brother, Justin -- and a bag filled with football gloves, cleats and a white bandana that Orlando Sr. wore while working out.

That day sent Orlando Jr. into a deep spiral.

"I didn't care about school after that," said Brown. "I skipped as much as I could. The only thing I turned to was football."

Sensing the need to be closer to her own relatives, Mira moved Brown and the rest of the family to suburban Atlanta just three months after the funeral (Orlando Jr.'s parents had been divorced for years by that point). They visited a handful of schools in the area before eventually settling on Peachtree Ridge High in Suwanee, Ga. When Brown walked into the office of head coach Mark Fleetwood, the coach's jaw dropped.

"Oh my God," Fleetwood said while eyeing Brown, who was 6-7 and nearly 415 pounds at that stage. "You're a rare jewel!"

Fleetwood knew something about spotting diamonds in the rough; as a college assistant he recruited or coached several small-school talents who blossomed into NFL stars, including DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, and Terrell Owens. In Brown, he saw more than a grossly overweight teenager. Even when Brown was so weak that he could only perform squats without weights on the bar, Fleetwood believed in his potential. The challenge was how the coach was going to tap into it.

Three games into Brown's junior season, Fleetwood found the answer.

Brown had struggled so much in his first two contests at Peachtree Ridge that Fleetwood benched him for the third. Then the coach sat down with Brown and made him watch tape of an offensive lineman named Alex Jauregi, a former player who had graduated a year earlier and signed to play college football at Middle Tennessee State. After forcing Brown to study how Jauregi did more with less natural talent, Fleetwood went a step further. He laid out a path for Brown to follow, one that would lead to a college scholarship, the chance to start early in a top program and, eventually drafted into the NFL.

"He laid out the blueprint for me," Brown said. "He told me, 'I don't' know if you know what you can be but here's the deal.' He laid out the next eight years of my life. Anybody who knows me knows that I might (expletive) around but when I want something, I work. He sensed that I was ready to commit to something like this."

"I basically told him that if I kept playing him (without changing something), he was never going to get recruited," Fleetwood said. "I didn't play him that week but the light came on mentally. He eventually got his weight down to about 360 and he started moving better."

That didn't mean life became easier for Brown. Fleetwood had to fight to find him a spot on the citywide all-star game following Brown's senior season. The local coaches didn't vote Brown onto their all-county team, either, even though he had major college potential. Brown didn't even land at the first school he chose to attend: Tennessee.

He had given a verbal commitment to Volunteers coach Butch Jones following his junior season. That scholarship seemed to be a done deal when Brown arrived in Knoxville for his official visit just a week before the 2014 signing date. That was before Brown and Mira sat down for dinner with some other recruits over that weekend. Jones pulled Mira aside midway through the meal and broke the news that the Volunteers wouldn't be honoring Brown's scholarship.

"Coach Butch said it was because Orlando's grades were bad," Mira said. "He said maybe (Orlando) could go to junior college and come play the following year. I'm sitting there thinking, 'How do I tell my son, who's here in Tennessee, that he can't come play here?' "

The academic issue was real -- "I had a 1.7 grade point average when I committed to them and they never asked to see my grades until after my senior season," Brown said -- but Fleetwood also believed Jones had offered more scholarships than he had to give. Since Brown wasn't cutting it in school, he was an easy cut. That left the Brown family scrambling for last-minute options. Fleetwood found a miracle in Oklahoma, as he had met then Sooners head coach Bob Stoops a few years earlier.

Since Stoops didn't have time to formally meet Brown, he took a gamble after Fleetwood convinced him of Brown's potential. "(Stoops) just told me that if he offered me a scholarship, I needed to sign it," Brown said. To prove his conviction, Brown became more serious about his studies. He improved his grades enough in his final semester of high school that he qualified academically in his first year at Oklahoma.

Brown can chuckle today when he thinks about those early days as a Sooner. "I thought I'd play as a freshman but I wasn't ready," he said. "I was sitting behind redshirt juniors and sophomores and I was so bad that I wasn't even getting reps in practice in that first year. It was like I was a practice dummy."

Brown eventually found his way with help from Jammal Brown, a former Sooner All-American who enjoyed an eight-year NFL career and shared an agent with Orlando Sr. Jammal helped Orlando Jr. drop weight through a more disciplined diet and provided tips on how to sharpen the young man's fundamentals. By the start of Orlando Jr.'s redshirt freshman season, he had claimed a starting job at left tackle. There were still growing pains -- he had a tough day early that season when he faced Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett, a 2017 first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles -- but Brown became such a fixture on the offensive line he started 40 consecutive games.

When asked how Brown improved so quickly, Bedenbaugh said, "It was his mentality. He really wanted to be a good player. He started to lose weight after his freshman year but he always had the right mentality. He was going to work at it and he was going to get better." That level of commitment ultimately will be the greatest asset Brown now has in his jump to the NFL. He's never wavered on the promises he made to his father years ago and he's even kept a reminder of his dad, wearing a white bandana under his helmet in every game since the day he found one in his father's room. Orlando Sr. taught his son plenty about how to play the game with an unmistakable tenacity. Orlando Jr. also learned several lessons while watching his dad battle his own challenges.

When Orlando Sr. nearly lost his sight after being hit by that penalty flag, he missed the entire 2000 season before the Browns released him in 2001. He also sued the league -- agreeing to a settlement reportedly between $15 million and $25 million -- before working his way back into football with the Ravens in 2003. Even though Orlando Jr was just a child in those days, he saw what perseverance meant by watching his father battle for his career. As Brown thinks about moving on to the next level, he remembers what his father's strength showed him.

After his dad's death, all the career struggles and even the combine embarrassment, Orlando Brown Jr. understands one central truth about football and life: How you finish means way more than how you start.

"I learned at a young age that you have to continue to fight through whatever it is you're dealing with," Brown said. "No matter what you do in life, there are going to be tough times. But regardless of what happens, you have to keep grinding. That's really all you can do."

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