(MARC NOTE: My reason for this story is not to hype Jeff Brinson, but to give you a little background. I hope it’s not taken as “this guy is going to do this at Iowa.” I know that might be inevitable, but that’s not my intention. The perspective here is that this is a kid who’s still trying to crack the lineup and who’ll only be a redshirt freshman. This is the time of year for this type of story to spin out of control in the expectations department. Please, let’s keep it real.)
Before spring practice broke, I made some calls to high school coaches of some players fans might not know a lot about — TE Brad Herman, DT Mike Daniels and RB Jeff Brinson.
Metamora (Ill.) coach Pat Ryan got back to me on Herman. I found out he played with Purdue QB candidate Caleb TerBush at Metamora. Herman walked into the Metamora weightroom as a freshman at 6-foot-1, 150 pounds. He plugged into the program and is now 6-5, 242.
I was never able to hook up with Daniels’ coach at Highland (N.J.) Regional High School, Frank Plefka.
I did get a message from Northeast (St. Petersburg, Fla.) coach Jay Austin. He said he’d love to talk about Brinson, “one of my favorite people ever.”
That got my attention.
So, after a few rounds of phone tag, I talked with Austin about his time with Brinson, who’s No. 2 on the depth chart at running back behind sophomore Jewel Hampton.
Austin spent 10 seasons as an assistant at Northeast. He got the top gig when Brinson was a senior. Brinson already had a massive career, but as a senior he punched in big time for Austin, gaining 1,985 yards and scoring 24 TDs on 260 carries. Before opposing defense wised up, Brinson was gaining 330 yards a game. Austin explains “wising up” this way, “The first three weeks, before they started putting all 11 up there in the box, he was averaging 330 yards a game. That was something to watch. It was something to watch.”
“Coaches call them once-in-a-career guy, you get these guys once in a career,” Austin said. “I happened to get him my first year.
“I just thought so much about him as a person, who he carried himself, almost professionally, at such a young age. He carried himself with such class. Never had a problem with anybody or anything. He was just one of those kinds of kids. It’s why you coach, for kids like that, you know? He was a great, great, great football player, but I always told everybody he was an even better kid.”
My question then was “how?” How did Brinson carry himself? How did that great person come out?
“In all facets of it,” Austin said. “He’s got really strong faith. He didn’t pretend or just say it, he showed it. He wasn’t one of those guys who’d pray in the end zone and come back cussing in the huddle. He practiced what he preached, basically, no pun intended.
“He busted his tail in class. He was always the first guy there and the last one to leave. He had to overcome a lot of things at home, with a single mother and moving all the time. They moved four or five times.
“Those were the type of things they’d overcome and he was still that type of kid. If you want to know what a complete football player and complete person is, that’s him. The way he carried himself, the way kids respected him. He did things the right way and, sometimes, that’s not cool, to be that kind of kid. He didn’t give a damn. He carried himself the way he thought he should do it and that’s how he was.”
I wanted to know about Brinson’s routine. He was strong in his church, studied hard, carried the football 40 times on Friday nights and held various part-time jobs (Winn-Dixie, K-Mart, Walgreens) to help out at home.
“He got up about 5:15 in the morning. Catch a bus. Came to school. He went to classes and he would work his tail off to make sure he got it right. He’d practice football and then he’d go to work until 11 at night. He’d wake up the next morning and start all over again. It’s unbelievable.”
Austin said Brinson was a member of the Junior Black Caucus and, occasionally, conducted sermons in his church. ”He had a sermon before he left, with the church, did a wonderful job with that. He was very involved with it. He didn’t just say it, he lived it. He’s very much a man of God, I guess you would say.”
The fact that Brinson had battles with asthma came out during Iowa’s Outback Bowl trip. Coach Kirk Ferentz said it was something Brinson battled early in camp and it wasn’t uncommon for athletes who moved from warm-weather climates to Iowa City.
Austin said the asthma never limited Brinson, but it was a factor that needed monitoring.
“He’s had it all of his life,” Austin said. “We didn’t have the means and the ways of treating it as I’m sure they do on the medical staff up there in Iowa. If we had a real dry day with the humidity down, he’d struggle with it. But when the humidity came back, he’d be OK. You just hoped it didn’t happen on a Thursday or Friday and we didn’t have to take him out.
“He struggled with it. We only had primitive ways of treating it in high school. We don’t have the trainers and medical staff they have in Iowa. He’s handled that, too. He always worried about it. He was always worried about having to come out of game because of that. He never really did, though.”
The serious, adult demeanor carried onto the field.
“He was one of those guys who begged to stay in the game,” Austin said. “You’ve got guys who beg to get out now. He just led, and he wasn’t a very loud guy. He was very, very, very soft-spoken.
“One time, I’ll never forget, I pulled him out of a game and said, listen, quarterback can’t get the play called because y’all are talking too much in the huddle. He just looked at me and said, yes sir. The quarterback came over to me and said, coach, that wasn’t Jeff talking. He (Brinson) didn’t say that wasn’t me. He didn’t react. That’s the kind of kid he is, just ‘yes, sir’ and ’no, sir.’ Just a dream to coach. I wish I had 22 of him. We’d never lose a game.”
What kind of football player was Brinson at Northeast?
“He’s a first quarter, fourth quarter guy,” Austin said. “We always said he got better in the fourth quarter. But no, he was always great, it was just the defenses got worn out. He was bringing the same thing he brought in the first quarter in the fourth quarter. He carried the ball 41 times one night and it looked like he didn’t even break a sweat. Just relentless.”
Austin offered the following analogy.
“We were playing Boca Ciega, they have us 10-6. We’ve got a 3-and-7 on their 21-yard line and everyone in the stadium knew what play we were going to run. We ran 44 power and we ran it to the left side. A guy came around, reached over the top of him (Brinson) and grabbed his ear hole and pulled his helmet off. We’re about 5 yards short of the first down. That kid turns around and ducks his head, takes on two LBs and a CB, splits them and falls forward for the first down.
“I just knew — I didn’t even want him to get up and look at me — I just knew they split his face, just completely tore it off. It was helmet-to-head contact. He got up, flipped the ball to the referee, clapped his hands, picked up his helmet and ran back to the huddle. I’m like, holy (bleep). I can’t believe I saw what I just saw. Three plays later, he took it in to score the winning TD. Everyone knew what play we were going to run. He said, nope. He wasn’t going to be denied. That’s just what he was.”
Iowa was the first school to offer Brinson a scholarship. This went a long way in the Hawkeyes securing his commitment. Brinson had offers from several schools, but he didn’t have one from his favorite, Florida State. According to Austin, by the time the FSU staff came calling, the hay was in the barn.
“One of the best things about him is this. Iowa offered him first. But one of his favorite schools as a kid was Florida State, since he was a kid. They have a pharmacy school and he liked that. He wanted to go into all that,” Austin said.
“Those guys screwed around and screwed around until the last week of February. (FSU coaches) rode around the neighborhood and I called Jeff, ‘These guys are wearing me out, do you want to talk to them?’ He said, ‘No coach, I’ve already made up my mind.’
“They got a hold of one of the assistant coaches and they found out his momma (Tangelia Dickens) worked at Walgreen’s. They went to the damn Walgreen’s, set up a meeting and went to his house for two hours and put on the full-court press. This was three days before signing day. They were trying to get him to change.
“He said, ‘No, you guys are too late. I’ve made up my mind.’ I was so proud of him. I didn’t have a doubt, but you never know what kids are going to do when they get hammered so close to the end. I was just so happy he went up there. Iowa was with him the whole time. That’s how he is, though. He’s loyal. I can’t say enough about the kid.
“You might think, oh, there’s got to be something wrong. But I’m telling you right now, there’s not a downside to that kid at all.”
Well, one downside. Austin said he’s very, very quiet and doesn’t like interviews.