It happened six weeks ago, during 7-on-7 passing drills in the first week of fall camp at Eastern Washington University.
The ball was almost on the turf when wide receiver Brandon Kaufman extended his 6-foot-5-inch frame, stretched his hands grass-high and pulled in the ball as his body slammed to the ground. Everyone noticed. Head coach Beau Baldwin nodded.
Brandon Kaufman was back from injury – again.
Two weeks later, fans saw it, too. During a scrimmage at Roos Field, the redshirt junior battled tight coverage along the right sideline and one-handed a lofting ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
As the stage got bigger, so did the performances. After games at Idaho and Washington State, Kaufman has 10 catches for 290 yards and two touchdowns, fifth-best in the Football Championship Subdivision entering the Eagles’ Big Sky Conference opener Saturday at Weber State.
The stats are impressive, but as Baldwin puts it, “He just scares the crud out of opposing teams.”
Route adjustment to Cheney
Kaufman started playing football a year early, in the first grade, thanks partly to his parents’ genes: father Steve is 6-2 and mother Rhonda is 5-10.
“But my mom wanted to keep me in soccer …” Kaufman said.
To build speed for football, he ran track in high school, covering the 100 meters in 10.8 seconds. In two seasons on the varsity at Heritage High School in Aurora, Colo., he caught 97 passes for 1,918 yards and 16 touchdowns. Major colleges were interested – until he suffered a torn ACL and meniscus during a 2008 summer camp.
“It was really frustrating to get all those calls, every day from schools that were really high on me, taking everything away,” said Kaufman, who had hoped to play at Arizona State.
The Sun Devils were “out of the picture right away” after the injury. Other offers were pulled from the table, until there were none.
But Kaufman rehabbed faster than expected, and was able to play basketball that winter. At the same time, EWU defensive line coach Ryan Sawyer was in Colorado for a get-acquainted recruiting tour, and heard about Kaufman from a rival coach.
“He knew I was watching,” Sawyer said. “He was so jacked up, he went up for a slam-dunk, rimmed it and the ball flew all the way back to the middle of the court.
“We knew we had a competitor,” said Sawyer, who called Baldwin and set up a visit to Cheney.
The scholarship offer from Eastern “was my only one at the time,” Kaufman said. “Things fell into place very nicely once I found out how good the guys here were.”
He also fit right in on the Eastern campus.
“People here are always saying, ‘Hi’ on campus and off, so it’s been great,” said Kaufman, a sociology major and an All-Big Sky Academic selection.
Kaufman’s talents were apparent in fall camp in 2009.
“He made some plays for us, and was giving it his all,” wide receivers coach Junior Adams said.
Midway through the season, returning All-American wideout Aaron Boyce was lost to an Achilles injury, and coaches burned the redshirts of Kaufman and fellow receiver Greg Herd.
A week later, the Eagles were facing fourth-and-ballgame in a must-win game against Montana State. As the pass arrived from quarterback Matt Nichols, Kaufman made a great catch – one of the biggest of the season, according to Adams, as the Eagles reached the FCS playoffs.
That championship season
Football games are usually won on the practice field or the weight room. Rarely are they decided via text message at 2 a.m. to a coach who might be looking for some payback the next day at practice.
But as the 2010 season began, a nagging shoulder injury kept Kaufman awake at night.
“It’s 2 in the morning, and your mind starts racing with all these thoughts,” Kaufman said.
Who better to share them with than Adams, his position coach?
“Usually, the first message back was something like, ‘Why are you waking me up?’ ” Kaufman said. “But the second one, he’d give me some really honest feedback.
“The next day, he was a little mad.”
But no one could hold a grudge against a player who was having a breakout season. Kaufman finished the year with a team-high 76 catches for 1,214 yards and 15 touchdowns, including three game-winners. More important, the Eagles were ranked No. 1 entering the FCS playoffs.
“On that team, you could always count on everyone else to do their jobs,” Kaufman said.
In the FCS championship game against Delaware, the Eagles trailed 19-0 in the third quarter. The Eagles got on the board with Bo Levi Mithell’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Kaufman late in the third quarter.
With just more than 4 minutes left and still trailing 19-13, the Eagles got the ball back on their 20-yard line.
“Everything happened so quickly, there was no time for excitement,” Kaufman said. “Then it dawned on us that we’re going to win this thing.”
Five plays later, Mitchell found Kaufman for an 11-yard TD, and the Eagles went on to win 20-19.
“That’s the best team I’ve ever played on,” Kaufman said. “I have friends for life on that team.”
Back in full stride
The next summer, Kaufman and some of his teammates viewed the impending opener at Washington “as a kind of second national championship, the big stage, the big crowd.”
That 30-27 loss – ending with an interception of a ball intended for Kaufman – was emotionally draining, Kaufman said. Three weeks later, the Eagles were 0-4 and battered by injuries, including a broken metacarpal bone in Kaufman’s left hand.
Two surgeries followed – one for the hand and a second to repair a nagging knee injury from early in the 2010 season. Rehabilitation took all winter.
“He’s one of those guys who’s all about getting better,” Herd said.
While not at full strength during spring camp, Kaufman found his stride during voluntary summer workouts with new quarterback Kyle Padron. So did the other members of the Eastern “Trio,” Herd and Nick Edwards, both All-Americans last year.
“It’s real refreshing,” the 21-year-old Kaufman said. “This is the healthiest I’ve even been in my life, better than I was my sophomore year.”
As Kaufman and Padron kept working after a practice last week, Baldwin took it all in.
“When we’ve needed a big play, he’s been that guy,” Baldwin said. “I love what he’s doing and I love that he’s back.”
That alone should keep a few opposing defensive coordinators awake at night, perhaps texting each other for ideas.