So, Allen Brown, has anyone ever said you’re too small to play college football?
Brown, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior safety at Eastern Washington, considers the question.
“Never,” he said. “Not to my face, anyway.”
That face hardens as he recalls the obstacles knocked down along the way, including the bone infection in his spine that put Brown on the sidelines at age 12.
“It was scary, and that (the fear of injury) is why I stuck with basketball for so long,” said Brown, who made the varsity at Foss High in Tacoma.
He also competed in track, but something was missing. In a most amazing double-coincidence, he found it the summer of 2007 in a parking lot at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium with future teammate Nick Edwards.
“We were just playing parking lot football, just being competitive, and we happened to place a little bet,” Brown said.
The wager made no sense at the time: If Brown could catch a hard-to-catch pass, he would turn out for football. Miss it and he’d be off the hook.
“I was at practice the next day,” Brown said.
In hindsight, the bet made all the sense in the world; no way was Brown going to drop the ball – on anything. Parents Ron and Janette made sure of that.
“I was brought up in a good family,” Brown said. “They got me going to church, and that helped me go after it.”
One game at junior varsity was all it took for the coaches to move Brown to varsity, where he played at receiver and cornerback and caught six touchdown passes as well as the attention of college recruiters.
After that, “basketball went into the background,” said Brown, who still played hoops while carrying a 3.68 grade-point average. His father, an assistant coach in both sports and the school’s strength and conditioning coach, helped Brown seek the next level of competition.
Brown sized up the schools, and vice versa, which may have trimmed the field. “I know that I’m smaller, but I feel like I’ve got more heart, more courage,” said Brown, who weighed 150 pounds at the time.
Newly hired Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin and former assistant Torey Hunter “noted competitiveness in Allen, and a lot of other things that other people weren’t seeing,” Baldwin said.
The attraction was mutual.
Other schools showed interest, but after one visit to Eastern, “I knew this was the right spot,” said Brown, who was recruited as a cornerback and redshirted at that position in 2009.
A year older in 2010 but no heavier, Brown was moved to safety. He played in 14 games and started five, ending the season with a season-high eight tackles in the FCS championship win over Delaware.
“He started the national title game at 157 pounds – that tells you something about what’s inside him,” said Jeff Schmedding, the Eagles’ safeties coach.
Early in the third quarter, Delaware led 12-0 and was looking for more when Brown made an interception at the Eagles’ 30-yard-line.
The pick didn’t seem like a momentum-changer at the time – Delaware picked off Bo Levi Mitchell on the next series and went ahead 19-0 – but Brown believes the play “got our confidence up as a defense.”
Delaware wouldn’t score again, and Eastern rallied to win 20-19.
“Those guys were relentless,” recalls Brown of his teammates, who has channeled it ever since in 26 career starts.
Last season, his 91 tackles ranked second on the team. Against Washington State, with the Cougars up a touchdown and looking to put the Eagles away, it was Brown who came out of a pile of bodies at the 1-yard-line, ball in hand, to give his team one more shot.
“I’m not afraid to put my body on the line, no way,” said Brown, a second-team all-Big Sky Conference selection last year.
This year, leading by example isn’t enough. Last week Brown was named a team captain by a vote of the players.
“The friendships I’ve made here, these are the guys who are going to be the best man and the grooms in my wedding one day,” Brown said.
By then, Brown hopes to be coaching as a grad assistant, proving again what his teammates and coaches already know: that size and stature aren’t the same thing.