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From hardwood to gridiron

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, November 14, 2008

During his career at Notre Dame, Justin Brown has been a solid, steady presence on the defensive line. The fifth-year end has 60 tackles, including nine for loss and 2.5 sacks, in his career for the Irish while adding depth to the front four.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t start playing football until senior year of high school.

From the hardcourt…

Brown grew up a basketball player, as a forward who played competitively during middle school and high school.

Brown said he was a solid basketball player, starting for the varsity team at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md., during his junior and senior seasons.

Brown was originally going to go to college to play basketball, he said. Starting his junior season, he began to shop himself around to some Div. I programs for a scholarship.

“Going into the summer time, I focused more in on trying to get scholarships for basketball. What was happening was I started getting injuries – ankle injuries. Just going to camps and going to AAU tournaments where a lot of scouts are, I just had ankle injuries,” Brown said.

Those ankle injuries kept him out of competing in other camps and tournaments later in the summer. Brown said his inability to play basketball during the offseason – and in turn impress college scouts and coaches from big time programs – led to Brown not getting the offers he wanted.

But Brown had another plan to get his scholarship after basketball fell through – start playing football.

… to the gridiron …

Throughout his time at Bishop McNamara, Brown said head football coach Bernard Joseph would half-jokingly tell him that he needed to start playing football.

Three games into the 2003 season, Brown took him up on the offer.

“I talked about the football thing with my dad and my brother and decided to try it out. I came three games late and played seven or eight games, and things worked out well,” he said.

Brown played a sort-of hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker that season, but said that his position didn’t matter to his game plan. Joseph and the other coaches gave Brown simple instructions for playing.

“‘Just go get the ball carrier. Just go and run and make plays.’ And that’s what I did. I was only 200 pounds. They just put me on the field and let me run around and make plays,” Brown said of his high school coaching.

This plan was immediately successful, and Brown finished his first year of organized football with 65 tackles, nine sacks and three fumble recoveries. As his senior season wore on, he started getting more looks for that big-time college scholarship he did not get in basketball.

While Brown was initially recruited mostly by local, smaller Div. I schools, like Richmond and Towson, eventually Boston College started showing more interest in him. After the Eagles, teams like Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan and Florida all started looking at Brown.

Brown said that the biggest reason for this increased attention was the work of Joseph and his father, Michael Brown.

“After a couple of games, I played really, really well and my dad was just, ‘We need to send some of these tapes out.’ So between my dad and my coach, they made some tapes. My dad just sending tapes everywhere, probably like 50 schools, or something like that,” Brown said.

Brown said he didn’t know how he was so lucky that he could wind up playing football at Notre Dame after only one year, but said that he was meant to be here.

“That was God’s work, I say. It’s interesting, I play for Notre Dame and through God in there, and it’s such a religious institution. There’s a reason for everything happening. I’m supposed to be here, I guess,” he said.

Brown said that when Notre Dame first started recruiting him, he had no idea about the school’s history or tradition, but knew it must have been a special place because of how others treated it.

“The thing that struck me was this place had to be special because of the reaction I would get from everyone. It was the reaction that people gave me that kind of gave me the sense that this was some place special. And when I came up here, it sort of proved itself true,” he said.

But after giving the Irish another look, he said the school was a perfect “three-for-three” fit for him.

“One of the things that stood out to me was that people talk about – you get a degree from Notre Dame, you’re set for life. The fact that the school was a very religious institution, very religion-conscious, very faith-based – that was important. And then, I believed in the football coaches and what they were telling me. Coach [Tyrone] Willingham recruited me, and I felt like I wanted to come here and play,” he said.

Once he got to Notre Dame, the biggest adjustment Brown had to make was learning how to play technical football.

“I didn’t know so much technique and knowledge of the game [was involved]. And everything that’s going on – because there is so much going on, on a football field. There was a lot I had to learn. Probably for the first two or three years here I felt like I was playing catch-up to everybody else, physically and mentally,” he said.

Brown said the most difficult part of that adjustment period was learning how to take on blockers, something which has become much easier as he has put on 77 pounds during his five years with the Irish.

But off the football field, one big adjustment for Brown was a coaching change after his freshman year. Brown said that, while he sat out the year and was not fully integrated into the system and therefore the change did not have as big of an impact on him, Willingham’s firing was still difficult for him to deal with.

“You always see those things happening to other teams on ESPN. When it happened to us, it was kind of shocking. It was shocking and surprising, but it was something we had to deal with and move on,” he said.

… and beyond

After this season, Brown said his dream would be to play in the NFL. But, just like in high school, he has a contingency.

“And if that doesn’t work, I always have my Notre Dame degree to fall back on,” he said.

Brown graduated in May with a double major in Film, Television and Theater and Sociology. He started with the FTT major with a concentration in television, something he has always been interested in, he said.

“I’m really interested in media. Coming into college, I wanted to work with advertising, so that’s where I went. I really like the creative aspect of things. I was happy when I saw that they have a film program here,” he said.

Brown said he added the second major because he thought it would be a good fit with the FTT.

He is currently enrolled in a non-degree graduate studies program, taking some psychology courses and a special studies class. For the special studies, he is working on a multimedia CD for his brother’s wedding, which was in October.

But in the much more immediate future, Brown said he is excited to play Navy and excited to see his family.

“I guess, it’s kind of like my Thanksgiving. I don’t get to go home before Thanksgiving, so that’s always good to see my family around this time of year. People don’t always get to see their families, so I’m fortunate to see mine.”

Brown said he didn’t know how much time he would get to spend with them, but it won’t be enough if this year is anything like his last trip to Maryland two years ago.

“Last time, they were calling me to get on the bus because I wasn’t ready to leave yet.”