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Flipping back to safety

Matt Gamber | Friday, November 6, 2009

His teammates and coaches call him Notre Dame’s best athlete. But just how athletic is senior safety Sergio Brown?

He’s been dunking alley-oop passes on the basketball court since early in high school. He says he’s never lost a foot race in his hometown of Maywood, Ill.

And he can do back flips — in full pads after playing a football game in front of 80,000-plus. Or in a Notre Dame polo shirt, baggy blue jeans and street shoes, as he did for The Observer Wednesday.

“Me and my brother were always just goofing around in the house. It really started after the movie ‘3 Ninjas’ came out,” Brown said. “We just started trying to flip and stuff outside with mattresses. My mom started getting scared, so she said if we’re going to do all this flipping, we might as well learn how to do it so we won’t hurt ourselves. I’ve just been flipping since.”

Brown’s back flips have only recently become a staple of the Irish postgame celebration. But position-wise, he’s been flipping since he arrived at Notre Dame.

Until now.

Path to safety

A four-star safety recruit out of Proviso East H.S., Brown made 97 special teams appearances in 11 games as a freshman in 2006, making four tackles in kickoff and punt coverage. The next season was much of the same, as he played in nine games and made seven tackles but saw limited action in the secondary.

Brown emerged as an impact player out of the nickel defense as a junior last season. He made his first career start in the 2008 season-opener against San Diego State and flashed much of the potential that had excited the Irish coaching staff in his first two seasons.

Brown made six tackles (one for a loss), broke up two passes and blocked a punt against the Aztecs to set the tone for a solid junior season, highlighted by 28 tackles, six pass breakups and a pair of blocked punts.

“I just had to be patient and wait for my time to play,” Brown said. “A lot of special teams, and then my role got bigger last year playing some nickel. Now I’m on the field a lot, and I’m loving it right now.”

His coaches are loving it, too, as Brown’s play at safety the past two weeks has allowed the Irish to shuffle its personnel to produce Notre Dame’s best consecutive defensive performances of the season the past two weeks.

Brown made his first start at safety for the Irish in their 20-16 win over Boston College, as Notre Dame bumped junior Harrison Smith back to the linebacker spot where he enjoyed success last season. After the Irish thumped Washington State 40-14 last weekend, Brown is slated to make his third straight start at safety — and seventh of the year overall — Saturday against Navy.

“I think he’s earned his way into being a full-time player on defense,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “So just the fact that it’s taken some time for him to get there, but he’s there now, he’s playing on every down. I think that’s where he’s made the most significant progress.”

Flip, Flop ‘n Fly

There’s never been a shortage of ability for Brown, who was a long jump state qualifier and, as a high school junior, returned five of his six interceptions for touchdowns. In fact, Brown was showcasing his athleticism long before he suited up at the high school level — and on a much different stage.

He performed with Mr. Ernie’s Flip, Flop ‘n Fly, a Maywood-based tumbling group, as a grade school student — times he couldn’t help but laugh about as he looked back.

“We did parades and shows and all that other stuff,” Brown said. “Once I got bigger, it started getting a little harder to flip.”

So he started to use his athletic ability in other ways.

“We race a lot in the neighborhood to see who’s the fastest,” Brown said. “I’m still undefeated.”

That’s not hard to believe, considering Scout.com listed his high school 40-yard dash time at a blazing 4.4 seconds, the kind of speed that can’t be taught. He’s come a long way from his tumbling days, but he can still flip and fly.

“He’s one of the most athletic guys on our team,” sophomore defensive lineman Ethan Johnson said. “He can jump through the roof, and he’s really fast. He can bring so much to the table at the next level, too. He’s definitely a special player.”

Goof ball hawk

Brown’s teammates say he’s a special person as well. His personality and his relationships with his teammates have made his success even more enjoyable for the entire Irish squad.

“He’s a guy you can’t help but root for,” sophomore linebacker Steve Filer said. “He’s a great guy. You can’t help but just cheer for him and hope he does his best.”

So far, so good for Brown, who has looked comfortable in his move back to safety alongside senior captain Kyle McCarthy. He is fifth on the team with 18 solo tackles for the season, but perhaps his greatest contributions have come with the emotional spark he has provided a defense that, at times earlier in the season, lacked the confident swagger and positive attitude he brings.

“You say he’s emotional, but really, he’s upbeat,” Johnson said. “He’s a good kind of emotional. It’s infectious, and he really brings something else to our team that’s going to be hard to replace next year.”

It seems no one, not even Weis, can talk about Brown without a chuckle and a smile.

“He’s a passionate kid,” Weis said. “He’s fun to be around. He’s a goof ball. But I really like being around Sergio, and so do his teammates. And I think that he’s not selfish. He wants to be around the fellas, and he’s just one of those heart-and-soul type players that people like being around.”

Fun with Splurge

Notre Dame students who have had a class with Brown might know him by something else, since he asks all his teachers to call him by the nickname he picked up from a rap song during his freshman year.

“One of my teachers, it’s hilarious,” Brown said. “I’m the only football player in there with dreads, so every day he’ll look around the class [joking] like, ‘Is Splurge here today?'”

The Nelly song by the same name may have faded from memory, but the nickname Splurge seems to have stuck — though some of Brown’s teammates may have a new one for him.

“Fake Whoopi Goldberg!” Johnson yelled at Brown as he left Wednesday’s media session, no doubt ragging on the safety’s patented dreadlocks.

That’s the kind of relationship Brown has with his teammates — and the fun goes both ways.

“One time we were in the training room and Jimmy [Clausen] was talking to [former Irish quarterback] Joe Theismann,” Brown said. “I really didn’t know it was Joe Theismann at the time, and I was just standing behind him, waving and making faces at Jimmy while they were talking, acting like a fool. Jimmy started to bust down laughing. We just all mess with each other.”

But Brown’s fun isn’t limited to jokes with teammates. Last spring, he filmed a one-minute spot for insidenotredamefootball.com in which he and Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s director of athletics, mimicked the popular Geico commercials featuring celebrity spokesmen for “real people.” The video idea stemmed from Brown’s comedic performance as a presenter at the 2008 OSCARS (Outstanding Student-Athletes Celebrating Achievements and Recognition Showcase), held annually to highlight the achievements of Notre Dame’s athletic teams.

Brown said Charmelle Green, senior assistant athletics director for student-athlete welfare and development, approached him with an idea for a video that would air at last spring’s OSCARS.

“They asked if I wanted to do a little commercial with Jack Swarbrick, and I was like, OK, sure,” Brown said. “They wanted us to be like the Geico commercials, so we set it up and it was hilarious, a lot of fun. “

In the video, Brown yells at the camera, dances with a Notre Dame blanket draped over his back and, of course, does a back flip — all while Swarbrick talks about Notre Dame’ Monogram Club in a professional office setting.

“They had me do a back flip at least 12 times — way more than you all had me do one,” Brown said.

Not that it was a problem for Brown, who will likely be in the north end zone, preparing himself for another back flip after Saturday’s game as his teammates gather to sing the Alma Mater.

“I like to have a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m serious when the time is called, but everything’s always better when you’re having fun.”

And that includes the Irish defense, especially with Sergio Brown.