Chris Brown transforms experience into leadership role
Mary Green | Thursday, November 12, 2015
Brian Kelly said earlier this week he would look back on this year’s senior class as one that helped build the program back to national prominence, and receiver Chris Brown has been there through it all.
As one of only two current seniors to have played in each of the 48 games of his career so far, the other being defensive lineman Romeo Okwara, Brown has been about as consistent as they come.
So when it came time for him to select just one moment over that four-year span as the high point, he’s happy to oblige, but he’ll take a moment to sort through his memories before bringing you back almost to the beginning.
“My freshman year, coming out of the tunnel at USC, obviously we know if we win that game, we go to the championship. Just the electricity in the stadium and after that game, seeing Coach Kelly getting dumped with the Gatorade bath, know that we were going to the national championship — that was just a great experience,” he said.
Thanks in part to Brown’s consistency as a receiver this season especially — he’s second on the team with 34 catches for 424 total yards, just five grabs and 124 yards short of career bests — the Irish could be in a similar position before they take the field against Stanford on Nov. 28, in contention to compete for a national championship for the second time in four years.
But first, Brown and his fellow seniors will have to run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium and sing the Alma Mater in front of the student section this Saturday for one last time.
When he thinks about that upcoming inevitability, Brown pauses to take a deep breath, and his voice lowers into a soft speech before he slowly breaks out into a smile.
“I feel like it’ll be a moment of great joy but mostly just being thankful, thankful for the opportunity to play for this great university and represent this school and play for this team,” he said.
Kelly said Sept. 29 that when his staff was recruiting him, Brown “really wanted to be at Notre Dame,” and how that desire translated into the strong work ethic the receiver has carried with him since day one, an idea the Hanahan, South Carolina, native shared.
“Not being really recruited out of high school — I got a couple teams that were recruiting me and stuff — but I really felt like Notre Dame gave me the opportunity to compete because that’s one of the biggest things I try to bring every day, and they weren’t saying, ‘You’re gonna play this, you’re gonna play that,’” Brown said. “They were like, ‘We’re gonna give you a chance to come here, get a great education, get better and compete,’ so that’s about as real as it can get.”
He was able to compete right away, appearing in the 2012 season opener against Navy, but his first catch came at as opportune a moment as a first-year player could hope for. The Irish were on the road against Oklahoma in late October with their undefeated season on the line, and the game was tied at 13 in the fourth quarter.
Brown didn’t have a single reception to his name at that point, but quarterback Everett Golson found him deep for a 50-yard gain that set up the game-winning touchdown five plays later.
“I’ve had some pretty good catches, but I always tell people when they ask me about it that the only thing I can remember from that is coming to the sideline and [tight end Tyler] Eifert being on my left, and him saying, ‘That was a big catch. You know that, right?’ And I looked at him, and it was kinda like, ‘Yeah, I guess so,’ and I’m thinking in my head, ‘Thank God I caught it,’” he said. “That’s one thing I can remember from it.”
Though he already had seven games under his belt at that point, Brown admitted that at that time, “I was extremely clueless. I’m like, ‘I just caught a bomb, so I’m pretty excited about that, but I’m just waiting until that next opportunity comes.’”
It took a while before that next opportunity came and even longer before the receiver found himself in the end zone, but that happened the next season against Air Force, a game Brown said will always stick out in his mind when he looks back on his Notre Dame career.
By the time his second season was over, Brown found himself in a new position as the most veteran player in receivers’ meetings. That’s when he said he realized it was his time to step into the role of the group’s leader, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I’d say it was I guess the beginning of my junior year,” he said. “I was the oldest guy in the room as a junior, so I had a bunch of really talented receivers in there, and I figured, if I step up and lead us in a good direction, we’ll become collectively a whole as a unit, and we’ll be unstoppable.”
But the role was one Brown had to grow into through his first two seasons. While he struggled at times on the field, especially in the stretch between the Oklahoma game his freshman year and Air Force the following season, he relied on hard work to better his own game each time he took the field, and the confidence to lead came with it.
“Just knowing that I’m taking care of my business and coming to work every single day really allowed myself to feel comfortable enough speaking out and speaking to younger guys and letting them know that, ‘This is the right way you should do it,’” he said of his growth on the team. “From guys from the past, Tyler Eifert, [receiver] T.J. Jones, just seeing how they took care of business and their things and did everything the right way, and that gives you a little bit of authority to tell people, ‘This is how we should do it,’ and that’s the standard that, when you’re a senior, you try to leave, so that way the juniors, they pick that up, and the momentum carries it on.”
Alongside former teammates Eifert and Jones, Brown credited the professors in Notre Dame’s Africana studies department as people who have helped him grow into a more vocal role in the classroom, which he said has translated to the field. He said that reason was ultimately why he chose Africana studies as his major.
“Just great teachers, teachers that — and this can be attributed to Notre Dame and the way they hire teachers — teachers that really challenge me, teachers that made me feel comfortable expressing my opinions because I’m not the most talkative person when it comes to being in the classroom and stuff, but they really, not force me, but they really challenge me to get my voice out, and it made me feel really comfortable with them, and I’ve been blessed to have them throughout my process,” he said.
After Brown wraps up his final season in an Irish uniform and crosses the stage to receive his Notre Dame diploma, he said, “Hopefully, I have the opportunity to take my talents to the next level and just continue to pursue my dream.”
It’s a little more of an unknown of what he will do once his football career comes to a close, though, he said.
“But I definitely want to work into a position where I can help kids in that seventh-to-eighth grade area where a lot of kids go astray if they don’t have the right kind of guidance system,” he said. “I saw guys that were just as talented as me in South Carolina go down the wrong path, just not having the right guidance, and I feel like that’s where a lot of kids can use extra guidance, almost like a big brother program.”
But there are still more immediate things Brown has to attend to first before he can continue his leadership role in new capacities.
“The last time I run out of the tunnel — a lot of emotions … but a lot of good emotions, but at the end of the day, it’s about that win,” he said. “That’ll make it a sealed Senior Day.”