He called his father the night he tried to make a downfield cut and his knee buckled during a no-contact practice last August. “Don’t tell your mom,” Clark Brown said to his son, worried sick it might be his anterior cruciate ligament. “Don’t tell your mom until you’re sure.”
The next day, C.J. Brown got his MRI exam results back and about the worst news an elite athlete can hear: torn ACL. Done for the season.
Maryland head athletic trainer Wes Robinson commiserated with the Terrapins quarterback before closing the door to the training room downstairs at Gossett Team House, allowing Brown to have a private moment with his parents over the speakerphone.
“We all broke down,” C.J. Brown said Tuesday afternoon in College Park, less than a week from his return from injury, pain, doubt and everything in between. “They knew I was sad. I was crying. When something is taken away from you that you care so much about . . .”
Clark Brown said: “Remembering those moments are still emotional. Watching that as a parent is just heartbreaking. It’s been a long year. Saturday can’t get here quick enough.”
This is a tale about a read-option quarterback on a Washington area team who blew out his knee last season, one you probably haven’t heard about but really need to. It’s the story of a kid who could run and pass and mentor kids in Louisiana this summer without being kicked out of the Manning Passing Academy.
C.J. Brown doesn’t have a Gatorade-sponsored documentary to chart his comeback. Nor does he have a slogan for his rehab process. But he has football again, and he’s as thankful for that as the most famous young NFL quarterback in the world. RGIII could relate to CJsquared.
“You definitely had the low points, especially in the beginning where you can’t do things for yourself,” said Brown, who shares his full name with his father. “Everyone else is waiting on you. You can’t get water for yourself. You can’t get food for yourself. You’re just being needy. It’s just a bad feeling.
“Then the pain you go through waking up every morning for treatments. It was just like, you know, you question yourself. Do you really want to do this? Can you keep fightin’ through? Your team is out there struggling, and you can’t go out there and help them. It was definitely tough, one of the lower points I’ve had to go through.”
Brown is 21, has been in the Maryland program for four years and participated in graduation ceremonies in College Park in December. His graduating class didn’t know that Brown — health and performance permitting — still has two years remaining on the Maryland football team because of medical redshirt seasons (Brown also missed all but one game of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury).
On Wednesday, he begins graduate work on his master’s degree in supply chain management.
“We always joke with him, ‘You might have your PhD before your eligibility is up,’ ” defensive back Jeremiah Johnson said before C.J. sat down at a cafeteria table in the football training facility.
“I get the old jokes here and there, but I’m not even the oldest on the team, so I don’t know why they’d be comin’ at me like that,” Brown said, laughing.
His on-field highlights can be condensed into one season, 2011, when he played in 10 games and started five. Brown left Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson shaking his head in one game, streaking for a 77-yard touchdown run. The next week, he broke a 61-year-old Maryland quarterback record, rushing for 162 yards in a loss to Clemson.
Brown has more weapons since he went down, including Stefon Diggs, one of the nation’s premier wide receivers. He knows he has to show people he can also throw the ball effectively (in 2011, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, with seven touchdown passes against six interceptions).
“It motivates me because I know that’s not what I am,” he said of the running-quarterback stereotype. “I’m an athlete. I’m an athletic quarterback that can run and pass. But when it comes down to it, people are going to say what they’re going to say. There’s nothing I can do. You know, quarterbacks have to pass. That’s why you play quarterback instead of running back or receiver. At the end of the day, I’m just going to go out there and lead my team.”
There are few prouder fathers in American college football today than Clark David Brown Sr. He was there the day everyone met before the surgery, when he told his son: “This injury isn’t going to define you. You can’t allow it to define you. What will define your legacy is how you respond to this adversity.”
“I don’t think his mother and I could be prouder of him,” Clark says. “Just the work ethic he put in. And hats off to the staff at Maryland. I think that’s important to mention. They gave him the attention and treatment and encouragement he needed to bring him back.”
Before the injury, C.J. Brown could do a 360-degree dunk in a standing position. He doesn’t plan to try anything of the sort until he finishes football. And he does have a little trepidation of not actually being hit in a regular season game since November 2011.
But he’s coming out of that tunnel Saturday with his teammates against Florida International, and nothing will take the place of that feeling.
“You know, my family was there for me, my teammates were there for me, everyone,” Brown says. “It was just the little things that kind of put a pep in your step that I’m very thankful for. Like a teammate would say, ‘Hey, man, glad to have you back.’ It seems like something small, but it meant so much to me to hear that.”
C.J. Brown smiles wide, pauses and thinks about what this weekend will be like.
“I took a whole year, but I’m back,” he says. “I’m ready for Saturday.”
For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.