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ESPN The Magazine: Buff Enuff
ESPN The Magazine

Living in the trenches, a world of grunts and oomphs, Colorado offensive tackle Victor Rogers never gets to see a play develop. As is the case with most of his Big Ugly brethren, games unfold through Rogers’ ear holes. Once the ball is snapped, Rogers hears the muffled crunch of bodies hitting bodies followed by the pitter-patter of some scatback, slasher or soft-shoe dancer.

This August, though, during the Buffs’ first scrimmage, Rogers heard something different after those initial crunches. The squad’s fourth-team tailback had taken a deep handoff, picked a hole and CRACK-K-K! The sound -- something like a cinder block dropped on a carton of eggs -- echoed across the field. Colorado Buffaloes, meet Chris Brown, your new running back. “You hear an explosion when he hits in there,” says Rogers. “When Chris gets those shoulders square, there’s going to be a lot of poppin’.”

Brown is a gate-crasher. The term not only describes how the sophomore banged his way into the starting backfield, it also fits his running style -- upright, decisive and powerful. In a deep stable of thoroughbred tailbacks, Brown is the plow horse. His brute force complements CU’s cutback runners: Cortlen Johnson, Bobby Purify and Marcus Houston. The quartet, which RB coach Eric Bieniemy has dubbed the Four Horsemen, has led the Buffs to 229 rushing yards per game (eighth best in the nation) and a whopping 286-yard average in their last three games, all wins over bowl-bound teams.

Brown really separated himself from the herd in Colorado’s 62-36 rout of Nebraska on Nov. 23. Behind a dominant O-line, Brown mauled Nebraska’s vaunted Blackshirt defense for 198 yards and a school-record 6 TDs. And nearly all the damage came on a play the Buffs didn’t even put into the playbook until the week of their 41-7 drubbing by Texas on Oct. 20. “That’s the money-maker, 98G,” says Brown.

Colorado knew it had hit the jackpot after the Nebraska rout. Few players fit a system, never mind a play, better than Brown does 98G. Colorado runs it to the strong side, where the 6'7", 320-pound Rogers seals off the inside while guard Andre Gurode, a 6'4", 320-pound roadgrader, pulls outside. They clear a path for fullback Brandon Drumm to escort Brown downfield. By the time the 6'3", 230-pound tailback hits the line of scrimmage, he has enough steam to knock down a brick wall, never mind the likely solitary safety remaining. The best part about 98G that day, Buffs linemen say, was that the Huskers were expecting it and could do nothing about it. “They didn’t want any part of Chris,” says Rogers. “After a while they tried to rodeo him. You know, just jump on his back and go for a ride instead of sticking their helmet in there and delivering a good hit.” A week later, in a rematch with Texas for the Big 12 title, Brown rode 98G for 182 yards and another 3 TDs in a 39-37 CU win.

Nine touchdowns against a pair of Top-5 teams has made Brown the toast of Boulder. But talk of his transcendence has been muted by allegations of his teammates’ transgressions. On Dec. 13, the day CU began preparations for a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl matchup with Oregon, published reports told of CU players being investigated for rape. Barnett and his players closed ranks. Barnett says no suspensions will be handed down unless charges are filed. And team members say the investigation, which involves several players and recruits who attended an off-campus party on Dec. 7, won’t be a distraction. Neither will the drama surrounding the BCS mess, much of which CU caused when it slammed Nebraska and Texas.

Still, for all of Brown’s heroics in the past month, few of his teammates know much about him. Just that he has this perpetual grin on his face, like he’s living in a dream -- or at least reliving the Nebraska game. He wears that same expression whether he’s lifting weights, sitting in film sessions, getting taped up or even strolling off to class in the freeze-your-face-off cold of Boulder.

Maybe his teammates would understand Brown’s smile if they knew that his road to stardom hasn’t been nearly as direct as 98G. Five years ago, Barnett recruited Brown, a 10.9 sprinter from Naperville, Ill., when the coach was at Northwestern. Brown has known Barnett since he was 12, because Brown’s older brother Levelle was NU’s fullback from 1995-98. But the younger Brown never got the chance to play for Barnett because the coach took the Colorado job in January of 1999.

In his first camp at Northwestern, Brown showed the Cats’ new coach, Randy Walker, enough to rise to second on the depth chart behind sophomore starter Damien Anderson. But Walker still asked Brown to redshirt so there’d be some eligibility distance between the two backs. Brown consented, but the young running back immediately felt like he wasn’t part of the team. A few weeks later, while working on the scout team, he ruptured two disks in his back and underwent surgery.

He was back for spring ball, but the coach then told Brown he was being switched to wide receiver. It was a curious move, Brown thought, especially since he’s the first to admit he doesn’t have the surest pair of hands. Brown tried receiver anyway but hated it. Bewildered and lost, he phoned his dad, Levelle Brown Sr., in the middle of spring practice. “I’m through with football,” the 18-year-old said. “If I never play another game, so what? At least I’m away from the headache.”

Levelle Sr. couldn’t believe his ears. He had reworked his schedule as a factory supervisor to attend every one of his son’s games since Chris was 5. And now he was quitting? “Do you love the game?” he asked. “Yes,” said Chris. “But I really don’t want to play the game right now. They’ve made me hate it.”

Chris left Northwestern and headed home, but his father wasn’t ready to let his boy give up. “If you don’t get a football scholarship,” he told Chris, “I can’t send you to college.” Chris quietly sat around the house for a month. For the first time in his life, the smile was gone. “My dad really put the weight on me,” he says.

What Brown didn’t know was that his dad was working the phones, calling the schools that had pursued Chris a year earlier. Michigan State and Boston College, Brown’s other two finalists, didn’t have much interest. But Gary Barnett, now at Colorado, did. Trouble was, Barnett had no scholarships available. He told the Browns about Fort Scott CC in Kansas, from where he had just signed QB Bobby Pesavento.

During his one season at Fort Scott, Brown rushed for 1,284 yards and 13 TDs while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. When recruiters suddenly started showing up again, Brown told them he wasn’t interested in any school but Colorado. Even though the Buffs returned Houston, Purify and Johnson -- all capable of being No. 1 backs -- Brown saw opportunity in Boulder. CU’s incumbent trio had produced only 122 rushing yards per game while the Buffs were going 3-8 in 2000.

Brown arrived in Boulder this past summer with little fanfare. “He looked pretty big and clumsy,” says Purify. “I thought he was a fullback.” Everyone else around CU was thinking linebacker or tight end. Barnett, who had last seen Brown two years earlier, when he was 30 pounds lighter, admits linebacker was what he thought when the jacked-up tailback reported. But he knew how badly Brown wanted to carry the ball, and after that first scrimmage, so did his new teammates. “He’s the biggest back I’ve ever seen,” says Rogers. “After those scrimmages, we knew we had something special.”

Brown is an aberration in the Big 12, where he’s the only rusher in the top 10 taller than six feet. His height lets him see more than the sawed-off pinballs who bounce in and out of traffic, hiding behind towering linemen. “Being tall helps me as a running back,” Brown says. “I can see over blockers and see the linebackers, how fast they’re flowing, so I get to see where the cutback lane is.”

Not that Brown needs to cut back often. He’s all downhill, just the way CU likes it. “Chris fits this offensive line really well,” says center Wayne Lucier. “He makes us look good.” Brown’s hard-nosed approach, Bieniemy says, helps the Buffaloes establish their attitude of physical football. Barnett, in fact, is so hungry to reinforce that spirit, he has plastered a sign on the locker-room door that is the last thing his team sees before storming the field: “CU Punish.”

The Buffs know exactly what punishment they’ll be dishing out on Jan. 1 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. And they don’t care if Oregon knows, too. Chris Brown and 98G are coming right at them. “When you know something’s coming and you can’t stop it,” says Brown, “that’s when you quit.”

Just like Nebraska did.

This article appears in the January 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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