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‘Sideways’? Not Quite: The rise of KB

October 22, 2009

He’s still got time to alter his career path, but Lions’ running back Kevin Brown might have missed his calling.

See, while he’s flown up the rungs of the NJAC’s statistical ladder, now ranked 23rd in rushing—one spot ahead of Sammy Smith, a three-year starter and team captain of his Buffalo State Bengals—there’s no doubt the freshman’s got talent.

But when he’s of age—if he can live with the $500 hourly pay—the 20-year-old might want to look into paying his way as a fine wine sommelier.

You might laugh, if you haven’t seen him work. If you have, you’ve seen just how he savors his every opportunity.

A graduate of Atlantic City high school (Shore Conference; South Jersey Group IV) the 5’9, 185-pound bruiser popped the cork to his promising career, establishing himself as one of the conference’s most efficient rushers—should he choose another, less fruitful path.

He’s only accredited with 11 yards on six carries over the pas two weeks—the team’s win over Brockport two weeks ago before this weekend’s let-down at William Paterson. But when he plummeted into the end zone Saturday, marking his second in as many games, he spackled the deepest gash in the Lions’ offensive attack—its lack of potency within the red-zone.

The first half of 2009 has brought with it the sweet zest of success. But—for both player and his coaches—it’s been an acquired taste to say the least.

Day One on the job—as one of four backs comprising the nation’s once-12th best rushing attack, that is—came early for the rookie, when he debuted his career as a collegiate athlete during the Lions’ season-opener, a 47-31 spilling of wobbly Buffalo State.

The margin hadn’t expanded to the wide-nosed finish that earned his program its season’s first victory, up only 11 when he entered the field with just under three minutes remaining in the half.

Standing in tantalizing proximity to the gridiron that bottlenecked a concentrated aroma of pepper and spice into his nostrils, Brown’s eyes widened. He was ready, he thought, well-trained to read the flowing legs of opposing defenses from two weeks of August training camp.

K. B. didn’t need to wait long for his first sampling.

Offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta put in an order for a stout power-rush on his first play from scrimmage. Robust for certain, but a flavor with which Brown was most familiar—and Acosta was most comfortable.

But Bengals’ linebacker Kam Johnson filled the bowl (or hole), sending his glass—er, football—flying from his hands with an earth-shattering collision that rocked the stadium. Upended and dispossessed of the pigskin, Brown’s employment was temporarily suspended for the remainder of the afternoon, his services no longer in demand.

Entering the bye week jobless and with ample time to dwell on the amateur mistake, Brown’s player card sank downward on the depth chart. His game itself was green, needing time to ferment in an acidic cork barrel—his coaches’ community doghouse.

“The fumble just tells you what he had to deal with coming in,” Lions head coach Eric Hamilton said. “When he left high school he hadn’t played for a while and ran track. Carrying the football is something if you haven’t done it much you’ve kind of got to get used to again, take the hits and those kind of things. He’s getting better every week.”

The agonizingly long 13 days left Brown training restlessly, spending hours on end tasting food and drink at the program’s winery—chardonnays on wine racks replaced by Ivanko bumper plates and Olympic power-lift platforms.

He’d be ready when needed. In fact, he didn’t leave himself any other option.

“I knew I just had keep patient and work hard every practice, waiting for an opportunity,” he said looking back. “I’ve been taking a lot of classes, too which makes it hard. But I knew I just had to keep working, man.”

Gameday finally arrived—for the other aspiring aficionados, not for K.B. Instead, he watched from the bench, taunted by the gaudy statistical outings a number of his teammates posted during the Lions’ 58-28 blowout of non-conference rival Farleigh Dickinson Florham—one of the game’s simplest pleasures. One for which he’d have to wait. Or so he thought.

Yards totals grew, TCNJ skills players pounding liquid yardage in their stomachs like Keystone at a kegger—graciously sponsored, of course, by the Devils’ traveling expense allowance. This ain’t that bad, he must have thought, while his teammates downed 708 record-breaking yards. Against this upfront Cover-4 defense? Please.

Organized competition dissolved by the start of fourth-quarter, its chaotic replacement on display while Lions gorged themselves toward a gluttonous 51-21 lead.

To the rest of the team, full-bellied and drunken, the tasting party’s closing 15 minutes was meaningless—a formality whose ending was mutually longed for by players on both teams, for differing reasons. But for Brown, salivating at the ostensible color of redemption, retribution for aggravating every coach’s least forgiving taste bud (coughing up the football) the Dickinson game could redirect the course of his season.

A brief skim over the box score wouldn’t reflect a whole lot of change when the final horn sounded. Seven points, a few extra yards and a godsend in its conclusion—a benign 11-yard completion from backup FDU quarterback Matt Jeffers to wide receiver Andrew Molitoris (who spends his off-season driving Titlists with the Devils’ golf team).

The welcomed opportunity during that a non-conference rout represented validation for everything he’d been working toward. And he did it with discipline, tolerance, but most of all—indelible raw talent.

Brown navigated the line of scrimmage like a bona fide connoisseur, relishing each of his evening’s seven glasses to its fullest while appreciating each drop of his 12.2-yard average. He conducted his business with patience, passing on blowzy lanes to wait for smoother, creamier options that illuminated the route his route toward his evening’s 86 yards.

He could have had more. But 34 yards into the first touchdown of his NCAA career, he stood alone in the end zone—looking through the bottom of his empty glass.

But he’d need to save himself—and his liver.

Brown earned accolades as the NJAC’s Rookie of the Week for his effort. But for his perseverance, he received something much more valuable—a ticket to Napa Valley, CA, earning a gig as the Lions’ goal-line back.

A similar wait ensued, but for drastically different reason. He wasn’t relinquished to the bench for an unforgivable miscue, but times were rough on such a specialized commodity. The economics of his coordinator’s game plan sought to fully utilize the talent on his already on his payroll, irrefutably productive outside of 20 yards.

His three-man corkscrew operation committee had furnished 14 touchdowns, produced 100-yard rushers in two of its first three games, and gashed opposing defenses for carries of 46 and 50 in the opener (Donoloski, Yetka, respectively)—both trumped by Justin Donoloski’s 90-yard dash to the promised land the next.

Otherwise reliable, its on-site performance waned during the Lions’ 28-7 road loss in Union.

Former Kean transfer Chase Misura battled against his previous employer with a vindictive chip planted overtly on, not one, but both of his shoulders, averaging for 5.4 yards on eight carries. But stained by the spillage incurred during two squandered first-half red-zone trips— a botched snap on fourth-and-goal form the one, preceded by a loss on fourth-and-two on the 12 to end the Lions’ opening possession—Brown’s market value soared.

“When you’re struggling like that sometimes it’s nice to have somebody that can run through or over someone because he’s got that kind of power,” Hamilton said. “He’s not the kind of guy you can bring down with an arm tackle—he’s going to run through that.”

His most recent outing, a meek seven yards on his three carries during the team’s 48-34 season-altering win over The College at Brockport, won’t leap from the stat sheet.

Certainly not in a similar fashion as each of Misura’s 133 career-high rushing yards, nor quarterback Chris James’ third 300+ yard game of 2009—thrusting his name in its third of four slot in school history he’ll have at season’s end (owns record for career att., comp., yds; needs 4 TDs for record).

But 16.7% of his afternoon, also overshadowed by Misura’s 51 yards on the same drive and even Brown’s own four-yard carry on first-and-goal from the six, proved a pivotal conquest in a deceptively close finish.

Facing a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, the Lions’ desperately needed to returns on a 98-yard investment, freezing 9:13 of its second quarter. The team responded to Brockport’s game-christening score in the first quarter, posting 10 unanswered of its own. But the venue, painstakingly designed to schmooze an unforgiving NJAC leader board, only supported a six-point margin 7:45 into its final period—collapsed upon a game-tying touchdown.

So earlier, when he received that leather chalice on a crucial carry from within striking distance—blinded by a handkerchief of 300-pound bodies—Brown’s innate sense of sniffing out quality creases in his line’s zone schemes proved a service that the small liberal-arts football enterprise couldn’t function without.

“This is going to be a learning curve for him this season, so hopefully going into the spring and the next year that it’ll catapult him,” Hamilton said of his running back’s hopeful future. “Every week he does a little bit more and a little bit more and that’s just something that has to develop.”

It’s early in his career—both on the turf and in the classroom. But there’s still time for rerouting if he’s willing to venture out toward an industry in which he’s thrived thus far. Some can fake it, Others struggle to foster it, while an unfortunate few will only ever dream of it.

But Brown, oh no, he’s had it all along.

Good taste, that is.

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