Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Brown engineers stellar career

DeRon Brown had options.

Several Ivy League schools were after him. The opportunity to walk on at a Division I school was there.

But as the Grayson County High School athlete sorted through all the college choices, he stopped looking once he found Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"That's the school for me," he thought.

Was it ever.

Several years later, not only has Brown gotten a world-class education in computer science and engineering, but he's also emerged as one of the top football players in Division III. The senior from Galax entered the weekend as Division III's leading rusher at 170 yards per game, although he will drop to No. 2 in this week's NCAA statistics after gaining only 3 yards on nine carries in the final game of his career Saturday at Endicott College. He was sidelined with a possible concussion in the first quarter.

Still, he finished the season with 1,363 yards in nine games.

Not bad for a guy whose next stop might be working for Google.

"I thought I was going to be a pretty good player, but I didn't really see myself being this successful," Brown said Wednesday.

"It's just been an amazing experience."

In more ways than one.

Adjusting to Cambridge

Brown excelled in football and baseball at Grayson County. He loved both sports, but they never ranked as his top priority.

"My parents taught me that academics comes first, and then sports," Brown said. "My dad, he was a great football player in high school. He taught me everything I know about football, how to run the ball."

So when he found out MIT also had a football team, Brown was sold. He contacted former coach Dwight Smith, essentially recruiting himself to the school.

The Grayson County salutatorian in 2006, Brown ranks getting accepted to MIT as one of the most exciting moments of his life. He decided to play both baseball and football there but dropped the bat after his sophomore year because of a lack of time.

The demands of football, though, actually eased his transition to the rigorous school. He'd go to class in the morning, work on his studies until 5 p.m., practice for two hours, and then do more schoolwork before going to bed.

"You really have to make sure you stay focused and do your work and talk to professors, things like that," Brown said. "It was a big adjustment from the workload in high school, but if you can get into MIT, then you can definitely do the work."

Gridiron success

As a junior last season, Brown's football career exploded. He rushed for more than 100 yards in every game, including three 200-yard performances. He finished the regular season as the top-ranked rusher in Division III with a 181.6 average, but he had to settle for second when Mount Union's Nate Kmic passed him with a series of prolific outings in the playoffs.

Still, Brown wound up with a school-record 1,816 yards and 22 touchdowns.

"He's a little bit of everything," MIT coach Chad Martinovich said. "He has the speed to put it into fifth gear and run away from people or make them miss, but at the same time, he's not afraid to put his shoulder down and get the tough yard or try to run somebody over.

"He's as good between the tackles as he is on the perimeter. He catches the ball well, too. From that standpoint, he's the complete package, especially at this level."

The Engineers lost two of their top offensive linemen to injuries early this season, but Brown kept right on churning. He ran for a career-high 267 yards against Massachusetts-Dartmouth on Oct. 3, then shredded Salve Regina for 246 in his final home game two weeks ago.

"Every game is not about going out and making sure I keep my lead," said the 5-foot-8, 185-pound tailback. "I just go out there and play my best so that the team can win. All the stats will take care of themselves."

As will his future.

The next level

Brown's success on the field has prompted conversations with his coach about trying to play professionally. Now that the season is over -- the Engineers finished 1-8 with their loss Saturday -- he'll begin a workout program designed to increase his chances of impressing scouts. He hopes to attend pro days at Boston College and Harvard in the coming months, looking for a shot at an NFL practice squad.

"I came here to be an engineer, so that's probably what I'll be doing next year," he said. "But if the opportunity is there to play at the next level, I'll definitely take it. I don't want to be years down the road thinking, 'What if I did this? What if I did that?' So I'm definitely going to take that on as hard as I can."

Few athletes have a better fall-back plan than Brown. Set to graduate on June 4, he already has interviewed with Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

"He's going to be successful at anything he sets his mind to in this world," Martinovich said. "He's one of those kids. I've coached at probably six different colleges and universities, and he would have fit into any of them. It's not just at MIT. State schools or high-end academic schools, too.

"He has one of those personalities where he would rise to the top and kids would rally around him. I'll have to go down there to Galax and see if there's any more guys like him floating around."

Brown has been invited to the inaugural Division III Senior Football Classic, an all-star game scheduled for Dec. 5 at Salem Stadium. That will be a rare chance for his parents, Chris and Kim, to see him play. He always seems to perform better when they're at the game.

Brown said he and his teammates occasionally wonder what would have happened if they'd played smaller roles at bigger schools. But he always comes to the same conclusion that he had when he first discovered MIT: This is the school for me.

"Most of the time, we think, 'Wow, if we'd gone to a D-I school we would have been miserable, because we wouldn't be getting as challenged intellectually,' " Brown said. "It would be a lot different.

"My net gain from going to MIT was going to be much better than if I went to another school."

And if anybody knows net gains, it's Brown.

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