Family Jewels

After handling pressure and doubt, Keith Browner carries on his family tradition.

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David Herschorn/Photo



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Some might say that Keith Browner, Jr., he of the famed NFL Browner clan, was born to play football. He should have wobbled out onto the field in diapers, should have strapped on miniature cleats instead of baby booties, should have been listening to Madden instead of Mozart.

But Keith Browner, Jr., who can now be found starting next to Pac-10 tackles leader Mike Mohamed, almost left the game he had dreamed about his whole life.

It's only natural that he would take to the sport. Having three uncles - Ross, Jim and Joey - and a father who shares your name all carve out NFL careers tends to set you up for high expectations.

One of the earliest seeds of that dream was planted when Browner was around 5 or 6 years old. He's a solid 6-foot-6, 250 pounds now, but he was small enough back then to be picked up out of the stands and carried through the tunnel.

His father had finished playing a game - it was about 17 years ago, so forgive him if he can't remember which teams played - and afterwards, took young Keith into the locker room with him.

"I was just standing next to my dad, just still," Browner says. "I was kind of afraid of the guys because they were really big. I just stayed in position, got me some pizza and some soda and I was pretty happy after that."

Since those formulative days, he's shot for the NFL, to be just like his father. ("Or at least better," he says.) Others expected him to be too.

"Oh my gosh. Every since Pop Warner, since everybody knows the name," he says. "They expected me to do everything as far as tackling and all kind of things that have to do with football. They expected me to know everything from the jump."

He hasn't lived up to the family line, not yet, but he'll be on the field for the season-opening defensive snap against UC Davis. It's no small step - he had doubts about his entire career just two years ago.

The senior outside linebacker had surgery on both shoulders his first year in Berkeley; he redshirted. The next season, he was buried on the depth chart, his 43 seconds of action coming in garbage time against Louisiana Tech.

The waiting? That he could handle. But then his sophomore season came, and he was still being juggled between defensive end and linebacker. Coaches drilled him for mistakes. He had just eight tackles in 13 games.

Browner became frustrated and depressed. Sometimes the spells lasted for hours, sometimes weeks. He thought about quitting.

"'Do I really want to do this?'" he recalls asking himself. "'What would I do without this? What plan do I have afterwards?'

"I had my uncles' jerseys and my dad's pictures of football up on my wall in my bedroom. I started looking at those, and I'm just like, 'What am I doing? I still gotta follow my dream' I told myself this when I was young, so I can't back out now."

His genetic gifts kicked in the summer before he started high school, as he shot up from 5-foot-5 to 6-feet. Thinner back then, the coaches put him at defensive end, tight end and wide receiver.

Dorsey High is just a 10-minute drive away from USC. Half of the preceding Browner generation's NFL quartet, including his father, were Trojan standouts. The other half opted for Notre Dame.

He was a Browner, so the talk got tiring right away. It was always, "Oh, you're going to Notre Dame," or "You're born to be a Trojan."

Nearly every team in the Pac-10 had been looking at him, not to mention programs such as Oklahoma, Texas and Miami.

He picked Cal.

"It was a little surprising," the elder Browner says. "But I was happy because he went to Cal because of academics and to start his own little identity. Don't follow your uncles or anything like that."

When Keith finally came to Berkeley, he still had some convincing to do. He had used the two-point stance along the D-line in high school, so linebacker was where he felt most natural, most at home.

"It was like 'Okay, I can do some things at linebacker,'" he says. "'I could beast out at linebacker.' I kept on having a good relationship with the coach, kept on going in his ear."

It paid off, eventually. He dropped around 20 pounds, down from 270, making him quick enough to impress the staff.

"One time, we were out here doing championship condition, which is change-direction drills we do at 6:30 in the morning in spring," linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson says. "He was running with the linebackers ... That was the first time I thought, 'He may be able to do this.'"

True freshman Dave Wilkerson challenged him for the starting spot this fall, but the latest product of a dynasty won out. And after the hardest camp of his career, he'll finally be able to proudly look up in the stands at his father, who now lives in Stockton, Calif., and makes it to every game.

Browner's family is still giving him some guidance. They've called or emailed him with tips on his technique after every game he plays. There are a few pieces of advice he hasn't implemented, though: the pressure points one uncle told him to target, and the dirty moves passed down by his dad. ("Some of the things he said were pretty brutal.")

Can he imagine not playing football today? No, he spits out quickly, not even a half-second of hesitation. There's no sign of the self-doubt anymore.

"When you do something for a long time and you have to stop - I still see it with my dad," he says. "You still have the feeling and the flashbacks. You want that rush ... When we have two to three weeks off of football and I have time to myself, I'm just like, 'Dang.'

"Sometimes, I wake up thinking I'm late to practice or something. Damn."

Tags: KEITH BRONWER, CAL FOOTBALL


Jack Wang covers football. Contact him at [email protected]



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