Dec. 15, 2015
By Todd Burlage
Ask University of Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Brown a simple question about the fortunate timing of the football off weekend falling on Oct. 24, and the Irish senior bordered on giddy with his response.
“Getting back home? Perfect, this will be amazing!” the Irish senior receiver said last month in anticipation of his first trip back to Hanahan, South Carolina, since the Irish football season hit full speed late this summer.
To better explain his excitement: All the way back to grade school, Brown has been an all-everything athlete, that part came easily and naturally. But what most separates him, as a young man is that Brown will forever put team goals, friendships and allegiances ahead of any individual pursuits.
So, when Brown realized his fall break from classes and an off weekend from football lined up neatly with an important event back home, the perfect timing provided not only a visit with family and friends but also a reunion and celebration with David Pratt, the high school coach that Brown calls “the most important mentor in my life.”
“Coach Pratt made me believe that I can move mountains,” Brown says. “And I really believe in my heart that any success I have had in my life is because of the way he showed me how proud he was of who I am and the successes I enjoyed. I owe everything to Coach Pratt.”
And the admiration is mutual.
While Brown thanks Pratt for helping to mold him into a great athlete and a young man of high character, Pratt credits Brown’s leadership and contagious enthusiasm as becoming the foundation to the success of the Hanahan High School track program.
“Chris has charisma about him. You just kind of gravitate toward him,” Pratt says. “The students who didn’t play sports felt that way about him, and the teachers and the administrators did also. He is like a rock star at our school because he just has that personality, he accepts and appreciates everybody. I have never really seen him have many bad days.”
This mutual appreciation between a coach and a player – a mentor and an understudy – was on emotional display on Oct. 23, under the Friday night lights at the high school, during halftime of Hanahan’s game when Brown helped to present Pratt with the 2015 South Carolina Coach of the Year award from the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
Brown also stood that night beside Pratt when the announcement was made that Pratt was resigning after a 30-year career as a high school track coach that included eight South Carolina state championships, three at Hanahan after Brown joined the program.
“Having Chris there [for the presentation] is what made that night so special, that meant the world to me,” Pratt says. “Because he’s the main reason that we’ve been successful here at Hanahan. Chris got the thing going by getting people out and then making all of them better. He’s just a great young man and he’s really grown into that. I never doubted he wouldn’t but it makes you feel good when the guys are able to come back and you can see how they’ve grown up.”
Revisiting Brown’s athletic career at Hanahan under Pratt, and many of the other fine coaches at the school, helps to illustrate a mentor’s appreciation and an athlete’s admiration.
After being persuaded by Pratt to give track a try, Brown showed natural talent and steady improvement through his freshman and sophomore years before becoming the best track athlete in the state and one of the best in the country during his junior and senior seasons.
As a junior, Brown led his team to the state track and field championship, winning the triple jump in a state meet record (51-1/2), winning the long jump (23-9), and finishing second in the 200-meter dash (21.9 seconds), while also competing as a member of the state champion 400-meter relay team.
Brown followed his track success as a junior in the spring of 2011 with a stellar senior football season in the fall of 2012, which earned him a scholarship to Notre Dame.
“Chris would have been great at track [in college], but I felt all along that football was in his heart,” Pratt says. “I was hoping he would run track at Notre Dame because I know how great he is and I wanted everybody else to see that. I just think Chris had a vision. He wanted to participate in athletics, he wanted to excel in football.”
And given football always was Brown’s first passion, Pratt took it upon himself to add sprinting to his star’s busy track itinerary for his senior spring track season, and needless to say, Brown was a quick study.
As a senior, Brown scored his second state championship in the triple jump (49-5), and added second-place finishes in the 100 (10.81), the 200 (21.6), and the high jump (6-6).
Remarkably, Brown scored 34 individual points as a senior at the 2012 state championships, a score that would’ve been good enough to finish seventh in the meet all by himself. His Hanahan squad placed second that season.
Brown finished his track career having competed in six different events at the state meet, and set five Hanahan school track records along the way, four of which still stand: 100-meter dash (10.5); high jump (6-10); long jump (23-9); and triple jump (51-1). Brown’s triple-jump school record was the best mark of any high school athlete in the country that season.
“I think Chris Brown is the best track athlete to come out of South Carolina, ever. And there have been some great athletes come from this state,” says Pratt, who was a coach on the Woodruff High School team in Woodruff, S.C., that featured former Irish quarterback Tony Rice.
In fact, Brown became such a talented dual-sport star at Hanahan, his football scholarship offer to Notre Dame was accompanied by a full track scholarship offer to Alabama. That scholarship would have provided Brown a chance to work under the legendary Dick Booth, the esteemed jump coach who helped make Mike Conley, Sr., a triple-jump gold medalist at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, and Christian Taylor a two-time world champion and the gold medalist in the triple jump at the 2012 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
But filled with a passion for football, a love of team sports, and a loyalty to his high school coach, Brown surprisingly set track aside and put all of his efforts into one endeavor at Notre Dame, a decision he admits was relatively easy.
“People kept telling me to do it,” Brown says of any track temptation. “But once I got to Notre Dame, I wanted to focus on football because I just didn’t have that love of track without the person that inspired me to do it in the first place.”
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Leader, reliable, talented, steady, vital – those are just a few of the answers you get when Notre Dame teammates and coaches are asked how to define Brown as a person and a player.
With teammates such as T.J. Jones and Will Fuller grabbing many of the headlines within Notre Dame’s talented wide receiver group over the past four seasons, Brown’s on-field performance always has been solid yet often overshadowed, while his contributions and importance shouldn’t be.
Brown has played in every game since his arrival at Notre Dame and his work, example and dependability aren’t lost on the Irish coaches.
In today’s high-tech game of college football, all of the Irish players are equipped with a GPS device during practice to help measure performance and to take any guesswork out of evaluating a player’s daily effort.
“And his output is unmatched in terms of how hard he works every single day,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly says of Brown’s practice patterns. “We have to actually talk to him about his force production.
Sometimes, you need a day off, because his work ethic, and the way he comes to practice, and how hard he works all day, is unmatched.”
The tireless effort is what has allowed Brown to steadily improve every year since he arrived at Notre Dame as a wide-eyed and insecure freshman in 2012.
“Every off-season, I just wanted to get better at one thing,” Brown says.
And not surprisingly, Brown says that by having a plan that structurally segmented off-season workouts, he’s become the player he wanted to be, and any of the leadership benefits he has brought to the team along the way came out of his personal improvement as he emotionally plays this afternoon his last game at Notre Dame Stadium.
“After my freshman year, I was playing early but I was playing unsure so I worked that offseason to be more confident,” Brown explains. “The next offseason I worked on running better routes, and this past offseason I worked on quickness and burst. Every offseason, I have so many places I can continue to get better and continue to improve.”
NFL dreams remain intact for Chris Brown. And with good size at 6-1 and 195 pounds, to go along with strong hands, steely determination, quick smarts and elite speed, why wouldn’t he chase them?
But with a Notre Dame degree in hand and a desire to mentor teenagers in the same way Coach Pratt guided him at Hanahan High, wherever Brown finds himself five years from now will be equally satisfying for an Irish student-athlete that embodies everything this University stands for.
“I just wanted an opportunity when I came to Notre Dame, I never wanted to be guaranteed anything, that’s not me,” says Brown, who wasn’t fully ready to reflect on his career and time here until he graduates in May with a degree in Africana Studies from the College of Arts and Letters and moves on. “What I got was an experience that taught me how to be a man. It taught me how to be independent and take care of my business. It taught me how to give back.”