PREP FOOTBALL: FINAL RIDE AT CHS
Jaylen Brown was almost taken aback, it had been a while since he ran out of the tunnel with his teammates at Tiger Stadium. It's no surprise he was the first one out before last week's spring game, a feeling the rising senior deeply missed after an injury kept him sidelined last season. This isn't merely about a player ready to soak up his last season at Columbia. It's about a relentless linebacker who's fighting for a football scholarship, with the weight of his five-month-old son on his shoulders.
He actually has one college offer (Alabama A&M) at the moment – grateful for that one, yet he hopes to add more schools to that list this year. A torn labrum in last year's season opener sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign, leaving one to wonder what his outside interest would be had the crucial injury not occurred.
But Brown remains patient, never bitter, calmly working on his craft while other teammates enjoy the adulation from college coaches. He enters his final high school football season buckled down, ready to do everything possible to secure the right scholarship. Not just any, but the best one for him and his family.
"I'm just trying to get out of Lake City," he said.
It didn't long for Brown's impact to be felt on the varsity level, showing flashes of potential as early as his freshman season. He exploded onto the scene his first season in the program, piling up over 100 tackles. Inserted into a larger role his sophomore year, Brown rose to the occasion, finishing the season second on the team in
tackles (100). With his recruitment heating up and whispers of a scholarship, he was poised for an impressive junior campaign – well, at least until adversity hit.
It wasn't the only obstacle Brown would be met with last year, becoming a father before the end of his junior year of high school. He's had to grow up fast – quicker than his peers could imagine – needing no extra motivation now to do well and excel in the classroom.
"It changed my life," he said of his infant son, Jayden. "It changed my perspective on everything. I just want to do more for my son. I want him to have somebody to look up to."
The soon-to-be-senior, who works part-time at Winn-Dixie, has a newfound awareness and responsibility. Just as he did on the field, he's now rising to the occasion off of it, as he balances an uneasy trifecta of duties between being a student-athlete, son and father.
"With conversations last year, we try to tag something as the motto each year, and it was your 'why'," Columbia coach Brian Allen said. "'Why do you play this game? What makes you come here everyday and lift weights? What makes you come out here in 110 degree heat during the summer? What makes you come everyday?' Everybody has a why; it may be a loved one that was very close to you that passed away or it may be a child that you had, wither you wanted it to happen or before you wanted it to happen, that you have a reason for playing. I think with the birth of his son, he just discovered what his 'why' is. He has a purpose now of why he's doing this, and that purpose is to get a free education to an university and graduate with a degree, which will give him the ability to be a provider as a father."
The instinctive outside linebacker is determined to make all that happen and cement his legacy at Columbia in the process. A lot has changed in Brown's life since he went down with an apparent shoulder injury in Gainesville last year. But now he's back, like he never left, to the delight of teammates and coaches alike.
"It feels really good because I've played with him since little league, just knowing he's back by my side again," middle linebacker Ethan Umstead said. "No offense to Marlon (Pollock), he's a great player too. But (Brown) coming in his freshman on varsity, and he's stepping up now this year, too. (Stopping) the run is a lot easier."
Umstead anchored Columbia's linebacking corps in Brown's absence last season.
The two dynamic linebackers are back in action together, wreaking havoc once again in the center of Columbia's formidable defense. Last week's victory over the reigning 7A state runner-up Bartram Trail was just the beginning, they say.
"It's going to be a big year," Brown said. "I feel we can do something really special. Coach Allen has been talking about this for a while now, since we were freshmen. I just feel like we got to do something special."
For Brown, there aren’t many better feelings than sharing the field with his brothers. This was evident before last week's spring game as he stormed out of the locker room – trotting onto the field with his beloved Columbia teammates trailing close behind.
Allen, who suffered injuries in his own football career, knows the feeling too well.
"Until you've had to sit out for a complete year and watch from the sidelines, you'll never understand that when you're back on field it's the biggest sign of relief. It's the biggest emotional high, because you had to watch… So for him to get back on the field, I am sure he was more than elated to be back with his guys again."