TAMPA — To observers, the toughness Byrum Brown exuded in the biggest high school game of his life was off the charts.
And unfortunately for him, off the grid.
Maybe, just maybe, the heart he brandished in that Class 4AA state semifinal would have been more widely noticed had the game been staged in late November instead of late April. But the global pandemic had pushed North Carolina’s 2020 prep football season — Brown’s critical junior year — into the spring of 2021.
By then, college athletes had been granted an extra year of eligibility (a “COVID year”), reducing the number of scholarships available for prep prospects. Moreover, rising juniors such as Brown hadn’t been afforded the chance to visit colleges at any point in 2020, or put together a game tape resume that fall. The makeshift spring season represented the only chance to salvage any recruiting stock.
Such is how Byrum Carrington Brown came to deliver the first of his burgeoning collection of fall classics on April 30, 2021.
The second-year quarterback for Rolesville High, Brown sustained a hip injury in the second quarter of the semifinal against rival Wake Forest. His parents, Drew and Nicole, were summoned. So was Brown’s inner resolve to keep playing.
“He was out for a while,” his dad recalled. “Then finally we talked to the doctor and he said it’s just a pain tolerance, nothing structural. So he went out there and literally hopped around on one leg to finish the game.”
In essence, Byrum Brown became Byron Leftwich, whose valiant performance (with a broken tibia) for Marshall in a 2002 game against Akron became viral. Operating on his lone healthy hip, Brown was able to plant his foot and throw, and hobble just nimbly enough to elude pressure. After big gains, teammates would tote him to the line of scrimmage. After a short gain, he’d hop.
“That 100% happened, to the point where I was like, ‘Are we getting him off the field?’ ” said Richard Shoop, Rolesville’s then-offensive coordinator. “I was up in the box and he was saying, ‘I’m not coming off the field.’ I didn’t think there was any way the kid could keep going, and he did.”
In the end, Brown willed and winced his team to a 24-21 double-overtime victory. The Rams fell in the state final, but a three-star prospect had delivered five stars worth of fortitude.
Less than three months later, Brown pledged to USF, choosing the Bulls over Miami of Ohio, North Carolina A&T and Appalachian State.
“He made some key passes and everything that were just crazy, and (he was) moving and scrambling,” Shoop said. “He still was able to scramble, and then basically he’d pass the ball down and (teammates) would kind of help him get up and go. So he could do enough to get it done. It was crazy to watch.”
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Roughly 2½ years later, after Brown totaled 326 yards, three touchdowns and an assortment of welts and wallops in a season-opening defeat at Western Kentucky, USF coach Alex Golesh hailed his then-18-year-old starter as a “tough a-- dude.”
That persistence and proficiency have continued manifesting themselves every Saturday since. Brown, who turned 19 on Sept. 29, is the American Athletic Conference’s seventh-leading rusher (89 carries, 324 yards, five touchdowns) and fifth-leading passer (97 of 159, 1,223 yards, nine TDs, three interceptions). His 1,547 total yards lead the league.
So do his 23 sacks.
“After the first game, when we played Western Kentucky, man, that was my first time really seeing how tough he was,” Bulls senior defensive tackle Rashad Cheney said.
“Like, the dude was taking some hits, he’s getting back up each and every play. He came in on that Sunday, scratches everywhere, thumb messed up. And just being able to see that from a starting quarterback means a lot. The dude who’s leading his team, just to see how tough he is, it really kind of sent a message to everybody on the team.”
The newest star of USF football, raised in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, is an aspiring orthodontist, fanatic of Bojangles chicken and lover of boba milk tea (a Vietnamese drink containing milk, black tea, brown-sugar syrup and even tapioca flour). In a previous sports life, as a middle-schooler, he won a Junior Olympic age-group title in the 1,500 meters and placed second in the javelin.
“My parents got braces for me because I really wanted them and I wanted to close the gap that I had (between his front teeth),” Brown said regarding his dentistry pursuits. “I like the way that made my smile, and I just want to do that for other people.”
But the sum of Brown’s parts have created a mesmerizing paradox at the heart of the Bulls’ resurgence.
The tea aficionado has borne a salt-and-vinegar tenacity in seven career college starts. The high-beam smile is supplanted by a game-day snarl. In lieu of a javelin, Brown has thrust a figurative dagger into the opposition with an indefatigable next-play mentality belying his birth certificate.
Consider a debilitating sequence — in Game Four against Rice — that would have deflated prior Bulls teams.
After a goal-line fumble by the Bulls in the third quarter, Rice answered with an 80-yard touchdown pass the next play for a 21-20 lead. Two possessions later, Brown found Naheim Simmons isolated behind the Owls secondary for a 49-yard scoring pass to give USF a lead it would never squander en route to a 42-29 triumph.
“When I say tough, I’m speaking mentally as much as I am physically,” Bulls first-year coach Alex Golesh said three days after that triumph, his program’s first against an Football Bowl Subdivision team since October 2021.
“For as many things as have gone bad, the way he’s responded has been incredibly positive. That takes mental toughness. We as adults can’t do that a lot of the time. And then as soon as anybody starts feeling a certain way around him, he just smiles at them and is like, ‘Hey, next play, man.’
“So that toughness, the ability to bounce back and come back and care about everybody else around you, to me that’s toughness in every imaginable way.”
Persevering for ‘PaPa’
Unbeknownst to many, Brown was forced to tap into every molecule of that toughness for his first collegiate start.
His quarterback depth chart besieged by injuries, Bulls interim coach Daniel Da Prato tabbed Brown the starter for the Friday night game at Tulsa last Nov. 18. What very few knew was that six days earlier, Brown’s maternal grandfather, Glenn Headen — whom he called “PaPa” — had passed away after a lengthy illness.
Nicole’s message to the older of her two boys: You can grieve, but that’s what he would love to see you do, is play.
Brown responded with his breakout game, totaling 316 yards and four touchdowns in a wild 48-42 defeat. Two days later, Brown flew to Raleigh for his grandfather’s funeral, returning the following day to prepare for the season-ending showdown against UCF.
Brown totaled 249 yards in that contest as USF nearly rallied from a 24-point second-half deficit in a 46-39 defeat. Bulls fans had seen their future.
Packaged in a 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame of resolve.
“You’ve got a dude who’s 18 years old in here, tough as nails man, leading the team,” Cheney said. “That’s what you want, and that should make you want to go out there and play hard for him, because he’s giving us everything each and every day.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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