NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Demetrius Brown is late. Or maybe he’s not coming. He was supposed to be in the lobby for a 7:30 a.m. interview but 7:30 came and went and so did 7:45 and 7:50. The PR director calls his room. He shrugs. We wait.
Eventually, Brown comes in, tentatively, like a kid walking into a courtroom. He is wearing a white Michigan pullover and blue sweats. When I greet him, he simply nods, and we sit at a table in the back of the coffee shop. This is the guy who will be center-screen during the Rose Bowl telecast Monday. This is the guy who will handle the ball, audible the plays, and control — as much as any single player — the fate of the Michigan Wolverines.
This is the quarterback?
This is the quarterback.
“Something to eat?” asks the waitress.
“No, thank you,” he whispers.
“No, thank you.”
He shakes his head. He does not look comfortable. Actually, he looks as if he’s in a dentist’s office. We have talked before, after the games, so I ask if there is any reason for his awkwardness with the news media.
“I don’t know,” he answers, his voice barely audible. “To be honest, it can be a little distractive. I have a lot of things to concentrate on.”
“To be honest, I’m a little uneasy with it.”
“To be honest . . . it’s hard for me to talk to people I don’t know.”
He swallows and bites his lip.
This is the quarterback?
Not made, born
They aren’t made, they’re born — or so football people say. Quarterbacks? You can smell them growing. Take the cockiest kid, the leader, the one who steers the neighborhood posse, and come adolescence, he’ll be the one taking snaps. Surely Bobby Layne and Joe Namath and Jim McMahon did nothing to dispel this notion.
Demetrius Brown does. Here is an enigma, a quarterback on a major college football team who blends into the crowd more quickly than a second-string tackle. Just down the California highway, Southern Cal’s Rodney Peete — the other Rose Bowl quarterback — is a lightning rod of publicity, well-spoken, available, center-stage spotlight. But try to find Demetrius Brown. He won’t be the one the others are following, he won’t be surrounded by adoring women, he won’t be cracking jokes.
“Would you describe yourself as a leader?” I ask.
“I’m more of a loner,” he says.
“Who is your closest friend on the team?” I ask.
“I would say . . . myself.”
Not your classic Mr. Touchdown. But then, from the earliest, it was never Demetrius Brown’s idea to play quarterback. He had gone out for a local Pony League team in his hometown of Miami Beach. Most of the kids wanted to be wide receivers and running backs. Brown did, too. But the coach needed a passer.
“Demetrius can throw,” a kid yelled.
The coach handed Brown the ball. He sent a receiver on a 20-yard pass pattern. Brown reached back, released. Hit him right on the numbers.
Congratulations. You got the job.
“It was always a hard position for me,” Brown says, his eyes lowered for most of his conversation. “I had a difficult time learning all the plays and the numbers.
“I had a friend who taught me most of the things. I liked the position OK
. . . but I don’t think I ever really realized how much until this season.”
“Until it was taken away?” I say.
His eyes flash for a moment.
Brown’s story is well known to Michigan fans. He was the starter last season as a sophomore, replacing the departed Jim Harbaugh, one of the best ever to quarterback the Wolverines. Brown was undeniably gifted, but he threw an embarrassing number of interceptions, 16 for the season — seven of those in a single game against Michigan State — and from then on, he was “the quarterback you can’t trust.”
It was an unkind moniker. His flare was for all or nothing, inviting defeat with turnovers, then seizing victory with a last-second touchdown pass
(like the one he threw to John Kolesar to win the Hall of Fame Bowl last January.) Still, he came into the 1988 pre-season as the designated starter. Just before the first practice, he went to talk with coach Bo Schembechler. He had something to admit: academic problems. His grades were iffy.
“Bo was upset. He felt I wasn’t taking my role as quarterback serious enough. I said ‘I’d rather not be with the team if I’m going to cause problems for it.’ “
And he left. For about a week. Schembechler, who has always held his quarterbacks to the highest standards, made Michael Taylor the starter and told his team that was that. Forget the other guy.
“Demetrius,” the coach said then, “does not respect the position the way he should. And I won’t have that.”
Brown thought things over. He was hurt. But as a quiet and often aloof player, he did not evoke great sympathy.
“What was the problem?” I ask him now.
He chews his lip for a moment. Finally he speaks.
“I had been having personal problems. Depression. Lack of money. I hadn’t made much money over the summer and it seemed like I never had any to spend. I’ve been living at home with my mother for 14 or 15 years. My father is disabled. We never had, you know, a lot of money. And then I wasn’t doing well in school. . . .
“But in that time that I was away, I came to realize that I like playing quarterback. Maybe for the first time. I said to myself, ‘They gave you a scholarship to play here, and they gave it to play quarterback, so they must see some potential.’ . . .
“After that I felt sort of ashamed. They had given me the chance and I just wasn’t willing to do the things they wanted.”
Promising improvement, he returned. But the damage was done. The job went to Taylor. Brown was second string all season — until the first play of the Minnesota game, when Taylor hobbled off with a broken collar bone.
Redemption, thy name is opportunity.
And Brown has started every game since. He has played well — if not gloriously. With him at the helm, the Wolverines defeated Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio State and captured the Big Ten title.
And he has thrown no interceptions.
“I guess I didn’t want it badly enough before,” he says softly.
“How badly do you want it now?”
“Badly enough to get us here,” he says, which may be as close to cocky as he comes. Re-creating image
So this is the quarterback. The 6-foot-1 son of a Miami factory worker, who spent much of his youth “by myself,” he says, playing video games, and walking the blocks of Biscayne Boulevard.(What better place to become a shy, retiring passer, some would joke, than under Bo Schembechler at Michigan?)
But it is more than that. Here is a kid who mumbles through interviews, yet suddenly blurts out that the friend who taught him to play quarterback, Ernest Thompson, was killed last year, shot to death in Miami. He says it softly, and then he swallows the rest of the sentence and does not elaborate. When he talks about music, and admits that Prince (he of the whirling, half- naked dance style) is a personal favorite, he smiles, a gleaming smile, but then it disappears behind his clenched lips, as if smiling is not allowed.
He is taken from the restaurant to a mandatory news conference — which is akin to taking Samson to a mandatory hair salon — and he speaks so softly that reporters lean forward, and ask each other, “What did he say?”
This is the quarterback?
This is the quarterback. For better or worse. Until next season — when he and Taylor will compete for the senior spot. Maybe he is aloof, or maybe, as I suspect, he simply keeps things inside. He says at one point “I’m only 21” and we forget that sometimes. Not every quarterback is born to wear four stars on his chest, particularly those who have the ball literally placed in their hands.
When he’s finished with the interviews, he walks quickly back toward the team breakfast room. I ask if he minded that so many of the questions had to do with his poor performances last year, rather than his good ones this year.
“No,” he says, “that’s their job. They’re supposed to get the . . . real scoop.”
He says the words as if they stick on his tongue.
“And has anyone ever gotten the real scoop on you?”
“There isn’t much to it. I live. I’m here.”
And he walks into breakfast, without a goodby. I live, I’m here. Shy or aloof? Nervous or resentful? It is impossible to say without crawling under his skin. This is the quarterback? This is the quarterback. And for now, it seems, privacy is the quarterback’s option. CUTLINE: U-M quarterback Demetrius Brown works out Wednesday in Newport Beach.