Two days later, Brown found himself in a Provo doctor’s office holding his wife’s hand, listening to the soft, distinct patter of a continuous heartbeat from his unborn son for the first time on a fetal monitor.
It was a jarring reality check for Manaia Brown that left an indelible impression. “Hearing baby’s heartbeat that first time immediately changed my whole attitude about football and life,” he told TOTAL BLUE SPORTS magazine in a revealing interview.
Brown, a heavily-recruited Utah prep star from Granger High (West Valley City), took a circuitous journey to BYU after one memorable season at Nebraska, where he was one of three true freshmen to play for the Cornhuskers in the BCS Rose Bowl National Championship game against Miami in 2001.
Ironically, Brown’s decision to return to Utah was also because of his ailing father, Vaifoa Brown. Manaia and his wife, Tupusina, discussed it and decided they wanted to move back and live closer to his elderly parents.
A sizable obstacle, however, threatened to dash their immediate hopes and plans. Then-Nebraska head coach, Frank Solich, after several attempts to privately dissuade him from his decision, publicly declared he would NOT officially release Brown from his Cornhusker football scholarship. Effectively, that meant Brown would have to pay a full year of college tuition and his own living expenses before he could accept another college scholarship. He could not afford it.
Rather than accept Solich’s decree, Brown launched a public news media barrage of his own that was covered daily by the Associated Press and carried in hundreds of newspapers and major sports publications, including The New York Times.
An outspoken Nebraska state senator also came to Brown’s defense and publicly demanded that Solich formally release him from his scholarship.
Within a week, Solich reversed his decision, and Brown was free to sign with another school, with BYU or the University of Utah as the most attractive candidates. He chose the Cougars after hastily-organized recruiting visits to both schools.
“I loved playing for the Nebraska football program despite what happened. They have great coaches, players and the most courteous and knowledgeable fans in the country,” Brown noted.
Sitting in the Provo doctor’s office, Brown realized he was no longer part of a storied Cougar football program he had grown up a fan of most of his life.
Brown arranged a meeting the next day with BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall. With his pride firmly in check, Brown humbly and tearfully apologized to Mendenhall for his rash actions and fervently pleaded to be reinstated on the team.
Mendenhall told him it was up to the head coach, but he promised to review his request with Gary Crowton that weekend. It was an anxious, stress-filled time for Brown. The following week, Mendenhall told Brown that Crowton had agreed to give him a second chance with some very firm, non-negotiable conditions attached.
Brown was barred from working out with teammates for more than two months and could only use the weight room with walk-ons around 6 a.m. daily. He also lost his locker room privileges and had to remain in good academic standing with the school. Moreover, Mendenhall told Brown that he would not receive any financial aid from the school if he required summer classes (he didn’t) to remain academically eligible this season. Technically, he was not off the team, but he was very much on the outside looking in.
Brown was told that while he was loaded with talent, he had yet to show the winning attitude, absolute desire and leadership skills to match his obvious playing potential.
Finally, Mendenhall insisted that Brown make a renewed, unwavering and unprecedented commitment to his coaches, teammates and the BYU football program.
BACK TO THE PRESENT
“The whole thing was a blessing in disguise with them taking everything away from me,” Brown admitted. “It helped me so much as a player and person in school, the weight room and in the locker room. It was the best thing possible for me.
“I know I should never have done what I did. I need to shut my mouth and do what I have to do. Maybe I’m a typical Samoan with a bad temper, but everything has changed for me now. I’m really grateful to coach Crowton and coach Mendenhall for helping me. They want me to be a big part of the team, not sticking out from the team,” he explained.
Mendenhall told TOTAL BLUE SPORTS magazine that “the effort I see from Manaia is night and day from what I saw from him at this time last year. He's much more focused and dedicated than he has been in the past.
“It's up to Manaia to become the player that he can be,” Mendenhall noted. “If he continues with the effort he's shown during spring practice and in the off-season, he will be a big part of our defense and what we're able to do on the field.”
Mendenhall concluded: “Talent and ability have never been a question with Manaia. He's as talented as any defensive lineman I've ever coached. What I want to see from my players is a fanatical effort in everything they do in the off-season, during practice and when they play. Manaia is starting to show that and it's very good to see."
Crowton added that “Manaia is a tremendous talent with a lot of potential. Once he took ownership in our program, with the price he paid, he got better in his attitude and work ethic. I’m really happy with the progress he’s made. If he continues to do what he’s doing, he has the potential to reach his goals (college and professional).”
RENEWED AND RECHARGED
The arduous and often lonely journey back into full fellowship with his coaches and teammates took almost three months and changed Brown immeasurably for the better. “I’m in the best shape I’ve felt since high school,” Brown exclaimed. “I’m lighter, faster, quicker, and more in shape than I’ve been in a long time. Everything is going good right now.”
Brown played all last season with a nagging shoulder injury that doctors did not finally diagnose until after the season when he underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff.
“My shoulder feels a lot better now and there’s no pain, except when I lift sometimes. I have my full range of motion back. I’m anxious to get going for the season. I’m just nervous and hoping that everything in my shoulder holds up,” he said.
NO “I” IN TEAM
“My personal goals are not as important as our team goals,” Brown said. “I want our defensive unit to be Top 10 nationally, to work hard together and have one mindset.
“Even though we lost a lot of (defensive) players, I think we’ll be better this season if we remain focused, no matter who we play on the field.
“I love our defense; it’s a crazy defense. He (Mendenhall) keeps us on our toes and thinking all the time. We have a crazy coach running our defense and we all love it.”
Brown noted that “at first (last year), I didn’t think I could make it because I wasn’t in the best shape. Right now, I feel really good. I can keep up with the whole defense. Our defensive line does a lot of the dirty work up front and frees up other players to make big plays. A lot of us have worked really hard this summer. We don’t want it to be a waste.”
THE PARADOXICAL PLAYER
A junior in eligibility, Manaia Brown is, in a word, a “paradox” of sizable proportions.
The second youngest of seven children, Brown and his siblings are a close-knit bunch, possibly because his family changed addresses close to 20 times during his childhood, which limited bonding with neighborhood kids and schoolmates. His parents, Vaifoa and Toa, and his elder brothers and sisters were most protective of Manaia and younger brother, Pani.
Brown was born when his father was 60-years-old. Despite his advanced age, Vaifoa faithfully drove his young sons to practices and games in youth football leagues for years and was a constant support fixture on the sidelines. As the brawny Brown boys excelled in high school football, their weekly football games at Granger High became full-blown family affairs complete with hand-painted signs and noise makers.
As a senior, Brown grabbed national recruiting attention when he set the Utah high school record with 25 sacks in a single season. He was recruited by Utah, BYU and a number of other major football programs, but opted for the smash-mouth defensive style and reputation of Nebraska.
His planned move to Lincoln, Neb., was delayed a year when he was ruled academically ineligible. Rather than attend a junior college, Brown stayed in Utah, studied and took SAT tests until he met NCAA Clearinghouse requirements and finally relocated to the Cornhusker State.
To many, Brown is either considered one of the best defensive linemen to ever suit up in BYU blue or one of the Y's most-hyped player disappointments to date. Brown is determined to make the former his legacy as a Cougar.
Fans have only to look back to last summer’s conditioning workouts when Brown turned coaches’ and player heads alike with 40-yard sprints of 4.77, 4.81 and 4.83 as a 325 pounder! To put that into perspective, there are no defensive tackles in the NFL with that kind of speed.
Firsthand comments from numerous offensive and defensive teammates in past months indicate Brown’s quickness and lower body strength for his size cannot be matched by any single player on the team. He has an explosive first step, leg-power combination and tackle-shedding techniques that often have him sliding past opposing offensive linemen before they are able to block him.
Notably, despite an ailing shoulder throughout last season, Brown was named by Mendenhall as his assistants as Defensive Player of the Game in both the Stanford and Air Force games.
In fact, one of Brown’s current coaches at BYU told former Cougar wide receiver star Ben Cahoon (current Canadian Football League All-Pro receiver) privately last season that Brown was the best defensive lineman he had ever coached in more than 20 years in college – including at least four NFL first-round defensive line draft picks.
With an off-season workout routine of up to five hours as often as five days a week, Brown did everything possible to set himself and his teammates up for the kind of national prominence and success he experienced at Nebraska as a freshman.
The night TOTAL BLUE SPORTS magazine went to press, Brown and his wife greeted the healthy arrival of Manaia Brown, the younger, with a full set of lungs. Their collective timing was great; it was the night before fall camp started.
If Brown’s unborn son’s heartbeat has had this much of a positive, life-changing attitudinal impact on his father, imagine the damage he may wring on unsuspecting BYU football opponents after holding his infant legacy-for-eternity for the first time.
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