NORMAN, Okla. — Orlando Brown Jr.’s road to greatness hasn’t been as straight as one might expect for the son of an NFL offensive lineman.
Oklahoma’s dominant left tackle is a first-team AP All-American and a projected first-round draft pick. But years ago, he was a slow, chubby seventh-grader who lacked aggression.
“His dad would stay on him, like, ‘You’re playing too timid, you don’t want to play this game, you don’t want to play it because you’re not playing the way you should be playing,'” said Orlando Jr.’s mother, Mira Brown.
Orlando Sr. went well beyond critiquing his son’s lack of intensity. He taught him about focus, good eating habits and the importance of training and study. Though Orlando Sr. died in 2011, he still affects his son. In chasing his dreams of being better than his father, Orlando Jr. has become a player few thought he could become.
The 6-foot-8, 345-pounder is a key reason the Sooners will play in a playoff semifinal against Georgia on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl.
“I made a promise to my dad that I’d be a 10-year vet, NFL Hall of Famer,” Orlando Jr. said. “That’s kind of what my goal has been since I started playing. Obviously, you set smaller goals there — one of my goals was to be a unanimous All-American. I haven’t reached that top one yet — I’m not even in the league, kind of far from it, so I’m just continuing to work and stay grounded.”
Orlando Jr.’s results are new, but his focus is not. Mira Brown said her son has been locked in since those junior high days when he weighed about 400 pounds.
“I’ve never had to tell Orlando, ‘Let’s go,'” Mira Brown said. “Even being sick, I’ve never had to say, ‘Get up, come on,’ any of that. He’s always been ready to go.”
Perhaps that’s because he knows he has big shoes to fill. Orlando Sr. started 119 games combined for the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. Orlando Jr. isn’t even sure where the drive to exceed his dad’s accomplishments came from.
“I don’t know specifically what it was for me that set it off, but I just wanted to be great, man,” Orlando Jr. said. “I probably could have been anything I wanted to be, but for me, it’s just always been football.”
The fact that he’s even at Oklahoma is a bit of an accident. The native of Duluth, Georgia, had committed to Tennessee, but Mira Brown said the Volunteers pulled their offer. His first year on campus, he redshirted and played on the scout team.
It was a humbling beginning for a young man whose father was nicknamed “Zeus.”
“I came in here with the mentality that I had to work, and I understood that,” Orlando Jr. said. “I didn’t think anything was going to be given to me. I basically lost my scholarship to Tennessee. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I kind of had to come here with the mentality to work, and I understood that. I had two seniors in front of me, and once I realized how sorry I really was, I realized that I had to go to work. If anything, it helped me.”
Brown’s grades were shaky in high school, but Mira Brown said Orlando Jr., made the dean’s list his first semester on campus and has been solid in the classroom ever since. He’s on track to graduate in May with a degree in human relations.
“That means everything,” Mira Brown said. “Being an NFL wife myself, playing in the NFL, not only is it important to play the game in the NFL and reach your goals, it’s also important to know what to do after your career in the NFL.”
Orlando Jr. has been a good student in football, too, and that has helped him become a complete player. Oklahoma’s second-team All-American linebacker, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, calls him the best player he’s ever matched up with.
“There’s so many things,” Okoronkwo said. “His feet quickness, his strength in the run game, his hand quickness. Just so many things.”
Oklahoma offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said Brown is just starting to reach his potential.
“It’s just a natural progression,” Bedenbaugh said. “I said this last year — I thought he would make that improvement. But he’s nowhere close to where he’s going to be next year, two years, three years, four years down the road. I mean, he’s got so much more that he can improve on. It’s good to see the player he is right now. His best football is really ahead of him.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .