MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia offensive lineman Mike Brown is a larger-than-life presence with a story to match his size.
Picture, if possible, the sight of a 6-foot-3, 360-pound man on a bicycle, pedaling through the sweltering humidity and occasional monsoons of the Philippines. He’s wearing a button-up shirt and tie with a name tag identifying him as “Elder Michael.”
That was Brown’s life from 2014-16. No doubt aided by the fact it’s a bit harder for someone to slam the door in his face than your typical missionary, he found it a rewarding pursuit. But when he returned home to Southern California, it was time for him to move on to his next calling — football.
There was just one catch.
Though he knew the Book of Mormon front-to-back, Brown was considerably less versed when it came to football playbooks. Held out of the sport because he had been misdiagnosed with a heart murmur when he was younger, Brown was 20 years old and hadn’t played a down in his life.
‘This guy doesn’t know how to play’
What Brown lacked in knowledge he made up with size. So when his older brother Joe transferred from Miami to Eastern Arizona Community College, Mike decided to make the game a family affair.
“We were recruiting the brother,” said Eastern Arizona coach John O’Mera. “Joe said, ‘My brother threw the shot put 55 feet. He’s really athletic. He’s just never played. I said to Mike, ‘Well, come on. We’ll give you a scholarship if you can play.'”
When he arrived on the Thatcher, Ariz., campus, everyone correctly assumed Mike was there for football. But when he actually suited up for practice, his teammates received quite the shock.
Brown recalled with a laugh: “When they saw how I got into a stance and played, they were like ‘This guy doesn’t know how to play.’ Which I didn’t.”
His attitude was charmingly naive. How hard could it be to maul people?
“All I knew was offensive linemen, they block people,” Brown said. “So the first guy who came at me, I picked him up and threw him. That’s when the coaches were like ‘Oh. This guy can play. We just need to teach him.’”
In a debut that looked straight out of a comedy movie, Brown jumped offsides “like four or five times.” He also didn’t know that many types of roughness could be deemed unnecessary.
“He got his first penalty and was like ‘What did I do?'” O’Mera recalled. “He drove someone past the whistle and kept driving him.”
The good news? Brown didn’t commit any holding penalties.
“I didn’t really know how to hold,” he said. “I kept punching people so hard that it gave me enough time to keep punching them. I didn’t know you could hold.”
Despite his inexperience, Brown’s coaches knew they had something special.
“He was so raw, but athletic and tough and aggressive,” said O’Mera, whose father was Brown’s position coach. “After maybe his second practice my dad goes ‘I’m telling you, the other Brown [Mike] is going to be really good.’”
‘What’s so big about them?’
In his sophomore season at Eastern Arizona, Division I coaches were noticing the same thing on film. Major scholarship offers began pouring in. Thing is, Brown had no concept of how major they were. He didn’t know Nick Saban from Nick Nolte.
“My knowledge of universities was very low. I thought juco was the best-best,” Brown said. “I was at juco and I was like ‘Wow, this is great! I love it.’”
Brown obviously didn’t know much about West Virginia or its trademark terrain.
“I just knew you were blue and gold,” Brown said. “I didn’t know about those hills, man.”
O’Mera recalled convincing Brown to even take a visit to WVU.
“He wasn’t even going to take the trip, and I said he was crazy if he didn’t,” O’Mera said. “Then he came back and was like ‘Wow, they have better stuff than our place!’ All our other guys knew that. He didn’t.”
Brown jumped at West Virginia’s scholarship offer after Dana Holgorsen also extended one to Joe. Soon after making his commitment, schools like Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Oregon began expressing interest.
“I told my teammates about these offers and they were like ‘Whoa, whoa, those are big schools!’” Brown said. “I was like, ‘What’s so big about them?’”
Since he grew up in a world separated from the high school recruiting process, Brown didn’t give those power programs much thought. His word was his word.
“I was getting a lot of calls,” Brown said. “I ignored it because I was going to go to West Virginia.”
Upon his arrival, West Virginia teammates learned the same thing that his Eastern Arizona teammates knew — this guy was shockingly behind the curve when it came to some of football’s basics. Defensive lineman Reese Donahue recalls Brown’s confusion while watching a free kick following a safety at practice.
“It’s kind of funny. He’d be like ‘Hey Reese, what are they doing out there?’” Donahue said. “He didn’t understand it all the way.”
Growing into a machine
Brown’s knowledge of the game has grown exponentially since arriving in Morgantown. Once lost in the meeting room, he’s starting to understand what he’s looking at.
“I’ve learned a lot about football,” he said. “Like when they’re explaining it on the board and [using] letters for each position, at first I didn’t know what they meant. I knew ‘M’ meant ‘Mike’ but I didn’t know ‘side’ meant strong side or ‘W’ meant weak side. I barely knew what a nose technique was.”
He requires fewer explanations this spring.
“Now I know what they mean when they have a shade, or if you have a 3- or a 5-technique” he said.
Donahue has seen the growth first-hand practicing against him.
“It just blows my mind that he went from not knowing football — from even watching it — to the player that he is today,” Donahue said. “We’re talking about mentality, aggression, footwork. Even his body. He’s lost a lot of healthy weight.
“It’s really cool to watch his transformation. He’s developing into a machine.”
With the game’s mysteries unlocking for him, Brown has given himself a chance to be the Mountaineers starting left guard next season. The lone hurdle that remains in his path? Dropping another 15 to 20 pounds before the season starts in order to improve his stamina.
“I’m eating salad, fruit and eggs. A lot of eggs,” he said. “Eggs every day.”
Brown has already shed some weight, and said he will avoid going home to Paramount, Calif., this summer so he doesn’t gain it back eating filling meals with his Samoan family.
“All that hard work, I’m not going home,” he said. “I can’t go back.”
He may make one little exception to his current eating rules. Brown married his girlfriend Anna Marie just four days before the start of spring practice, and they’ve yet to honeymoon.
“The honeymoon is gonna be in West Virginia. It depends on what the wife wants. All I know is we’re going to go somewhere and eat,” he said. “But not too much.”