From Six Flags to the CFP for OU’s ‘Hollywood’ Brown

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NORMAN, Okla. — Before he earned the nickname “Hollywood,” Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown was the pee wee football player so small, his coaches were too afraid to put him in a game.

And before he developed into one of the most dangerous playmakers of the upcoming College Football Playoff, Brown was operating a roller coaster called, appropriately, “Full Throttle,” just so he could afford to play for his junior college.

But neither a slight frame nor a circuitous path has been able to slow Brown down.

The same can be said for opposing defenses.

  • Orlando Brown came to Oklahoma still reeling from the death of his father, former NFL vet Zeus Brown, who died at 40 from diabetes complications. Since then, Orlando has shed 75 pounds, protected a Heisman winner and become a top NFL prospect.
  • Coaches who took over at new schools had a tough task getting rolling before the early signing period. Some, including Chip Kelly and Dan Mullen, have survived, while others have a lot of work to do to salvage their classes.

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Despite playing sparingly at the outset of the season, Brown leads Oklahoma with 981 receiving yards. As the preeminent deep threat for Heisman quarterback Baker Mayfield, Brown is averaging more than 20 yards per catch. He also has six touchdowns and 49 receptions, second on the Sooners only to All-American tight end Mark Andrews.

“Yeah, he’s small, but it doesn’t matter,” Mayfield said. “When you’re that fast, you’re not going to take many hits.”

That has been the winning formula for Brown, who showed up to Norman last winter weighing only 144 pounds. But with a 40-yard dash time of 4.33 seconds, Brown’s downfield speed is one reason why the Sooners have surged into a CFP semifinal clash against Georgia in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual on New Year’s Day (Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN App).

When he was 6, Brown, who weighed only five pounds at birth, went out for Pee Wee football but could never get on the field. Finally, after another kid was injured, the coaches had no choice but to give him a chance.

“Once he got the ball in his hands, it was over,” said his mother, Shannon James. “He was really tiny, always smaller than everyone else. But he moved like lightning once he got that ball. He never stopped from there.”

Even despite a few roadblocks along the way.

Brown had a terrific high school career for Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory in Hollywood, Florida. But a late qualifier without prototypical size, Brown’s opportunity to play FBS didn’t come.

Not ready to give up his football dreams, Brown began researching junior colleges. At the same time, College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, was recruiting a friend of Brown’s. That friend told Canyons coach Ted Iacenda the Cougars ought to be recruiting Brown, too.

After watching film, Iacenda saw why.

“There are a lot of kids from Florida out this way, because Florida doesn’t have juco football,” Iacenda said. “We wanted Marquise, but his mom was not sure about sending him all the way to California.”

So, Brown stayed home in Hollywood and sat out the season after his senior year of high school in 2015.

Eventually in January, though, James relented.

“I wouldn’t say I was scared, but I was nervous,” Brown said upon moving to the other side of the country. “But [the Canyon coaches] took me in, and they fed me every day and made sure I ate something. They were making sure I gained weight because they knew I didn’t have any money. They really helped me.”

They also helped him help himself.

Without much money coming from home, Brown got a room inside a three-bedroom apartment he shared with a family and a roommate. California junior colleges don’t offer athletic scholarships. So, Brown had to get a job to afford the rent. Iacenda suggested Six Flags Magic Mountain, where Brown was hired to operate a 160-foot, 70-mile-per-hour, looping roller coaster.

Brown, who would often pick up double shifts whenever the Cougars didn’t have workouts or practice, enjoyed the gig, save for the one time the ride jammed unexpectedly, leaving people hanging upside down for more than 20 minutes.

Brown, however, had no transportation to the park. Whenever he had a few extra dollars, he would Uber. But usually, Brown had to walk, which took an hour each way.

“It was pretty tough,” said Brown, who sometimes would show up to the locker room still wearing his Six Flags uniform. “But it taught me how to work hard. Really hard.”

When Brown first arrived in California, he weighed just 139 pounds. But Iacenda’s jaw would drop again when he first saw Brown run.

“You immediately noticed the burst,” Iacenda said. “In California, we don’t get pads until August. We thought we had something special. But you’re never really sure until you put the pads on.”

Concerns about Brown being able to withstand physical punishment were quickly quashed. Because, well, nobody could catch him.

“That first game, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is ridiculous,’ ” Iacenda said. “He took a little screen pass and made four people look absolutely silly on a play that should’ve gone for a 2-yard loss. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this kid is something special.’ ”

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Led by Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma will face off against Georgia in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Only three games in, Iacenda started sending Brown’s already electric highlight film, full of kick return touchdowns and downfield receptions, to Power 5 programs.

“Within a week, he had 15 offers,” Iacenda said. “To be a three-game player and blow up like that in California, I’d never seen anything like it. Maybe at the Kansas schools where they have scholarships. But not at our level. It was something remarkable.”

USC, the blueblood down the road, quickly emerged as the favorite. But just as Brown was about to take his official visit in December, the Trojans canceled, telling Brown they no longer had enough scholarships. Iacenda, a USC alum, suspects they determined he was too small.

That cleared the way for the Sooners, who had a gigantic hole at wide receiver after losing Biletnikoff winner Dede Westbrook.

“We needed to add somebody explosive,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “The thought came that we needed to add an older guy, that maybe has been through it and not necessarily rely on a true freshman.”

The Sooners had tremendous success with Westbrook, who came over as an ultra-skinny, though ultra-fast junior college transfer, so they tried the recipé again.

Even then, Riley privately was a little concerned about Brown’s initial weight.

“Well, I was until I saw him run. Then I was good,” Riley said. “I knew with our strength program and our nutrition program that we’d be able to get that up to a more manageable number. We knew the kid could play and knew he could run — that was good enough.”

Brown has gradually added weight. He got up close to 170 pounds in August before settling in around 160 during the season. Since, Brown has exceeded what even Westbrook did his first season in 2015. And unlike Westbrook, who transferred as a junior, Brown still has two more seasons of eligibility remaining after this year.

“They just have that savvy to them and so fast that people can’t cover them,” said Oklahoma receivers coach Cale Gundy, comparing Brown to Westbrook. “Speed kills.”

This season, that has killed opposing Big 12 defenses.

In the fourth quarter at Oklahoma State, Mayfield lofted a go-route down the field to Brown, who had sailed past his man. Fox announcer Gus Johnson, who had given the Hollywood native the nickname “Hollywood” two weeks before in the Kansas State game, went berserk: “Hollywood! Touchdown! Sooners! Seventy-seven-yards! Who is this kid!?”

The scoring reception helped propel Oklahoma to victory in Stillwater, where Brown finished with a school-record 265 receiving yards. And the name “Hollywood” stuck.

“They was talking Bedlam, Bedlam, and I was like, I want to do something this game,” said Brown, whose previous nickname growing up was “Jet.” “I felt really good the first time catching [the ball]. I only got like four, five yards, but I felt good about it. Coach [Riley] kept coming to me, kept calling plays for me. There were some plays that weren’t to me, but Baker, he threw it to me anyway. And I was just making plays.”

Brown hasn’t stopped making plays, either.

Which is one reason why the wideout they call Hollywood is headed to another place of the same name next week.

“Hollywood going to Hollywood,” Brown said. “Now that’s pretty cool.”

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