“What book is it?”
“I can’t remember the name,” Brown responded. “It’s by a guy who was friends with C.S. Lewis.”
“No. They were friends, too, but there was a third guy.”
The writer in question is likely Charles Williams, one of a small group of men (including Tolkien and Lewis) at Oxford University in England in the 1930s called The Inklings who bonded and met over similar literary interests.
It was a little unexpected to hear the conversation take place at Mississippi State’s football facility, but that’s what you get with junior linebacker Richie Brown walking around the place.
Brown and I met when he was a senior in high school and I was writing about him being named to the Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen list, an honor bestowed upon the top 12 high school football players in Mississippi (Brown eventually committed to MSU using an actual human child, rather than a hat, in the form of his baby nephew decked out in maroon), but it was a little over one year later in Jacksonville, Florida that we got to know each other.
Following the 2012 season, MSU was picked for the Gator Bowl. In the hotel one night during the week of practice leading up to the game, we crossed paths in the lobby where he was wearing one of the hotel-provided robes and on his way to the game room MSU had set up for the team. He asked if I wanted to join, so we walked downstairs and played pool, ping pong, basketball and a little Deer Hunter as we talked about his appreciation for the writings of Tolkien and Lewis, his enjoyment in playing some of the less mainstream sports like Frisbee and, as he talked about this week, his hobby of tightrope walking.
Brown also plays the piano. He’s got a twitter account run by an unknown fan devoted to his beard, the hairs of which have been featured on TV by ESPN and regularly compared to those of former U.S. President and General Ulysses S. Grant. He’s an industrial technology major, named to the SEC academic honor roll during the semesters of both seasons he’s played so far. He’s married, he plays the guitar and he’s devoted to his Christian faith.
He’s also, as most know him, a football player. A really good one, too. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week this week after totaling 13 tackles against Auburn Saturday, and when he plays Texas A&M this weekend it will be the anniversary of the last time he won the award, receiving the honor after recording three interceptions off the Aggies last year.
The dedication to learning is the part that’s made him so good on the field for his Bulldogs. He’s been one of State’s most intelligent players since he got to campus almost four years ago and his mind has been a sponge for knowledge in the film room, meeting room and locker room.
The first three years of his career, Brown trained under MSU’s then-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Geoff Collins, taking in everything he could. Starting this spring, Brown began another educational relationship when Manny Diaz took over as his coordinator and position coach. Diaz and Collins have plenty of similarities, and plenty more differences. Each has proved valuable in the continuing development of Brown.
“It’s helped me out tremendously,” Brown said. “They’re both great defensive coaches and they both have a lot to offer and I’ve taken from both of them. I think that’s helped me a lot.”
Of course, Brown’s considerable talent is one of the bigger factors. He’s been a tackling machine since his days at Long Beach High School. He’s big, even if not usually the biggest. Fast, but often not the fastest. Strong, though not necessarily the strongest.
But whatever the match-up is, he has a propensity for being in the right spot, and especially for making the play once he’s there. That why he has, fittingly given his jersey number, a team-high 39 tackles through four games, including three sacks and an interception.
Brown isn’t just getting lucky.
“No,” Diaz said, “because he’s making really good plays … I would say middle linebackers should make a lot of tackles. He’s making the plays he should make, then he’s also making some plays that are pretty spectacular out in the open field and in space.”
Those are the keys, too. Open-field tackles, often 1-on-1. Of the 39 tackles he has, 21 of them are solo, eight more than the next closest linebacker or defensive lineman. In Diaz’s gap-control system, players are counted on to make those stops. In theory, no part of the field is open to opposing offenses. But putting that theory into practice requires those like Brown to make the plays when the time comes, and for him, it’s more often than most.
“Making open-field tackles is a big deal with Coach Diaz,” Brown said. “He’s helped a lot. He’s brought a whole new angle to how I play. A lot of different fundamentals.”
Just as a new defensive coordinator has changed the ever-developing Brown, so has the addition of a wife to his life, the former Erin Nesbit, formerly of the Mississippi State softball team and now working for the university.
While most of his teammates go home to roommates, video games, frozen pizzas or late nights hanging out, Richie goes home to be a husband. He helps Erin out around the house, though he makes sure to point out that she helps him much more than he helps her. They go to the store together when he finishes homework. They make time to read the bible together.
“We try to keep everything important in our lives in check, make sure we do all those things together,” Richie said. “Football takes up a lot of my time, so I have to make sure I’m a good husband first.”
Husband or linebacker, either way, he seems to be doing a good job.
Unfortunately for Richie, they don’t give out awards for Husband of the Week, so it appears his Defensive Player of the Week Award will have to suffice. To hear his coaches talk, he earned it.
“I’ve been saying it all four weeks: he’s been playing at a high level,” Diaz bragged, “and to be anything on defense you have to have a strong middle linebacker.”
Just another skill for Renaissance Richie.