URBANA — On Sunday evening the Illinois football Twitter account posted a video of a long touchdown run by Dre Brown with the caption: "Old man Brown can still scoot."
It wasn't a knock on Brown; it's just that, well, Brown is kind of old — at least compared to most of the rest of the team. He's been in Champaign since January of 2015, enrolling early as a four-star recruit out of DeKalb High School.
“Which is crazy, because it’s 2019," Brown said with a laugh. "I think it’s funny. I’ve been here for a while. I’ve been through three coaching staffs, three playbooks. Yeah, I guess people perpetually come to me for wisdom and what not. It’s fun to go along with it."
Running backs coach Mike Bellamy recruited Brown out of high school during Bellamy's first coaching tenure with the program, and Bellamy also played for Illinois in the 1988 and 1989 seasons. Brown wasn't even alive when Bellamy threw on his Illinois jersey, but ... “I keep on telling people that me and Dre played together," Bellamy said.
The rest of Brown's story has been well-told: Back-to-back torn ACLs, four surgeries, two completely lost seasons and two abridged seasons. He missed the first three games of last year with a toe injury, but he's ended the last two seasons healthy. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith said Brown may have had the best training camp of all the running backs a year ago. This year, Brown is healthy and has plenty of juice left in his legs to contribute this season.
“This is the best I’ve felt in my life," Brown said on Monday after another long run and a big gain in the passing game. "I feel like I’m really past those knee injuries. My last knee injury was three years ago. ... I feel like where I’m supposed to be, even going through all that. I finally got back to where I’m supposed to be."
All things considered, being the "old man" on the team beats being the guy who is always hurt.
“Those are the reasons you coach college football, to see a kid like that go through everything he went through, then to see him after the spring game and spring practice cry because he finally made it through spring," Bellamy said. "Then seeing a guy today who knows he has a role, he knows his role is going to be important and to see him successful day by day. He’s humble enough to understand that it can be taken away like that, but he’s focused enough to know that he has to contribute to be successful."
Looking back now, with 318 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his pocket, Brown isn't entirely sure how he made it through some of those long, injured days. He missed three training camps with injury.
“I remember sitting here for three straight years just watching camp," said Brown, who was born in Decatur. "These last two years I’ve been participating. I’ve seen the worst of it and I’ve seen the best of it. It’s all part of my testimony."
When Rod Smith arrived last offseason, some questioned if Brown would stick with the program. It had been a physically and emotionally trying tenure, and one that hadn't been statistically fruitful. Brown, though, was steadfast about staying around.
“To me, that’s what football is all about is guys like Dre Brown who have to persevere through injuries and hard times, who have been at the highest in high school, and all of a sudden you’re probably at your lowest," Smith said. "I’m sure there were times Dre was thinking about, ‘This ain’t for me.’"
Brown did stick through it and now provides both production on the field and a reassuring voice off the field. He used to look to former Illinois running back and current Houston Texans running back Josh Ferguson for advice. Ferguson was bound for the NFL and showed younger backs like Brown and Reggie Corbin how to be college athletes.
All these years later, Brown is dishing out advice to younger players. Some of the freshmen ask Brown what it's like to be married — he got married last offseason — or Brown tells them how to take care of their body and how to learn the playbook. If Smith or the coaching staff is particularly hard on a player during a practice, Brown can talk them back down. He sees the bigger picture that may have been harder to see a few years ago. If the injury bug bites, Brown knows how to navigate those waters and doesn't hesitate to walk a player through it.
In this case, being an "old man" pays off.
"He’s a married dude and an old dude, but he’s super experienced," junior offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said.