The fastest way for Boston College quarterback Anthony Brown to move forward was to steel himself and stare down the moment that cut his redshirt freshman season short just as he and the Eagles’ offense were tapping into their full potential.
The full extent of the right knee injury Brown suffered against N.C. State last November was uncertain when he left the game, but after returning to the sideline on crutches, it was clear how severe it was.
The GIF that came through his phone was merely confirmation.
“The first time, I didn’t want to watch it — at all,” Brown said. “I had to. In order for me to get past it, I had to.”
Brown watched himself run for 7 yards then saw his knee bend awkwardly then buckle as he tried to make a cut to put himself in the red zone. There was no contact. Just a violent contortion, his leg making a gruesome “L” shape before he fell to the turf.
“It was rough watching it,” Brown said. “It was nasty.”
Eight months after season-ending surgery, Brown said he now can watch the clip without cringing.
He’s seen it “a million times,” he said.
If Brown never forced himself to watch the play, he’d still be questioning himself to this day. Even now, he runs through all the choices he had in front of him besides the one he made.
“I know exactly what happened, but I just had to watch it to see how it actually looked because in my mind it looked a hundred times worse than it looked on camera,” he said. “I just watched it to see what I could’ve done different. Because I already know what was going on in my mind. I already know what happened. I just feel like now I’ve just got to learn from what happened.
“I could’ve done probably 10 other moves. I could’ve tried to run through him, I could’ve ran right, I could’ve slid. There was a million different approaches I could’ve took to that. Honestly, I’m kind of glad it happened the way it did just looking back at it.”
While the rehab process has been daunting and football activity has come in limited doses for the 19-year-old, Brown is on schedule to be fully cleared for practice when the Eagles open preseason camp. But the experience was new for Brown, who had never suffered a severe injury since the time he first picked up a football as a child.
“It was a huge low point,” he said. “I had never had a major injury to where it stopped me from playing the next game. So since I was 5, I never missed a game. It was a huge adjustment, and mentally I just had to keep a smile on my face basically and try to get through it, because if I keep positive vibes around myself, I’ll feel better about it instead of always being down and thinking negatively about what happened in the past.”
Watching the Eagles go on to their fourth bowl game in five years was perhaps more difficult than watching the play on which he was injured. The Eagles were riding a three-game winning streak when Brown went down. Brown was starting to hit his stride after throwing for 275 yards and three touchdowns against Virginia in late October. The injury brought it all to a halt, but Brown was itching to stay in the mix.
“I actually had to be told to sit down,” Brown said. “I wanted to be out there, I wanted to celebrate with the guys because I love football. At that point, it really didn’t matter that I wasn’t playing. I feel like I had to motivate other people to get ready to play. I was getting yelled at for being out in the open a little too much. It was just different to see everything from a different perspective, like actually seeing it from a coach’s perspective instead of, ‘What do I have to do next play? What do I have to do next series? What did you see?’ Now I’m just going to watch you do things.”
There was no rush for Brown to return for spring practice. Eagles coach Steve Addazio encouraged Brown to focus on his recovery and his schoolwork. Brown also had an added advantage at home. Growing up in Cliffwood, N.J., many of the faces he was surrounded by went on to carve out careers in the NFL. His father, who shares the same name and played college ball at Georgia Tech, was close with Charlie Rogers, who spent five years in the NFL, as well as Jay Bellamy, who played for 14 years.
“He’s seen the ups and downs,” Brown said of his father. “He didn’t experience it himself, but just seeing it was his learning point and his teaching point for me. My dad made sure I stayed around my teammates. He emphasized that as soon as I was going to get surgery. He emphasized that I stay around my teammates because of past experience with him. I made sure I stayed around my teammates.”
And Brown’s mother, Carissa Henderson, had suffered the same injury in a workplace accident.
“I was with my mom the whole time after getting surgery, even before surgery,” Brown said. “She actually had the same knee injury. She coached me through countless workouts.”
The challenge was stopping himself from pushing too hard for a speedy recovery.
“I would feel like I was full go,” Brown said. “I would feel like I was really good and I actually wasn’t. So I had to stop myself plenty of times. Sometimes I’d learn, and after that, I just had to grow up.”
Brown was able to lift weights during the spring. Running was limited to straight-ahead sprints.
“My dad tells me I’m impatient,” he said. “So that actually helped a lot. Now I basically can do everything.”
Watching teammates in the spring gave Brown a glimpse of the leaps the offense was taking and the potential the upcoming season holds.
“We felt like we should’ve been playing this way since the beginning of [last] season,” Brown said. “We felt like it’s just all there — or very, very close to being all there.”
The Eagles’ offense has true weapons, starting with reigning ACC Rookie of the Year running back A.J. Dillon. There are pass-catching threats in graduate student tight end Tommy Sweeney, senior receiver Jeff Smith, and sophomore receiver Kobay White. The return of veteran center Jon Baker will give the offensive line the depth it lacked last season.
At the same time, how the offense progresses will depend a great deal on the production of its signal-caller. Since 2013, when Chase Rettig was a senior, the quarterback position has been a revolving door for the Eagles. Rettig was the last quarterback to play 12 or more games in three straight seasons. In the four years since, eight different quarterbacks have been under center. But Brown doesn’t see himself as a variable.
“I feel like there’s no question mark on anybody’s head or any specific group,” he said. “I feel like it’s more of a mentality deal for our offense. The ceiling is high in certain position groups, but I also feel like they can easily exceed those ceilings. That’s why I’m actually really excited because I got to watch them get better and better, even though I really couldn’t be a part of it physically. So I’m actually seeing huge developmental jumps in everyone. So that’s the most exciting part about this.”
Brown expects the offense to pick up where it left off, and when he steps on the field again, he said, “I’m trying to have this place filled.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.