Josh Brown: Mr. Clutch

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October 11, 2011

By Scott M. Johnson

Brown350_03_1011From an early age, Josh Brown learned that sports were not only a great outlet, but also a way to stand above the crowd. Brown had more athletic ability than most of his peers as well as a rare gift for delivering in the clutch.

His first game-winning moment came at the age of 12, when he nailed a buzzer-beating, three-point shot on the basketball court while playing for a team called the Whitney Bears. He hit similar game-winners on the soccer field and the baseball diamond and delivered in the clutch again while he won back-to-back state titles in the high jump.

But Josh Brown’s ability to thrive under pressure became most apparent on the football field, where he earned an appropriate nickname. The man who would be dubbed Mr. Clutch has proven to have a golden leg at crunch time.

Before he became an NFL kicker, Josh Brown spent a good part of his childhood juggling. The sports nut played football, baseball, basketball, soccer and track throughout his youth in Tulsa, Okla. Not until his family moved from the city to tiny Foyil, Okla., did Brown feel like it was time to make a decision.

As a new kid in town of just 120 residents, Brown figured he’d gain more popularity with his peers by choosing football over his first love, soccer. He became the star of the football team, playing running back and safety while also returning kickoffs and punts. And, oh, he also kicked a few extra points and an occasional field goal for the Foyil High Panthers, including a 61-yarder in a playoff game.

Playing eight-man football, Brown proved to be quite a scorer — and not just with his leg. He scored 51 touchdowns as a senior, while rushing for more than 1,800 yards.

Sports weren’t the only thing that had a major impact on Brown after his move to Foyil. It was there that he developed a friendship with a boy named Jason McNerney, who would shape Brown’s future in a profound way.

McNerney was an older schoolmate who served as manager for the Foyil High football team. He was a popular kid who loved the game but was unable to play because of a genetic condition known as Cystic Fibrosis, which often includes a thick mucous in the lungs and digestive system.

Brown, who was best friends with McNerney’s younger brother Eric, saw the disease take its toll on Jason. Brown would never forget about Jason or the disease that made his life so difficult.

Socially, Brown fit in pretty easily in Foyil. He made lots of friends and quickly got used to the small town.

“It was really different, but I really enjoyed the country life,” Brown said. “I liked the quality of the simple life.

“I never really compared (Tulsa and Foyil). The only thing I knew was that riding your bike on dirt roads was a lot harder than what I was used to. And that they had sports, and I had a chance to play.”

And he was pretty good, not just on the gridiron but in just about everything he tried. Brown once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and also had a 32-inch vertical leap. He went on to win two state titles in the high jump, clearing 6-foot-8 both times, while continuing to star on the football field.

Brown eventually became the first Foyil athlete to earn an NCAA Division I-A football scholarship, choosing Nebraska over his home state school in Norman, Okla. He went to Lincoln, Neb., as a safety/kicker, but gave up the plans to play defense after his first week of spring practices. With future NFL placekicker Kris Brown entering his senior year, Brown redshirted as a freshman and came back the next year with four years of eligibility.

While he was an immediate success upon taking over place-kicking duties in his second year at Nebraska, Brown still had an itch he needed to scratch. He saw himself as more than just a placekicker and hoped to take a shot at playing another position. Brown did that before his junior season, working out at wide receiver for the spring game. He caught two passes and made a key block on a running play but eventually decided to give up on his dreams of a dual role so he could concentrate on kicking.

“I made my way up into the top few receivers — top four or five — and then I said: You know this meeting thing? That’s not for me,” Brown recalled, referring to the never-ending cycle of position meetings for receivers. “And I guess I started to think of the future and what might be best for me.”

Kicking proved to be the right move, as Brown established himself as one of the top placekickers in the nation as well as a future NFL prospect. He made his only attempt at a game-winner, beating Colorado on a field goal that would mark the first last-second field goal the Cornhuskers had kicked in a home game since 1961. It would also foreshadow what was to come of Brown’s NFL career.

But Brown’s college days weren’t all fun and games. During the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Nebraska, Brown received some bad news in that Cystic Fibrosis had finally taken the ultimate toll on his high school friend. Jason McNerney died in July of 2001, just a few days shy of his 24th birthday.

Brown350_02_1011After finishing his football career at Nebraska, Brown became the Seahawks’ seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft. The Seahawks immediately handed him the position vacated by veteran Rian Lindell in free agency, and Brown rewarded them with the steadiness of a veteran. As a rookie, Brown proved to be a reliable kicker with plenty of leg strength. His 58-yarder against Green Bay was the longest in franchise history. He also scored 114 points, a rookie record for the Seahawks. In his second year, Brown made 23 of 25 field goals, including 7 of 8 from beyond 40 yards. But not until his third season in 2005 did Brown start showing the side of his personality that would earn the nickname Mr. Clutch.

After kicking just one game-winner over his first two seasons, Brown got plenty of chances to win games in 2005. The first opportunity came at Washington, where the Seahawks got into range for the game-winning field goal and sent their young kicker out to try to break a 17-17 tie in the final seconds. Brown, who always prided himself on being able to deliver in the clutch, stepped up for a 47-yarder and watched it bounce off the left upright. He was crushed not only for having missed the kick, but also for letting his team down. His Seahawks went on to lose 20-17 in overtime while dropping to 2-2 on the season.

All because Brown failed to deliver in the clutch.

“It was the ultimate struggle that day,” Brown recalled. “And for the game to come down to one last play, for us, at the end of regulation, that just deflated everybody’s work. Something like that can set you back and change your perspective.”

Brown was determined to make up for the missed kick. And just three weeks later, he got his chance.

Seahawks vs. Dallas Cowboys
Oct. 23, 2005
As told by Josh Brown

That game was everything that the NFL experience represents. It was an exciting and hard-fought game. We had won two games in a row after losing to the Redskins, and the season was starting to look pretty good.

But the Dallas game was really what started a trend of winning in the fourth quarter that year. We had lost two games, and we were kind of middle-of-the-road. And in years past, those were the kind of games we had lost. That was just a major turn of events. We battled until the end of the game.

It was a horrible weather game. We were playing in a lot of rain, which, believe it or not, was pretty rare at Qwest Field during those years. The weather was a factor early on, when neither offense was doing much of anything. The Cowboys scored in the first quarter, while we couldn’t get anything going until the final drive of the first half.

Just before halftime, getting a chance to kick a 55-yard field goal — and making it — kind of rekindled a little fire for me. It gave our team the momentum coming out of halftime. It was just one of those moments where you could almost see things changing in the locker room. You could see attitudes adjusting. We knew something was going on; we weren’t backing off. And we battled the rest of that game.

We kept fighting and fighting, even though we weren’t getting the points to show for it. When Dallas kicker Jose Cortez hit a field goal with two minutes left, we fell behind 10-3 and needed a big drive.

We went 81 yards in six plays, finally getting into the end zone on a Matt Hasselbeck-to-Ryan Hannam touchdown pass with 40 seconds left. My extra point tied the score, and it looked like we were headed to overtime.

But the Cowboys weren’t going to settle for a tie at the end of regulation. They decided to keep throwing the ball, and when Drew Bledsoe threw an ill-advised pass in the closing seconds, we made the kind of play that can turn a season around. Rookie defensive back Jordan Babineaux, whom we had started calling “Big Play Babs” because of plays like the fumble he caused in the final minute of a win over St. Louis two weeks earlier, intercepted the pass and took off up the sideline. He ran it back to the Dallas 32-yard and got out of bounds with five seconds left in regulation.

The only problem was that I wasn’t ready. I was over there on the sidelines, preparing for a possible game-winner five minutes later – in overtime. I wasn’t preparing for right then. I thought, OK, Dallas is going to keep driving; they’ve been driving all day. I thought the Cowboys would keep giving it to running back Julius Jones, who had been running right at us all day. I was just doing what I always did in college: pacing and being by myself so my mind and my nerves could settle.

All of a sudden, I hear this uproar of fans, and I see Babs go running by, and I’m like: OK, what just happened? The whole moment came, and it wasn’t stopping for anybody. We didn’t have any timeouts, so we had 40 seconds to get out there before the play clock expired.

When Babs picked that ball off, it was just one of those moments. A veteran quarterback makes a major mistake, throws the ball where he shouldn’t, and we’ve got a rookie guy who was undrafted picking the ball off and going just far enough. He gets just to where he needs to get and then gets out of bounds at the 32-yard line.

My mind was a blank. I didn’t know where my helmet was. The big play came at a point when we weren’t ready. My helmet’s down at one end of the field; I’m way down on the other.

I was running around on the sideline trying to find my helmet, while Tom Rouen, my holder, and J.P. Darche, the long snapper, were running out there. Our special teams coach, Bob Casullo, was telling everyone to stay calm. At the same time, I’m bypassing the huddle of special teams guys. I’m like, ‘Everybody stay away from me; leave me alone.’ And, of course, I found my helmet.

I go out there, and Tom Rouen goes out there, and he’s like, ‘OK, let’s do it, man.’ I was like, ‘All right.’ We had these little smiles on our faces. We didn’t have time to think about anything. We just kind of backed up, and it was over like that.

It was one of those kicks where, after 15 yards, you knew it was good. And I lost my helmet again – this time because I threw it in the air in celebration. The helmet goes flying off, game’s over, and there’s this overwhelming energy in the stands. This side of the field is going wild, and the other side just goes deflated. It was just a major triumph for this team because we had made it through such a battle.

Brown296_1011I threw my helmet after I made the kick, and everyone made a big deal about that. Coach Mike Holmgren came up to me the next day. We have a good relationship, so he’s never approached me in a negative way. He’s like, ‘What were you thinking?’ I told him that the moment got a hold of me and I got excited and threw my helmet. And plus, I had kicked a game-winner in college and got crushed by my teammates. The guys at Nebraska all thought it was funny at the time, but it was nothing I wanted to go through again. I just wanted to stand up and celebrate and whatever, just hang out. So I took my helmet off.

And Coach Holmgren said: ‘Next time, leave your helmet on.’ We were fortunate enough to get another chance or two, and I didn’t throw my helmet the next time.

People were asking me afterward if I thought that made up for the Redskins game or anything, and I was like, ‘You know, that never came into my mind.’ I just wanted to forget about it, and I had. Only in interviews did it ever come up.

Josh Brown waves to fans as he walks off the field with the game ball after a 36-yard field goal in overtime to beat the Giants in 2005.
I had four friends from college in town that weekend. Coincidentally, every big kick I had, there’s always been somebody in town. We had a house full. They were there for my 58-yarder my rookie year, they were there for the game-winners against St. Louis – both there and in Seattle – in 2006. They were there for my game-winner against Denver in 2006. That’s just the way it goes.

I always go to the Metropolitan Grill in downtown Seattle after games, but we toasted up the town that night. We celebrated.

For the team, there was a realization of what it takes to win a game at the end. I think that was the major lesson learned. I’m sure we’ve all done it in college and whatnot, but to understand that team and the chemistry it carried, we learned a lot that day.

If you look at what happened to us the rest of that season, we continuously played until the end of every game. Even later on when we played the Redskins again in the playoffs, and when we played Carolina in the NFC Championship game, those were games where we never stopped working people.

The victory over Dallas marked the third in what would become an 11-game winning streak. Brown hit another game-winner during that streak, nailing a 36-yarder in overtime after New York Giants kicker Jay Feely had missed three potential winning kicks in the same game.

While Feely and plenty of other NFL kickers have folded in crucial situations, Brown made a living off delivering in the clutch. He matched a league record with four game-winners in a single season in 2006, and the man who would be dubbed Mr. Clutch kept on thriving when it counted.

Josh Brown and holder Tom Rouen watch as Brown’s game-winning kick sails through the uprights as time expires.

Brown296_02_1011“To me, he’s probably the best kicker in the league,” teammate Mack Strong said in 2006. “He’s definitely one of the best clutch kickers. You hear about Adam Vinatieri, and rightly so because of his clutch kicking in the Super Bowls. But Josh Brown has quietly built that kind of reputation for bailing us out. If it’s close at the end, he gives us a shot to win the football game.”

Another teammate, receiver/return man Nate Burleson, compared Brown’s late heroics to those of basketball legend Michael Jordan.

“Every blue moon, Michael Jordan would miss the shot,” Burleson said, “but more often than not, the game’s over when you give the ball to Mike.”

In 2007, Mr. Clutch was asked to describe what it’s like to hit a game-winner, a subject on which he’d become somewhat of an expert early in his NFL career.

“For a guy with no children, I assume it’s the closest thing there is to a father having kids,” Brown explained. “It’s an amazing rush, knowing that your hard work and everything you’ve put into being the best has paid off.

“It’s not just for me, but for the guys that set me up to do what I do. They’ve busted their butt to put me in position to win a game. It makes me work harder every chance I get.”

Brown’s heroics weren’t limited to the football field. In memory of the friend Brown knew back in Foyil, Okla., the NFL kicker spent much of his free time working to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis research. Brown wanted to do everything in his power to make sure that future Jason McNerneys had a chance to be cured, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause. The small-town kid with the big-time leg never forgot his roots.

After the 2007 season, Brown returned to the Midwest. One of the most popular Seahawks opted to sign a free-agent contract with the rival St. Louis Rams, creating a maelstrom of controversy in the Pacific Northwest.

But when the dust settled, fans were able to look past his departure and remember his Seahawks career for what it was: five years of delivering in the clutch.