You never know who’s watching you, son.
Nate Brown could hear those words, even above the blare of Kendrick Lamar in his headphones and the clanking of 45-pound plates reverberating throughout the dimly lit Patriot Fieldhouse.
No one was watching the 220-pound Sandy Creek senior as he benched, power cleaned and tap danced through the agility ladder on a Wednesday afternoon in between AP exams. In a matter of months, Brown will have more eyes on him than ever. He’s reminded of it every time he writes his last name.
Brown University is more than 1,000 miles away from Sandy Creek High School, but for the third year in a row, the Ivy League institution in Providence, Rhode Island, is welcoming a football player from Tyrone—and a pretty darn good student too.
‘Born a competitor’
It didn’t take long for Dawn Brown to suspect her child was above average. The day she brought him home from the hospital, Nate was already lifting his head up.
When he was in preschool, parents noticed how Nate seemed more aware of his surroundings than the other students. By kindergarten, teachers wanted to advance Nate a grade, but his parents decided to keep him with kids his own age.
At five years old, Nate was playing football. He wanted to start sooner, since he had watched his brother Kenton, who is 12 years Nate’s senior, play football all his life.
“I think he was born a competitor,” Nate’s father Daryl said. “I really do. This was a challenge for him that he accepted a long time ago.”
Dawn and Daryl have always been confident in their son, but when Nate was a rising freshman on a football field staring at Sandy Creek players twice his size, Daryl was terrified. In a summer scrimmage, Nate matched up against juniors and seniors, and like so many other challenges he’s faced, he passed the test.
When Nate reached high school, he signed up for as many AP classes as possible. He took German, which he stuck with all four years. Nate made sure he always had two gym periods on his schedule every semester, training at defensive end/linebacker so he could be a varsity player as soon as possible.
“I give my best in everything that I do,” Nate said.
Now, with four high school years behind him, he boasts a 4.04 weighted GPA and has shouldered even more weight in the gym, where he stands second in the school record book with a 600-pound squat. He made it into the school of his choosing as a student, and then tackled his way into a spot on Brown’s football team.
‘One of those kids you wish you had 100 of’
Brett Garvin will begin his first season as head coach of Sandy Creek in the fall, but he’s been coaching at the school for nearly as long as Nate’s been alive. Most recently, Garvin served as co-defensive coordinator, so he’s been able to experience Nate’s “phenomenal” work ethic first-hand. Until his senior year, however, Nate didn’t lead as much with his voice as he did with his actions.
“He’s not a ‘hoorah‘ guy,” Garvin said. “He became more vocal [his senior year], trying to encourage teammates to push past a level of discomfort.”
Nate was quiet as a child, perhaps one of the few qualities about himself he hoped to change if he was going to become the leader others expected him to be. After a game against Fayette County early in Nate’s senior year, many players were upset about the outcome.
Although Nate had begun to talk more as he grew up, stepping up in front of people and speaking was still outside his comfort zone.
“I knew I wanted to do it but I didn’t know how,” Nate said of that moment.
After he took initiative and spoke up, the senior captain started leading through both actions and speech. He rallied his teammates that day to not only turn around their performance on the field, but their attitude off it.
“He’s one of those kids you wish you had 100 of,” Garvin said.
Brown and Harvard were interested in Nate the spring of his junior year, which was exciting but nothing new for a Sandy Creek football player.
Antonio Trapp in 2016 and Josh Greene in 2015 had made the jump from the Patriots field to Brown University and were offered a roster position on the football team right away.
“They really showed me that it was a possibility,” Nate said.
It wouldn’t be that easy for Nate.
The Ivy League schools lost interest before summer, so Nate had another plan. He’d make it into Brown on his own academic merit.
“Work in school like you were trying to get in academically,” Nate said of the mindset he passes down to younger players. “Then work in football to show them that you deserve to play for them.”
‘He really wants to help people’
William Bryan—or as Nate knows him, Herr Bryan—describes one of his most ambitious German students in recent memory as “not a one-dimensional athlete.” The future biomedical engineering major at Brown had a plan all along. German wasn’t a language Nate signed up for on a whim. He knew he’d need to know it when he graduated college, so he studied it persistently—not shying away from communicating with the locals when he traveled to Germany last summer.
Nate was told by his parents early on that people could tell he plays football by looking at him, but they might not know how intelligent he is until he opens his mouth. Bryan noticed how his four-year student took his parents advice. “He chooses his words very carefully,” Bryan said. “When he says something, you know he means it.”
Blessed with athleticism and an ability to excel in the classroom, Nate didn’t allow himself to coast through his years at Sandy Creek.
“He’s never satisfied until he knows he gets it,” Bryan said. “But the thing is, he gets everything right off the bat.”
Garvin thought for a few seconds about whether he’s ever had a player major in biomedical engineering in college—much less at an Ivy League school. “That might be a first.”
Engineering runs in the family, and that’s exactly where Nate’s passion for the subject came from. After seeing his father get three knee replacements, Nate wished he could fix it himself.
“He’s not selfish,” Daryl said. “He really wants to help people.”
When Nate first told his father what he wanted to major in, Daryl was surprised and said, “If you could pull that off, you have it made.”
If Daryl had to predict Nate’s GPA after four years at Brown, he’d guess a 3.6 or a 3.7, a more than respectable number for a student-athlete in a difficult major at a challenging school. But Daryl knows his son. Nate would be upset his father doesn’t expect a 4.0 out of him.
Nate holds himself to a higher standard, and it’s clear in the amount of scholarships he’s received or been a finalist for in the past few months. He was a recipient of the 1st Lieutenant Robert Collins scholarship for $5,000 and was a finalist for the Vincent Dooley Scholarship. Nate’s contributions, not only in the classroom and football field but also in the community, have set him ahead of the pack.
For someone who is always hustling, the greatest lesson Nate has taught his mother has more to do with his willingness to wait than his eagerness to keep going.
“Patience,” Dawn said.
That patience was on display when Nate had to hear that Brown was no longer interested in him last spring and that if he wanted to make it to Providence, he’d need to get there with his academic accomplishments.
He also showed his patience as he looked over his shoulder during his solo workout session, waiting for an invisible quarterback to snap an invisible ball so he could race across the line to mimic a pass rush. By the end of his routine, it was clear his body had neared its breaking point.
“Excuse all my sweat,” Nate said as he sat down on a wooden block in the fieldhouse immediately after his workout, his arms a slip-n-slide of moisture.
Just an hour prior, he finished his AP Literature exam. Only an hour later, he’d be in calculus class, and the following morning he’d be taking his AP Government exam.
Somewhere in between his next two AP exams, he’d be pulling and pushing plates of weight, huffing and puffing and creating puddles of perspiration in an empty gym while the other students cram for exams.