NORMAN, Okla. — Before Lil Wayne tweeted at him, before he tied the school record for touchdown receptions in a game and before his signature catch went viral, Noah Brown's career at Ohio State had been a study in heartbreak.
Heading into the 2015 season, Brown had perhaps the best spring practice and summer camp of any Buckeyes football player. At 6' 2" and 222 pounds, his diverse skillset of strength, aggression and speed delivered him the label of Ohio State's breakout star for 2015. Entering the final week of training camp before the season, Brown projected as Robin to All-America wide receiver Mike Thomas's Batman.
But a career path streaking toward stardom came to a sudden halt on Aug. 26. Brown attempted a circus catch in practice on an underthrown ball and broke his leg. The freak injury—he was untouched by a defender—forced him out for all last year, altering his career paradigm from the cusp of notoriety to the anonymity of rehab. "It's good to be able to talk about it a year later," says Allison Brown, Noah's mom. "When I got that call last year, I had a flood of emotions where I just fell apart and cried."
With a performance for the ages Saturday, Noah Brown reset his career narrative to its original trajectory. In the stands in Norman, tears of joy welled up in his mother's eyes. Brown finished with five catches for 72 yards, four touchdowns and so many texts on his cell phone that it kept shutting down every time he attempted to check them. Not bad for a redshirt sophomore with five catches in his entire career entering the game.
Along the way Saturday, Brown provided a feel-good moment for all the people who watched him endure one horrific injury, two surgeries and the uncertainty of a year spent trying to recapture his promise. "It really tested my strength and passion as a player," Brown told Sports Illustrated early Sunday morning. "It showed me how much my teammates were there for me. I'm glad to be back there out with them."
Allison Brown recounted her son's four touchdowns in Ohio State's 45–24 victory over Oklahoma on Saturday night this way: The first catch made her excited. The second one put her in shock. She got so excited talking about the third touchdown that she forgot to mention her reaction on the fourth. By the end of the night, she had 300 texts, some from people whom she hadn't heard from in two decades. "I almost started to cry," she says. "And my oldest son, Kenny Little, was with me and he said, 'Mom, don't you dare cry!"
Brown's third touchdown, with six seconds left in the second quarter, set off a kaleidoscope of emotions. On the play, he leapt into the air in the corner of the end zone and pinned the ball on the back of Oklahoma cornerback Michiah Quick as they tumbled out of bounds. Brown secured his place in highlight lore by wrapping his arms around Quick to catch the ball on the defender's back, the brown of the football obscuring the white number one on Quick's No. 16 jersey.
With his catch, Brown entered the elite pantheon of Stanford's Francis Owusu and Alabama's Tyrone Prothro, the play equal parts balletic, athletic and hypnotic. Or as Lil Wayne put it, Brown was a "savage slime."
Around the Buckeyes program, the moment symbolized a career interrupted getting back on track. "He's just a monster," wide receiver coach Zach Smith said of Brown. "And when the ball is in the air, he's going to come down with it."
To quantify the affinity those in the Ohio State program have for Brown, just gauge the reaction to his performance. In the Ohio State coaches box, they celebrated his third touchdown with such verve that coach Urban Meyer joked that he couldn't repeat the curse words coursing through the headset. "Sometimes good things happen to good people," Meyer says. "He's a great person who went through an extremely tough injury. It warms your heart to see him have that kind of experience."
Absent from the reaction of the Buckeyes coaches and players was anything that resembled surprise. That's because they'd seen Brown snare catches with one hand, emasculate defensive backs with his strength and lay out his body for the ball so many times in practice. This type of performance against Oklahoma resonated more as an expectation than an anomaly. "Today, you saw glimpses of Noah Brown when he was 100%," says Ryan Stamper, Ohio State's director of player development. "He just catches everything."
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Brown earned that reputation first as a star receiver at Pope John XXIII Regional High in Sparta, N.J. He routinely caught balls one-handed, "like Beckham," recalls Pope John coach Brian Carlson, referring to New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Brown is remembered for going 95 yards on a hitch route to lead a comeback victory over rival Sparta High his senior year.
He lined up in the backfield and at receiver for Pope John, and even punted once when Carlson was in a pinch. With the opposite sideline yelling, "Watch the fake!" Brown boomed the ball more than 40 yards despite never punting in practice. "The ball exploded off his leg," Carlson says with a laugh.
Last summer when Brown got hurt, Carlson got a call from Buckeyes offensive coordinator Ed Warinner and could hear his voice shaking. When Allison Brown got her call, she booked a flight for the next morning to be there for Noah's first surgery in August. She says her son broke his tibia and fibula, the two long bones in the lower leg. She recalls the low moment coming when Noah found out in November he needed a second surgery, as she says his fibula was "so shattered" that it required unexpected attention. "It was shocking and scary and certainly made us know that the recovery time was back to square one," she says. "It was discouraging."
That second surgery put Brown behind schedule, and he's still catching up. Meyer said the Buckeyes will rest Brown during their bye this week, as he's still not back to full strength. Brown actually had a chance at a fifth touchdown catch against the Sooners but lost a battle with a defender in the end zone in the second half. "He's still not there yet," Meyer told Sports Illustrated early Sunday. "He still has a ways to go. He has electric hands. I'm sure he's crushed at the last one."
As disappointments go, failing to snag a fifth touchdown surely beats the setbacks from a year ago. Brown's viral performance Saturday provided the breakout everyone expected, just one year later that predicted. "I expect everything that Noah has done," Little says, "and I know there's going to be a lot more to come."