It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Orange County, Calif., and a middle-aged man in a faded leather weight belt barks orders in a nondescript gym, herding what he calls his “house of 4.0 thugs” through a workout so intense that their biceps twitch.
His name is John Brown and he was once among the bodybuilding elite, a two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World with a jheri curl and boulder-like muscles. The 4.0 thugs are his three sons, Equanimeous, Osiris and Amon-Ra. They’re all wide receivers, each more highly regarded than the last. Equanimeous, a redshirt sophomore, is the top target at Notre Dame. Osiris, a true freshman, is one of the most heralded pieces of the latest Stanford recruiting class. And Amon-Ra, a senior, is arguably the No. 1 receiving recruit in the country at powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana.
Whenever the boys are all home, they go four or five times a week to an LA Fitness in a shopping center a short drive from their home in Brea. They lift for over an hour like a well-drilled NASCAR pit crew—everything is speed and precision. When one bench presses, the other two spot. As the set winds down, the spotters wordlessly slide off a plate apiece to set up their brother for a few cool down reps. He’s upright as soon as the bar touches the resting position. No sooner does he stand than another brother slides in to replace him. Then they shuttle between rapid-fire bicep curls and accelerated lat pulldowns before winding down with 20 minutes on the basketball court.
Each of the St. Brown brothers—their last name is different from their father’s—profiles as an NFL prospect. Leading the way is Equanimeous, who had four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown in the Irish’s 49–16 opening win last Saturday over Temple, building on a freshman season in which he led the team in receiving yards (961) and touchdowns (nine). Theories abound as to why they’re so accomplished. It could be simple genetics, which would be no accident since John readily cops to pursuing his wife, Miriam, for, “selective breeding.” Or it might be their demeanor, ravenously competitive on the field and equally distinguished in the classroom. (Yes, the 4.0 thugs routinely have 4.0 GPAs, according to their parents.) Then there’s John himself, who introduced the boys to weight training when they were as young as kindergarteners, feeds them entree portions of red meat for breakfast and turns his nose up at most high school and college strength coaches because most “don’t know s--- about lifting weights.”
Ultimately, a bombastic former athlete developed a unique regimen to train his three mixed-race, colorfully named sons, intending that they would dominate their chosen sport. In other words, this is the Ball family of football.
Only, the St. Browns are something else entirely, and even more unique. After all, what other accomplished sports family features a patriarch with a day job in women’s fashion and a passion for painting surrealist art? A matriarch who addresses her sons only in German and who once moved with them to Paris for a semester in elementary school? And siblings who are trilingual and took the SATs in three languages?
“It has fascinated me for years,” says Bruce Rollinson, Amon-Ra’s coach at Mater Dei. “To me, they’re regular parents with three well-rounded young men. But you have to look at the academics and athletics and go, ‘O.K., but they’re not normal.’”
It all begins with the names.
“No offense, but Jim Brown, John Brown—what is that? There’s too many of them,” John says. “I’ve got the option to use any name I want, I’m going to pick a slave name?”
There is, of course, an endless spectrum of possibilities between “John Brown” and “Equanimeous Tristan Imhotep J. St. Brown,” “Osiris Adrian Amon-Ra J. St. Brown,” and “Amon-Ra Julian Heru J. St. Brown.” Brown was active in the early 1990s in what he describes as “an underground black consciousness movement” when he learned of the power of traditional African names; Egyptian nomenclature intrigued him even more. With the exception of Equanimeous, a name he plucked from a character in a friend’s novel, the boys’ first and middle names follow a formula: An Egyptian name, a traditional name chosen by Miriam, a second Egyptian name and a “J” for John. (After Miriam delivered Equanimeous, John told her he was also adding a flourish to their surname. “Brown doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey,” he explained. Thus, St. Brown—which John says narrowly edged Von Brown.)
The boys’ temperaments are as distinctive as their appellations. Equanimeous, befitting the root word, equanimous, is calm and unflappable—“The perfect big brother,” John beams. He also has the most sublime physical gifts, 6’5’’ and 203 pounds with balletic body control. He was the best receiver in Southern California during his career at Anaheim’s Servite High, which all three boys attended before Osiris and Amon-Ra transferred to Mater Dei last year. “The two times we played against him, we schemed to stop him,” Rollinson. “I was blown away by his talent.”
Osiris is self-motivated and analytical. While his brothers have designs on business degrees he’ll major in computer science. “Even when he was little, the other two would be roughhousing and he would be sitting there with a book. He’d look up and say, ‘You guys really need to stop that,’” says Lorene Hunt-Daniel, John’s oldest sister. On the field, the 6'2", 183-pound Osiris excels in short-area quickness, and is fluid in and out of his routes. There’s a quiet intensity to his play, something that John says is a big part of why he sees more of himself in Osiris than his other two sons. “It’s controlled anger—but smooth,” John says. “If you don’t know, that’s what makes him more difficult and dangerous, because he’s real quiet. He’s not in your face. He just runs by you and you go, How did he do that?”
Amon-Ra, on the other hand, will yell. And talk trash. He’s the St. Brown who spins the ball like a top after big catches and makes no bones about his ambition to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. He’s a shade under 6'2" and 202 pounds, the shortest of the brothers yet also the one who benches the most that day in the gym. He also has Miriam’s sense of organization, and is so laser-focused during the school day that he uses only the most efficient routes to reach his classes. “I call him a man with a purpose,” the coach says. “Amon-Ra has no wasted energy in anything he does.”
“People always ask, ‘Who the best is out of all of them?’ I go, ‘It depends on the situation,’” John says. “Equanimeous is like good soul music. Osiris is like good jazz, smooth jazz. Amon-Ra is good rap.”
John was an art major at Cal State Fullerton who still works as an artist; one work of one of a gladiator with an eyeball for a head stabbing a tiger hangs upstairs. Since before he had kids he has been determined to pour his creative energy into his offspring: Whether sons or daughters, they would be premier athletes. When he met Miriam at a 1987 fitness trade show in Cologne, Germany, she held a degree in physical therapy and stood 5' 9". “You’ve got to fall in love with the right woman,” John says. “I can love a little woman as well as I can a tall one. You’ve got to get the right one that’s thick and strong.”
He started his sons in weight training when Equanimeous was eight, Osiris six and Amon-Ra five. They benched pressed metal bars and used pig irons for dumbbells. The boys played everything from baseball to basketball to soccer but all came to prefer football. John made them a proposition. I think I can get you to the NFL, he told them, but it will be difficult. I will be demanding. Once we are in the gym, I am not Papa. I’m trying to make you the best in the world.
“I think any kid at that age, obviously, would say, ‘Yeah! We can go to the NFL,’ ” Osiris says. “We didn’t really know how hard it was going to be. We just wanted to do it.”
John tailored their training and diet around his own hard-earned lessons from bodybuilding. He calls it “athleticism power training” and it comes with unusual tenets. In a given week, he’ll work every muscle group from their necks to their feet, but stretching is forbidden. For the most part, so are lean proteins like chicken and fish. John is in the business of producing horsepower, raw explosive strength, so he blends them protein shakes at least twice a day and makes sure every dinner is loaded with red meat. The portions are always doubled, one for that night and a second helping for breakfast the next morning. Each time, they’re expected to eat until they’re stuffed. And if the meal is paired with a sugary beverage or a slice of cake for dessert, well, great. “You need those calories,” John says. Besides, he adds, “Kool-Aid is good for the soul.”
Miriam has her own regimen for her boys. When she came to the U.S. from her native Leverkusen, Germany, she barely knew any colleges aside from Stanford and Harvard. These became her sons’ benchmarks. She steers their academic careers just as John does in athletics, and is equally unafraid to buck convention.
It began when she enrolled them in Lycee International de Los Angeles, a French academy, for elementary school. When John once grumbled that he wasn’t sure how well they truly knew French, she decided the best way to find out was to withdraw for a semester and use the tuition money to put her and the boys up in Paris, where they’d attend school with the locals. They took their SATs in English, French, and German—and, Rollinson says, “I think you and I would both die for the scores they got [in French].”
But she addresses them exclusively in German, when talking or in texts. A three-way conversation among Miriam, John and one of the boys is like a two-on-one Ping-Pong match, with their son lobbing back responses in two tongues. When the boys finished their homework, they could play Xbox only after additional German reading. If they wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house, they had to do extra lessons in both German and French. Sometimes she’d seize their phones and only return them after they memorized 10 new English words.
The payoff came when the Cardinal offered Equanimeous a full scholarship. “I was dancing,” she says with a big smile. When Osiris signed there in February, she practically did backflips. It now affords Amon-Ra, whom all of Rivals.com, Scout.com and 247Sports all rank either No. 1 or No. 2 at receiver, a measure of freedom in his own recruitment. “She has one son going to Stanford,” says Amon-Ra, who counts the Cardinal, Notre Dame, USC, UCLA and Michigan among his favorites. “So for me, she doesn’t really care where I go.”
Their multicultural and academic background is what the St. Browns believe distinguishes them from the Balls—the Chino Hills, Calf.-based basketball family and soon-to-be reality stars. They are aware of the comparison, and John says he’s met the family. “When I first heard about them, I was shocked to hear that. I go, ‘What? I thought I was the only one.’” He thinks his counterpart, LaVar, “should think more before he speaks,” but calls the Balls “a great family” and is especially impressed by LaVar’s entrepreneurial spirit.
John, too, is establishing his own brand, Cane Protein, which is the formula he’s fed his sons their entire lives. (He says the exact recipe is top secret). He’s had many ventures before, including a soft drink called “Chronic 187,” which featured the slogan “Murder your thirst, fool!” But he’s spent most of career in the fashion industry, designing and selling everything from t-shirts to socks. That includes the current family business, Velvet Stone, a women’s retail and wholesale clothing company. He designs the apparel and she handles the books.
“Those two together, they’re the perfect formula for success for their children,” Hunt-Daniel says.
John Brown grew up in Compton, Calif., the third of seven siblings. He first picked up a barbell in seventh grade. By ninth grade he was a regular at the Compton College gym. The weight room was also a hub for ex-cons, and John eagerly quizzed the biggest ones on how they grew so large during their years in lockup. Who else, he reasoned, could supply him with workouts he knew would bulk him up without supplements or steroids?
By 16 he was imposing enough to attract the attention of George Caracas, a local bodybuilder who mistook Brown for a competitor when he spotted him working out in a park. “You should be a bodybuilder,” Caracas told him. “Trust me. You can win Mr. Universe.”
He coaxed John into entering the Mr. Watts competition, in which men of all ages squared off. John finished third. Buoyed by his success, he stopped by a convenience store and pulled a few fitness magazines off the racks.
“I looked at myself, looked at the magazines [and] decided, ‘O.K., I’m going to go for it,’” he says.
And he made it. From the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, Brown was a bodybuilding icon. He stood 6’2” and 250 pounds at his peak, a colossus even by bodybuilding standards, but his size wasn’t nearly as unusual as his approach to competition. Sometimes, he lip-synched to the music while posing. More often, he would breakdance or pop and lock. He would take to the stage in a top hat, or a floor-length cape, and at least once bearing a dozen roses. He pioneered the strategy of posing to multiple songs in the same routine—one slow, to appease the traditionalists, and the other faster, to whip the crowd into a frenzy.
“He brought a performance element to the sport of bodybuilding that it hadn’t seen up until his arrival,” says Shawn Ray, a protégé of Brown’s who became an International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness Hall of Famer. “Nobody had ever seen a big guy move like that before. ”
In 1981, Brown fulfilled the destiny set out for him by Caracas, winning the Mr. Universe amatuer title to join the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno and Steve Reeves. The next year he won again, making him the only man in history to repeat in that division. He gained an especially ardent following in Europe, where he graced the covers of magazines and earned the bulk of his income. “His posing was so unique that everybody around the world wanted to see it,” Ray says, “and that kept his passport full and his bank account fat.
Brown attributes his achievements to working backward. He knew he wanted to be a world champion bodybuilder; he just had to ascertain a formula for how to do it. He pored over all of his contemporaries’ measurements, their heights and weights, body structures and fat percentages. The data gave him a measuring stick. Then it became just a matter of doing the work.
As a teenager he built a bench press from materials he scavenged out of his neighbors’ garages. Once he grew bigger, his primary challenge became retaining enough weight to stretch across his humongous frame. He abstained from sex during the weekdays and woke up at 3 a.m. to eat a homemade concoction of ground beef, pork and beans that he called “dog food.” The routine was monotonous and he grew to detest the predawn chewing; rather than quit, he blended it into a drink. When he went out to clubs, he would dance only until a preset time; then, he would plop into the nearest chair, place his hands on his knees and sit still until his friends wanted to leave.
“I wouldn’t move, because I didn’t want to burn calories,” he says. “I was that disciplined.”
Brown has approached his entire life as an ongoing series of riddles to solve. He believes it’s the secret behind his and Miriam’s well-rounded sons. The Browns insist that none of their boys that intelligent or that disciplined. “Amon never read a book in his life,” Miriam jokes. They simply collaborate as parents to push—sometimes drag—their sons toward their full potential. It isn’t as though the St. Browns blend their own protein drinks or volunteer to cram foreign language vocabulary into their brains.
“We just gave them the answers,” John says. “Figure out the way to give your kids the answers. That’s all it is. It’s like a magic trick.”
Ninety minutes after the workout, the boys are back home playing video games. They’re accustomed to being together. For most of their lives, they slept in the same bedroom, back when the family lived in a small condo instead of a two-story house. Despite all that testosterone in cramped quarters, they never had one fistfight. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t competitive. Each one gives the same answer when he’s asked who has the softest hands or runs the fastest or jumps the highest or is the best all-around: “Me.”
That cut-throat spirit is apparent with controllers in their hands. The sounds of teenage bickering waft down to the kitchen, where John sits by the island’s marble countertop. To him, these are the two best weeks of his year, the small sliver of time when the boys are all home and the family is whole again.
Even having one boy off at college taught John to dread the life of an empty nester. Now, two are gone. Next year Amon-Ra leaves. He’s gradually growing lonely. He and Miriam will go to at least one of the boys’ games each weekend, but seeing them on the field is not the same. “Coming home, knowing that when you open the door, they’re not going to be there to greet you—it’s like death,” he says. “I have a broken heart.”
John spent the last two decades being omnipresent in their lives. He took them everywhere he could when they were babies, from work to the beach to any errand in between. As elementary schoolers, he’d miss them so badly that he’d sometimes show up unannounced on a Friday afternoon and pull them out of class. “It’s a beautiful day!” he’d shout. “We’ve got to get out of here!” He’d march them to the car, pick up lunch and drive wherever they wanted to go. The destination was unimportant.
That couldn’t last, of course, which is why the gym matters so much to him. As demanding as he is, it’s never really been just about the workouts. “It’s the only place we go to where we’re all together again,” he says. His voice is soft, and his face crinkles into a wistful smile. “We’re all together, like nothing ever changed. There’s no girlfriends. There’s no friends. We’re all together. It’s just us.”
Like every parent, he wonders how time slipped by so quickly. Was that the hidden cost of the work they put into raising them? How much did they miss when grinding day in and day out to lift their children to such lofty heights?
“It’s like a tornado,” John says. “We don’t get a chance to really appreciate it from that perspective, because we’re in it. That’s the difficult thing. I know they’re good. Of course I’m proud of them. But to see what other people see? I’m sure I will never see it.”
He is trying, though. The last few years he’s taken to sitting on the opposing team’s sideline during games and offseason competitions. He wants to hear what people say when one of the boys scores a touchdown, to reconcile the world’s outsized perception of the boys with his more tempered ones. He wants to feel O.K. that there is less time to teach and there are fewer answers to hand out now, because what he and Miriam have done already is more than enough.
Later that day, John sits down at his desktop computer and pulls up a trove of video. He’s been taping the boys almost as long as he’s been training them, and with a few clicks of the mouse he can relive everything. He summons clips from all ages. A night in a hotel room before a big Pop Warner game. An afternoon at home, when the boys run around shirtless with mohawks and kid-sized six-pack abs. An early morning on the field, where he laces into them for slacking off. “I was too hard on them that day,” he muses.
These are for him, mostly, although he says he only watches them about every eight months or so. But like everything else, there’s a larger purpose in mind: He wants to be ready in case someone ever decides to make a documentary. Because that way, John and Miriam Brown can ensure that everyone else sees what they do, instead of the other way around. That their three boys are already anomalies and may soon become superstars, but they are also still their children. And, as John says, and as the rest of the world is about to learn, “It’s really cool to hang out with them.”