The Gentle Giant
Oct. 22, 2010
"He's the first guy we want getting off the bus."
That's how Indiana football head coach Bill Lynch often describes James Brewer. It's a reference to Brewer's massive, 6-foot-8, 335-pound frame. He just looks like the toughest, meanest offensive lineman you've ever seen. He looks like he was born to play football.
Except if it had been up to him, maybe he never would have.
Brewer always had the size for the sport - he just didn't have the burning desire. He first played when he was in third grade, but had to wear an "X" on his helmet because he was too big to run the football. Then he fractured his wrist playing tag with friends in his neighborhood. So he walked away from the game until his freshman year of high school, when his mom intervened.
"The deal with my mom was that if I played football she would let me grow my hair out," Brewer says. "She would let me grow my hair out and get braids, that was the deal. When I got my hair long enough to get braids, she said I couldn't get braids, so I didn't want to play football anymore."
Brewer played basketball as a sophomore and a junior in high school then enrolled at Indianapolis's Arlington High School as a senior. He didn't plan on playing football there either, but his basketball coach and athletic director suggested he play the game to get in shape for basketball season. That's when his football coach, Rob Padgett helped him on his path to college football.
"We offered him a scholarship before he ever played a down of football, at least at the high school level," says Billy Lynch, who heads up recruiting in the Indianapolis area. "That's where we need to have great inroads with the state of Indiana, and so many of these coaches are such good friends of ours. Rob Padgett is a good friend of mine and he called and said, `Billy, I know you're going to think I'm crazy but I'll just show you some summer drills from this kid and bring him down.' So we hurry back to the office and threw on the tape and you have to take a chance on an athletic kid his size."
Indiana wasn't always the dream school for Brewer. He had originally hoped to go to North Carolina, a school that had shown interest in him and where his stepfather had gone to school. But after taking a trip to Indiana and hearing the pitch from the late Terry Hoeppner, Brewer found the decision was easy.
"It was close, so we came down just to look at it and see the coach here and get a tour," Brewer says. "So while we were getting the tour on this unofficial visit, they're watching tape on me. And, when we got done with the tour, Coach Hep brought me and my mom and dad up to his office and sat down and talked to us. He was a great salesman."
Still, though Brewer had the physical characteristics to be an offensive lineman at the college level, he needed to develop the skills and the mentality to excel.
"He's come a long way and really developed about in the timeline we thought it would take for a kid like that," Billy Lynch says. "So raw, so inexperienced in the game. Unfortunately for him, he had a foot injury and he lost an entire year really, fall and spring. And he was a guy that we knew would need reps. Like a lot of these kids, he got older, got more mature, got into the weight room, got adjusted to Indiana, got adjusted to football. The light just kind of came on and once it did it was like, `Oh, man. He's exactly what he looks like.'"
Perhaps, though, he had further to go mentally than physically. As someone who has always been the biggest guy around, he often was hesitant to raise his voice or act tough - anything that would draw too much attention to his size.
"He looks like a big, mean guy but he's just a big teddy bear who likes to joke," junior offensive lineman Justin Pagán says. "He looks kind of scary, but there's not a mean bone in his body. Off the field he's a gentle giant. But when he gets on the field, it's a whole different Brewer."
"It's actually taken me quite a long time," Brewer says of his becoming more of a vocal leader. "I mean, my voice is pretty deep so I try not to yell at people when I'm talking. All the things that subconsciously you do so that you don't seem as big, because I've always been bigger than everybody. I think just over time it got me where I was passive for a while. I need to be nice off the field but when you're on the field, you know that's not going to cut it."
That sometimes poses a challenge for Brewer, when he is going head-to-head with his teammates in practice.
"At the end of the day these are the guys that will play on Saturday, and we're all wearing the same colors. In practice it's kind of hard to be a jerk to them, but when it's another team I don't really have that issue."
And as he has become more comfortable with his role and his size, he has also been willing to reach out to his younger teammates to help them get better.
"As I've been here more, he's opened up more and talked more," Pagán says. "He's more of a silent leader, but when he says something, you're listening to him. When we have a question, he knows certain things our younger tackles don't know and he'll help them out there."
The transition has him in his senior year as one of the top offensive linemen in the conference - one who could easily move on to the next level because of his size.
"I'm not going to lie and say I don't care about the NFL," Brewer says. "During camp you see scouts, but it's one of those things where I've just really started to play football. It's nice to know that I have that potential and it's an option, but at the end of the day I'm honestly more focused on us having a good season. Me going to the next level and having a 3-9 season, I `d rather have a better season as a senior."
Of course, he could follow his former cohort on the opposite end of the line, Rodger Saffold, who is now starting at left tackle for the St. Louis Rams. And it's not as if he doesn't have the potential.
"On the field," Pagán says, "he does some things that I didn't see Rodger do with his hands, and his feet are fast. He's a freak."
Though it might be his future, football is not what defines James Brewer. It never has. He has found a love for the game, but he is much more than that.
"When I was recruiting him, he was really into psychology," Billy Lynch says. "In fact, he was here on an official visit and he made his mom go to the bookstore not to get IU gear, but to get this psychology book that he was interested in. He apparently is somewhat fluent in Japanese. In high school, he loved to throw out a few Japanese phrases. I had no idea what he was talking about but I did know that he is a unique and special guy."
Brewer - who originally started studying Japanese because he enjoyed watching Japanese cartoons, but later because "respect is a big thing there and I was drawn to it" - is far more than a football player. And when he leaves Indiana University, he wants to be remembered in that light.
"Just that I was myself," Brewer says. "I've matured as a person but I think if you ask people to describe me you get the same answer from everybody. I want to be remembered as someone that came and stayed true to myself."
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