College

California Dreamin’

The University of Southern California is one of College Football’s marquee football program’s, winning 11 National Championships and producing 6 Heisman winners in its 131 year history. @geosomerville recently had the opportunity to sit down with USC kicker, Michael Brown to talk about life in Los Angeles.

Michael, Hi thanks for joining us on @NinetyNineYards

USC is as big a sports program as you will find in college sports. What does it mean to be a Trojan and what was it like pulling on that jersey for the first time?

Ah, that’s a great question. USC has a lot of history. It has had a lot of great players and great coaches who have paved the way before us. I think one of the things that you learn when you first get here is that history and the expectation of excellence that this University has. So you get this understanding of those who have laced up in the same costume before us. Not only football but also in different sporting events. Like the Olympics. All the great races that have been run in the same stadium that we play in. So it is just a special place and when you walk in there you can feel the history. And that is just part of the reason why USC is such a special place and has that expectation.

Tell the fans back in the UK a little bit about yourself and how (1) you became a kicker and (2) why you ended up at USC. 

So I grew up playing soccer and I have an older brother and sister who were both  soccer players. So growing up I wanted to play soccer just like they did. And then as I was approaching my high school years, I began seeing my friends playing football. They were enjoying it and the camaraderie that football has is just a different sort of connection than you feel in soccer. And I thought why don’t I give it a try? “I’ve been kicking a soccer ball for most of my life, I’m sure I can learn how to kick a football”. So I did that and I began kicking my freshman year at high school and I just started to focus on that and excel at that.

Come my senior season I started to realise that I had an opportunity to do this at college. And just through reaching out to coaches and connecting with coaches I got my name noticed by USC and had the opportunity to come here. So I got the chance to compete with excellent players and get coached by great coaches. So it really began with soccer and then transitioned in to kicking a football. And that led me here.

There’s a lot of excitement about this USC team this year. I expect some of that because of what was a disappointing end to last year. There has been a lot of talk in the media, mostly from those attending training camp, of a cultural change with a different mindset and a step up in training. Have you sensed that?

USC Football defeats Colorado 31-20 on October 13, 2018. Photo Credit : USC Athletics

I think what I’ve sensed is a lot of young guys who have watched great players compete before them who have faced adversity. And we have a coach who has always backed his team and supported his players.  The energy is coming from players who are eager to make a name for themselves and for the opportunity to compete and just represent this great university and this great coach that we have. So it is just anticipation and an eagerness to show the world what we have been training so hard for. It has been a long hard summer of strength training with the team, training early in the morning. And that has built a sense of camaraderie and excitement for the opportunity to play for this university.

How’s fall camp being going for you so far?

It’s being going great. We’ve been very busy, practising every day. It gives you a lot of opportunity to show what we’ve been working on and to compete with the other players. I’ve been feeling extremely healthy and strong which I attribute to our medical and strength staff who are making sure our players really are in their best shape. I’ve been feeling good throughout the whole camp. I’ve been feeling really strong and I’m excited specifically about our special teams unit and what we are going to be able to do this season.

What’s a typical practice day for you? I’m interested in how you balance life as a student and as an athlete – studying for a degree and playing sport at such a high level at the same time.

That’s a good question. One of the nice things about fall camp is that there are no distractions other than football. The coaches are able to fill our whole day with meetings, film sessions, practice, strength training and the opportunity to recover your body. So in this past two weeks designated fall camp there’s not been a lot of distraction.

But getting into when school starts, it really is difficult to find that balance. Now going in to my fourth year I think I have it more figured out than I did in my first year. It’s figuring out time management and using the time that you have to study or go over some of your notes in class. But you have to balance that with making sure your body is in good shape and that you are taking care of your sore muscles. It’s figuring out times in your schedule and being efficient with the time that you do have. Say allocating an hour and a half to study for an upcoming exam that you might have that week. Or if you have a bruise you are recovering from that you can study right now so that in a couple of days I can focusing on recovering my body.

What’s the longest kick that you have made in practice so far?

This year in practice the longest kick that I have made is a 52 yarder. That’s as far back as we have gone in our team competition right now. When we are out there warming up, we’ll compete with each other and we’ll get back to 55 to 60 yards. But we are more focused on finding a swing that repeats itself. So that we can have consistency  and trust coming into the game and when the pressure is on the line. 

I listen to people talk about kicking about the mental pressure being as great if not greater than the physical pressure. How do you prepare for games?

The best preparation for me is imagining myself being successful. Imagining being on the field at whatever stadium we are playing in. I like to have a vision of what the stadium looks like so that I can feel the environment. I then imagine making the kick, imagine doing whatever I am going to be asked to do. So that when I’m in that situation it will feel like I’ve been there before. My coach, Coach Baxter encourages us to go through our practices and find kicks that we liked and we felt good about making. We then make a highlight of those kicks and watch these to reinforce good technique and confidence before we go in to competition.

Photo credit: We Are SC

Tell me about playing alongside Ben Griffiths, who is an Aussie Rules kicker. How different is his style and have you and the other guys on special teams picked up anything from him?

Ben is a great guy. One of the more impressive things about him is his mentality when it comes to taking care of your body and training. He can talk about being a strong guy or you can show it. And he definitely shows it. He has a leg that can send the ball in to the air that you’re not going to see very often. His strength is something that is really impressive not only as a specialist but for the rest of the team. You can just hear when he makes good contact with the ball. Everyone just stops for a second to watch this ball sail through the air. He has been really exciting to be around and has fitted in great with the group. He has brought a different sense of attention to training and taking care of your body. It doesn’t feel like he is at the end of his career,it feels like he is in the middle of his career.  He is taking this new challenge and trying to make the most of it. He’s a great guy to have around and we are all learning a lot from him. 

The situation between you and Chase McGrath is unusual and for me fascinating. You have alternated for each other when one of you has had knee surgery. Chase is just coming back from surgery. How is that relationship when he comes back? Is it a very competitive situation or as you both know what you’ve been through are you supportive of one another?

You’re right in that its an extremely rare situation. It doesn’t feel real. We actually had ACL surgery exactly a year apart from each other to the day. So thats not something you expect to happen. So yes, going though it and going through the recovery I was able to check in with him and make sure he was doing well and that he was feeling strong. I would never wish anything bad upon him in regards to his recovery and his health. He is a great kicker and a great competitor and its really nice to have him back. He’s competing in the fall camp and the competition that we’re having makes us both better. As long as we can continue to improve each other and challenge each other to be excellent then whatever the outcome is we are going to have a great kicker who we’ re both going to believe in. It’s a really unique situation but its crazy how its played itself out.

There are so many polls out there at this time of year but one of the more interesting polls is how they rank team schedules. USC has been ranked as having the third most difficult schedule in college football. You play Stanford and Utah early on at the Coliseum and then on the road to Washington and Notre Dame. How do you prepare for a schedule like that? Has Coach Helton addressed this with the team or do you have a very set mentality about the year ahead.

That is something that is definitely true. USC is going to face a touch schedule every year. Everybody wants to come in and play us. We’re not going to have any shortage of competition.

That’s something I learned pretty early on in my first season when we opened with Alabama and we finished with Penn State in the Rose Bowl. So I’m like, “ok – there’s no warm up games”. When we’re ready to hit the field its time to hit the field and thats just the mentality.  We work so hard in the off season and in fall camp preparing for the games so that when we step on the field to start the first match there’s no warming up or seeing how it feels to play different teams. We’ve been itching to line up against someone with different colours on since we last played. It’s just the mentality that we know we are going to face a tough schedule. We know there’s not going to be an easy week on our schedule. And thats just part of what it means to be at USC.

The USC Notre Dame game, might be one of if not the most iconic games in college football. What’s it like play in a game of that magnitude. Do you treat that game any differently to other games on your schedule?

There’s definitely an unspoken feeling in the locker room. Walking in to that stadium you feel a different sense of history and the significance of the game. In terms of preparation there’s no “well this week its serious, this week we are playing Notre Dame”. There’s no difference in technical preparation but there’s certainly an unspoken, “ok, this is the week that we have had circled on the calendar. We’re here, we get to play the Irish”. We talk about the history of the game and the special feelings that come with it. We will remark upon some of the great plays and the history of the competition.

What’s it like playing at the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl – two of the most iconic stadiums in all of sports.

LA Coliseum. Photo Credit : USC.EDU

One thing Coach Baxter says is the grass is no bigger than our practice field, its no bigger than any other field we play on. Which is just trying to bring a sense of reality to the situation. When you are outside of the Coliseum you feel like you’re in LA, you can see Downtown usually. But when you step in to the Coliseum it feels like you are stepping into a new world that is just unmatched – there is no comparison to it. You just feel the history. You feel the famous wins and the close games, everything that has happened in that arena. And its been a pretty amazing to be able to play in both the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum. The stadiums are so close to one another but have such different significance and its just – Brown pauses – I’m not sure what emotion I can put on the feeling. It’s something i will never forget – playing in there. It’s a good place to call home and a really special place. 

What’s your favourite or least favourite road game and/ or fans?

One of the pretty welcoming communities that I enjoy playing at may have been because of the altitude difference, which helps the ball fly better for the special teams, but going up to Utah. Its a different feeling from being in LA. You can feel the different social style, the different lifestyle. It’s nice to go in there on a Friday and leave on a Saturday. I wouldn’t want to spend too much time there but its an enjoyable place to be. The fans are great and the environment is fun. So going up to Utah’s was good.

I know that Notre Dame its great to go out there. It has a lot of pressure playing in that stadium. But I don’t think there’s a place that I dislike going, because everywhere I go is interesting because of the history.

Washington State in Pullman is a different environment and its a real college town. As far as I know the Town pretty much shuts down when there’s a game on and everybody comes into town for the game and its a pretty much like “this is our area and you’re trespassing kind of atmosphere”.

But its nice being able to experience different, teams, areas, fans in this conference.

When people think of California they think of the great climate and weather. How much does the weather impact your kicking in the PAC 12?

That’s a good question. I haven’t had the chance to play anywhere on the East Coast or in places where there is different weather. I know that it can be wet in Oregon and Washington and a couple of other places in the PAC12. We’ve had rain in LA in the Coliseum in big games against Notre Dame.

You prepare for those situations as much as you can. We have a drill called the wet ball drill where we simulate if the ball is wet.  The snapper has to snap to the punter where we’re dumping water on the snapper, making sure the punter is cold, putting ice water on his back, making his hands cold. Making sure if we’re put in that situation that we’re prepared. But our average day on the practice field is sunny so there’s not much to complain about, out here!

Someone we have covered on NinetyNineYards over a long time is Jake Olsen and I wanted to ask what it was like having Jake on the team and how special a  moment it was when he took his first snap?

Michael Brown (#49) alongside teammate Jake Olsen (#61). Photo credit : Bro Bible/Instagram

Jake is a special story to witness and a special story to be part of. He’s such a great guy. He has so many great qualities that you see on camera but he also has so many other qualities that the camera can’t catch. And some of that is just being a teammate with him and being with him every day. His humour is amazing and we’re able to mess with each other, laugh with each other, enjoy the day. He really brought a light heartedness to the environment but he also brought a sense of hard word and seriousness and overcoming any obstacle that we believe is daunting.

We can be encouraged and inspired by everything that he has gone through. I don’t have enough kind things to say about the guy. It was special to be with him, it was so special to be a part of his life and his dream of snapping a ball in the Coliseum.

And not to mention the benefit to morale that his dog Quebec brought everyday. Everyone would love to play fetch with him. We would feed him snacks when Jake would ask us not to. I’m sure that dog gained weight during the season but it was just a great time in life to have him around and to be around him. Now he’s moved on to the next step in his career and his life. And I wish him all the best.

This is your senior year, coming to an end at USC. What’s been the highlight of your time at USC so far?

So, yes I’m coming in to my fourth year and technically I have another year of eligibility after this. So academically this is my senior year and I will be graduating this May. Athletically its actually considered my Junior year. But it has felt like a while! So I do have a lot of experiences and games that I can look back fondly on.

Just thinking back it was pretty amazing to have that historic Rose Bowl game as the cap to my first season here. That was an amazing season and an amazing group of men to be a part of. So I will always remember that. 

Also playing Notre Dame in the Coliseum when the weather was – it felt like it was an away game with the weather. We had a lot of fans and support. I remember Adoree Jackson’s amazing kick off return where he hurdled the kicker and brought it all the way back for a touchdown. 

There have been some great kicks that I can think of. Matt Boermeester’s game winning field goal kick for the Rosebowl. That was a great feeling to experience. I will always remember that. That’s the amazing thing about being here. It seems every year  that there’s multiple games where I’m like this is a special moment and this is a special group of guys and I have to continue to remember those.

I know its only the start of the season and maybe too far to look ahead. But what would your plans be for next year?

As you say it is a little early to make that decision. But as it is now I still feel great, I still feel strong, I love the coaches that I have. I love the teammates that I have and I am definitely planning on coming back. I am planning on having another shot at competing with each other and preparing  for another great season. We’re focused on the short term, preparing for the next game. Fresno State in a few weeks but as far as I can think right now I’m going to be coming back.

My last question, Lynn Swan is the Athletic Director at USC and there never seems to be a day goes by without some ex player, alumni. Famous person dropping in to practice. Is there a particular person that you have met where you thought, “wow, I cant believe I just met…”….

Yes, there’s definitely those USC football alumni that you see at practice, at meetings and at games where you see them and you’re like there’s lots of history there and its wow I cant believe I just met that person.

But when Will Ferrell is around……when you’re at training and focused on practice and you see a well known guy like Will Ferrell. That’s when you stop for a second and say I cant believe that guy’s here and I just met him. I’m sure you guys are familiar with him, the famous comedian and funny guy. It’s pretty awesome when you see people like that.

Will Ferrell leads out the USC Trojans. Photo Credit : Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times

I was really hoping you were going to say someone like that, because it lives up to the hype that its all actors and stars that come see USC – it was either that or Snoop Dogg that I was hoping you would say!

Well thank you Michael for taking the time out to chat to us today. I hope you have a great season and that USC has a winning season and that we see you playing in the closing games of the season. I hope it all goes well.

Thank you so much, thank you George.

With thanks to Michael Brown for taking the time out from practice and the University of Southern Cal Athletics Department for helping out with the interview.

You can hear the full interview with Michael on a special @CollegeChaps podcast available on Apple Podcasts.

Photo credit: Featured Image – Chris Humphreys, USA Today Sports

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