VANCOUVER - It’s one thing to have your image on a nodding, collectible bobblehead doll. It’s quite another to actually play like a bobblehead, as exemplar returner Tim Brown admits he did in his CFL first season with the B.C. Lions.
He bobbed and weaved, waiting for an opening to happen. But his former coach, Wally Buono, now the team’s general manager, convinced his primary kick returner that one hard cut, one decisive decision, is more effective than a bunch of stutter steps. The advice since has led to many happy returns for Brown and his team.
“Listening to Coach B (Buono), he told me, ‘Tim, you’re too much like a bobblehead.’ Just see your opening, hit it and go,” Brown said Tuesday. “That’s what I’ve been trying to work on. Find your spot, just hit it, and go.”
Brown has taken Buono’s words to heart and is now the favourite to emerge as the West Division nominee for the CFL’s most outstanding special teams player award. The first round of voting will be released today, and Brown is almost certain to be a unanimous choice among the ballots cast by the Football Reporters of Canada, Vancouver chapter.
On Tuesday, he was named the league’s special teams player of the week for the second time this season after scoring on a 56-yard return last Friday against the Calgary Stampeders, the second time Brown has taken one back this season. He is second in punt return yardage, third in kickoff return yardage and second in combined yards to Toronto’s Chad Owens in the league stats tables. Over the past eight games, however, Brown has been the league’s No. 1 kick returner, with 1,100 yards, 94 more than Owens.
Brown handled the ball seven times on kickoffs after the Stampeders scored last Friday at McMahon Stadium, and they were doing a lot of it. The Stampeders led 34-0 in the second quarter as the Lions seemed frozen in a state of inaction, both in core temperature and commitment. Brown was one of a handful of Lions who defied the zombie convention and played like it mattered. He had 231 return yards and a third-quarter touchdown that narrowed Calgary’s lead to 34-21. The Stamps eventually prevailed 41-21.
“You live and you learn,” Brown explained. “Rolly Lumbala said, ‘We ate a piece of that humble pie.’ We definitely want to win this next game (Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders) and have some momentum going into the playoffs.”
Humility is rare in sports. For many athletes, it’s a real challenge, or almost impossible. So much preening, mugging and chest-thumping goes on in football, for instance, even after routine or modest achievement, that one longs for the self-effacing hero who lives within the restraints that normal people respect.
Brown’s story is of a life rich with humility, from his days playing as a college running back for the 0-11 Temple Owls, to his years in Indoor Football with the Billings Outlaws and Sioux City Bandits, to his two years in the CFL, where he is a high-impact player with a low-maintenance personality.
Injected with truth serum, Brown might actually admit he’s a pretty good player. But he is always subjecting himself to severe self-judgments and constantly striving for self-improvement, living under the lash of demanding more of himself.
“It’s an audition every week for your job,” he explained. “You see other players come in who can play
your position. For me, it’s a mental game. I can’t rest. I always feel I have to work harder. I can’t relax.
At the end of the day, football is a business. It’s what I signed up for. I love to do it. But it can be taken away from you in a flash. If you don’t perform well, they’ll bring somebody else in. Each week, I just pray that God gives me the ability to enjoy my job, work hard and make plays.”
Brown illustrates his point through Arland Bruce, the three-time All-CFL receiver due to return this week from a concussion. Despite his accolades, Bruce has played on four different CFL teams, after being released by two in the NFL. While Bruce was out earlier this month, his backup, Courtney Taylor, showed himself to be a viable, must-have player in his absence.
“Arland is a heckuva player, but he still got traded around a lot,” Brown said. “It just shows that this is a business, and sometimes it’s about getting the right fit for you. I pray that this is the right fit for me.”
Head coach Mike Benevides rightly notes that “fear of failure” is a powerful motivator for Brown, in particular, and for most football players, in general.
“Tim feels very fortunate in what he does,” Benevides said. “He understands his position is always under competitive pressure. I think anyone in this business knows it’s a tough, tough business. There’s no security. These guys are tremendously proud. This is all they know. There’s a lot to be said for being grateful and appreciating where you are.”
Brown does. And, funny thing, the Lions seem to be just as appreciative of him.
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