They called them the Backyard Sessions, where Illinois sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown and his stepfather, Richard Kinley, went through grueling, old-school football practices behind their Memphis home. Sort of a rite of passage.
CHAMPAIGN -- They called them the Backyard Sessions, where Illinois sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown and his stepfather, Richard Kinley, went through grueling, old-school football practices behind their Memphis home. Sort of a rite of passage.
"Some of them got pretty intense,'' said Kinley, looking back on it one night this week. "They were pretty brutal.''
Like the day when Brown asked to go to the bathroom. He'll tell you now it was just a ploy to take a break, get out of the sun and rest from the bag drills, the running and Kinley's demanding drive during the one-on-ones that lasted 90 minutes, sometimes two hours. But on that one afternoon, Brown's bathroom break was denied.
"Just go on yourself,'' Kinley said. "We're not stopping. It was old-fashioned two-a-days. I had a fence up. Nobody could see us. Really the only thing they could do was hear him moaning and crying.''
Brown isn't just a byproduct of Kinley, a former linebacker and defensive end who played at Middle Tennessee State. Brown's father, Rod, played linebacker at the University of Memphis when Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was just getting started in the business. Rod Brown gave up his head coaching job at Ridgeway High School in Memphis to return to the Memphis Tigers in 2010 as assistant strength coach.
"I had two father figures,'' Jonathan Brown said. "Most people don't even have one. It was definitely a blessing.
"I got most of my ability from my dad. With him playing in college and being around the game, it helped me get my intelligence for the game. Growing up, my stepfather is the one who really coached me and brought me up in the backyard.''
Brown developed into a playmaker in his second year at Illinois, earning Big Ten defensive player of the week after compiling seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception in the 17-14 win over Arizona State. His hit on the quarterback also forced another interception.
Before No. 24 Illinois (3-0) hosts Western Michigan (2-1) in a non-conference game Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN) and shoots for its first 4-0 start since 1951, Brown said he can be "one of the best linebackers in the nation.''
If so, it goes back to two men with football in their blood. Brown spent most of his time with Kinley and his mother, Candace. They met when Jonathan was 3, and he tagged along with Kinley, whose career at Middle Tennessee ended in 1990. He directs two not-for-profit youth football programs.
"He was too young to play,'' Kinley said, "but he went through the drills. I said, 'You might have something right there.' ''
As Brown grew older, the backyard drills become more intense. Kinley worked the night shift as a pharmaceutical warehouse supervisor. It allowed him time during the day with Brown.
"He thought I was just the toughest thing,'' Kinley said. "When he got older and was so much ahead of most of the other kids in making plays, he saw some validity to what we were doing.
"I didn't mess around with him. This was the way it's going to be. It was good tough love. We got done what we got to do.''
Said Brown: "Everything he did is paying off right now. My stepdad has been very influential working with me, keeping me in line. He's been the guy I really appreciate.''
Rod Brown finished his Memphis career with 238 tackles in 41 games. As a senior in 1993, he posted 108 tackles and six sacks. Jonathan Brown has watched him on film.
"He was good, but he was a little bit slow,'' Jonathan Brown said. "Talking to some of his old teammates, they said he was pretty hard hitter.''
That's what Koenning remembered.
"He was a plugger. He'd knock the heck out of you,'' Koenning said.
Koenning likes Jonathan Brown's football IQ, and Brown is beginning to see the big picture, he said.
"If he just plays fast and practices, fast, Jonathan's got great instincts,'' Koenning said.
By the time Rod Brown took over as coach at Ridgeway following stints at two other schools, Jonathan had already enrolled at Christian Brothers High School, in part because of the structure and academics from the all-boys Catholic school. After sitting out his sophomore season because of the transfer from public to private school, Jonathan faced Ridgeway and his father during his junior season. The result: Christian Brothers 31, Ridgeway 7.
"Every father would dream of his son playing for him,'' said Rod Brown. "That was something I wanted to happen. It just didn't work out at the time.
"Some of the things he does are extremely natural,'' Rod Brown said. "That's things that can't be taught.''
While Jonathan Brown seriously considered offers from LSU, Kentucky and Texas Tech, he ultimately chose the Illini over Memphis and Mississippi, he said. In his second year, he's starting at weak-side linebacker but also playing at middle linebacker. Everyone recognized the performance against Arizona State as Brown's coming out party.
"That was a good starting spot,'' he said. "Now I hope to get better each week. I looked up to (former Illini defensive tackle) Corey Liuget. He had a big game against Michigan State. After that, he kept getting better and better. That's what I plan to do.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.
The Jonathan Brown file
Sizing him up: 6-2, 230 pounds.
Preps: Three-star recruit at Memphis (Tenn.) Christian Brothers High School. Named all-state as a senior by coaches and media.
Stats: Tied for Big Ten lead with 4.5 tackles for a loss. Third among Illini with 15 tackles.
Getting in the mood: Showers prior to game. Cartoons in team hotel room.
Nickname: His father, Rod, known as Bad News. So Jonathan was called Little Bad News.