When Brian Kelly was the football coach at Santa Fe High School in Edmond, Okla., he heard about a 16-year-old redhead named Brandon Weeden whose arm seemed to possess the firepower of a bazooka.
After Kelly received the tip from one of his assistant coaches, he visited Weeden in gym class and challenged him to live up to the hype. Weeden, of course, accepted.
“There was a fire extinguisher probably 35 yards across the gym,” Weeden said. “He was like, ‘See if you can hit that.’ So I threw a perfect spiral, I smoked this fire extinguisher and it fell down.”
Not only was Kelly blown away by the display of power and accuracy, but he also was impressed by the sheer athletic skills Weeden displayed while playing pickup basketball games with classmates.
“He was in jeans and Doc Martens boots, running up and down the basketball court doing ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich-type moves,” Kelly said. “We knew if we put him in some spandex football pants that weren’t so clunky, he would probably be pretty effective.”
Kelly pulled Weeden into his office the next day and begged him to play football. Weeden agreed to give it a try, and 12 years later, five of which he spent in minor-league baseball, the Browns selected him 22nd overall in the NFL Draft.
Now Weeden, 28, is preparing to lead the Browns this year as their starting quarterback. His mission to help reverse the fortunes of a franchise that went 4-12 last season will continue today, when the Browns hold their first full-squad practice of training camp.
Weeden started T-ball at age 3, and baseball was his first love. His dad, Robbie, and mom, Shari, were constantly driving Weeden and middle brother, Ty, to and from practices and games. They took trips throughout the country when Weeden, at 13, made an elite travel team called the Oklahoma Sooners.
When Weeden began high school, he played baseball and basketball. He didn’t think football would be in the cards, because he was only 5-foot-7 and about 135 pounds as a freshman.
“I always wanted to play,” he said. “I just felt like I was too small, and I felt like I would get killed.”
His outlook, however, changed as he grew. He sprouted to 6-0 by the time he was a sophomore and then 6-3 as a junior.
“I think he grew 4 or 5 inches in one summer,” Robbie Weeden said. “I just remember buying shoes for him. He was going through shoes every three months. He went from a size 10 to a 13 in a six-month period. It was nuts.”
Encouraged by his growth spurt and Kelly’s plea, Weeden joined Santa Fe’s football team as a junior. He split playing time with another quarterback; Kelly was fired during the season, and the team finished with just two wins.
The next season, though, Dan Cocannouer took over as coach, Weeden became the quarterback on a full-time basis and Santa Fe shocked all of Oklahoma by going 8-2, earning the first playoff berth in school history and advancing to the state semifinals.
“It was just crazy because nobody expected them to do anything,” Robbie Weeden said. “They just plugged along and the next thing you know they start beating teams they weren’t supposed to beat, and they ended up being in a spot nobody would have ever predicted them to be in. It was a lot of fun. I think that kind of got in his blood.”
Nevertheless, baseball remained Weeden’s top priority. By his junior season, his fastball reached more than 90 mph, and in 2002, the New York Yankees picked him in the second round of the MLB Draft. At 18, he left home for Tampa, Fla., his first stop in the minors, though he knew football could still be a part of his future.
“I told my parents, ‘Man, if this doesn’t work out, I’d love to go give football a shot,’ ” Weeden said.
Backup plan unfolds
For three years, Weeden scratched his itch for football by returning to Edmond during baseball’s offseason and coaching quarterbacks at Santa Fe. Ty Weeden was playing quarterback at the time.
“Sometimes he’d be our scout team quarterback at my high school. Granted it’s high school, but he’s throwing balls off people’s face masks, off people’s chest,” said Ty Weeden, who was drafted by the Boston Red Sox and spent four seasons in the minors. “Everybody would be like, ‘Man, what are you doing? Why are you playing baseball?’ He’d always say, ‘Well, if things don’t work out, I’m going to play football.’ ”
Eventually, Weeden put his backup plan into motion. After bouncing around farm systems — none higher than Class A — for five seasons, Weeden had a record of 19-26 with a 5.02 earned-run average, plus a torn labrum and tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. He decided to enroll at Oklahoma State University — the Yankees paid his tuition — and test his luck as a 23-year-old, walk-on quarterback.
His family — parents and brothers Ty, 24, and Cameron, 21 — was thrilled, though his girlfriend-turned-wife, Melanie, took awhile to warm to the idea. Her boyfriend was beginning a college football career as she was graduating.
“She wasn’t too thrilled,” Weeden said. “She thought I would just go back to school and just get an education and move on. But I think once I got to Oklahoma State and really showed how much I loved it and how much fun I was having, she understood. She has been unbelievable through the whole deal. She’s 100 percent supportive.”
Catching a break
Weeden redshirted in 2007 and served as the third-string quarterback the next two seasons. In 2009, he got his big break.
An injury to the starter and a lack of production from the backup forced Weeden to play the second half against Colorado. He completed 10-of-15 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns to lead Oklahoma State to a 31-28 comeback victory. He was rewarded with a scholarship.
“Coming in at halftime and turning things around in the second half at Colorado was definitely the turning point,” Weeden said. “I kind of established myself for the next year. I never really felt like I got a fair shake. When you’re the third-string guy, you’re ticked off because you feel like you’re better and you feel like you deserve to play a little bit. … I was frustrated. I had a chip on my shoulder. I’m competitive, and I felt like all I needed was a shot.”
In July of that same year, Weeden got married. He then started the next two seasons and compiled a record of 23-3.
“It was crazy,” Robbie Weeden said. “After the Colorado game, he went from being the old guy that’s on the football team to being the guy. It was kind of surreal.”
Last season as a senior, the 6-3, 220-pound Weeden completed 409-of-565 passes (72.4 percent) for 4,727 yards and 37 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. He won showdowns against every quarterback picked before him in the draft, defeating No. 8 overall pick Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M 30-29, No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III of Baylor 59-24 and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck of Stanford 41-38 in the Fiesta Bowl.
“I don’t know where he’ll go from here,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken said of Weeden. “I just know he was a great player for us. Heck, we wouldn’t have traded him for any of those guys. I promise you.”
The next chapter
Weeden believes his long, atypical journey to the NFL will help him succeed with the Browns. Professional baseball, he said, has prepared him.
“No one wants to fail, but every once in a while, unfortunately, it’s going to happen,” Weeden said. “I think if you can learn how to overcome the adversity and be mentally strong enough to fight through it when things aren’t going well, you’ve got a chance to do something pretty special.
“I think that was one thing that was tough for me at first. When you’re in that position, you haven’t struggled very much, and I think I never really struggled [before the minors]. I think I really went through the first down [period] in my career, and it was tough. I had to do some soul searching, and I think it really made me a stronger person, stronger mentally, to prepare me for what I did at Oklahoma State and prepare me for this.”
For the Browns, Weeden’s unusual path to the NFL became attractive during the pre-draft process. Sure, he’ll likely play fewer years than other members of this year’s rookie class, but the Browns think he’s ready to lead an offense now. Although they haven’t named him their starting quarterback yet, it’s a foregone conclusion.
“He is as prepared to come in and start as a rookie as any quarterback I’ve seen in a long time because of his maturity level and his age,” Browns Presient Mike Holmgren said last month during a news conference. “He’s already been through a whole bunch of competitive situations.”
He’ll encounter many more each week in the NFL. And like the time he was summoned to showcase his arm in gym class, Weeden accepts the challenge.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.