A 415-pound recruit, a father's legacy and the making of a star

NORMAN, Okla. -- Sweaty and fatigued after practice, Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, an All-American left tackle, giggles when he thinks about the day his father tried to use Adam Sandler to motivate him.

Disappointed by his son's lack of aggression in a youth football game, former NFL veteran Orlando "Zeus" Brown rushed home and told his son to sit on the couch while he sifted through his DVD collection. Brown assumed that his father, who died in 2011 from a diabetes-related condition he never knew he had, would show him old clips from his lengthy pro career.

Instead, Zeus stood in his living room and preached about the strengths of Bobby Boucher, an angry, underdog linebacker played by Sandler in "The Waterboy."

As they watched the movie together, Brown -- an eighth-grader then -- wondered if his father had finally gone too far with his inspirational tactics.

"He's like, '[Orlando], you gotta be this guy,'" Brown said. "He said, 'You gotta go get him. I mean, I know it's a movie, but you get what the f--- I'm saying.' He showed me that clip, and he said, 'When you get out there, I expect you to put a m-----f----- on their back.'"

Today, the nimble, 6-foot-8, 339-pound offensive tackle chuckles when he tells stories about his late father.

His father's guidance -- a "Zeus" tattoo decorates Brown's left forearm -- helped the projected first-round pick in April's NFL draft and All-Big 12 first-teamer grow into an anchor for Oklahoma, which will face Georgia in the College Football Playoff at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual on New Year's Day (5 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).

Brown will make the 40th consecutive start of his career in that game.

"For the mentality that we want to play with, he's the key guy to have on this team and in this program," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "He sets the tone. He's an emotional guy. He lets everybody know how he's feeling. There is never a question about what his thoughts are. ... He never takes a play for granted."

Zeus, a 6-foot-7, 360-pound powerhouse during his pro career, urged the eldest of his three sons to play with fury. Undrafted from South Carolina State, Zeus achieved his NFL dream with a nastiness his teammates admired.

"He's one of the strongest guys you'll ever play against," former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware told reporters about his then-teammate in 2003. "His technique is straight intimidation. He's going to block you to the ground every time and try to punish you. That's just the way it is. There's no mercy, no grace with him."

That's the persona Zeus urged his son to take to the field. He urged him to make every play count. Because, he knew, any play could be the last play.

In December 1999, Orlando Brown was just 3 years old when NFL official Jeff Triplette threw a penalty flag -- weighted with BBs -- that hit his father in the right eye during a game between his Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Zeus shoved Triplette to the ground, earning a three-game suspension from the NFL.

That ended up being the least of his concerns, as the incident caused Zeus to become legally blind in one eye. He missed three seasons (2000-02) while recovering, and it was the beginning of a life-altering stretch for the Brown family.

"I remember having to read food off the menus for him," Brown said. "I remember him having sunglasses on all the time."

While Zeus flew to Florida for training and traveled to New York to meet with a team of lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran, to move forward on a $200 million lawsuit against the NFL (settled for a sum between $15 million and $25 million), he rarely saw his family. His marriage crumbled, and he separated from his wife, Mira, in 2002.

Zeus and Brown also grew apart.

But Brown said his father "found himself" during his redemptive three-year stint with the Ravens from 2003 to 2005, a tenure that positioned him just a few miles from his estranged wife and children, who lived in Baltimore's suburbs. Football helped father and son reconnect.

Zeus didn't allow his son to play the game until he reached seventh grade, but once he gave his blessing, he demanded violence and a little dirt. Having retired following the 2005 season, Zeus had the time to attend his son's games. And Brown always knew when he failed to earn his father's approval.

"My dad used to leave my games when I was younger if I wasn't getting personal fouls," Brown said. "My dad played really physical. That's just how I learned to play football: with an attitude and with a mentality that no matter what the m-----f----- does, it's your job to finish him. [My father] expected a [15-yard penalty] every game."

In a middle school football game, Brown -- 6-foot-6, 450 pounds in the eighth grade -- carried an opposing player, whom he says weighed 350 pounds, 20 yards downfield and drew a 15-yard penalty. Zeus swung a towel and screamed, "Yeaaaahhh, dog! Yeaaaahhh, dog!" from the stands.

To Brown, nothing felt better than making Zeus smile that afternoon.

Over time, his father began to mix his requests for on-field fire with more encouragement. He would critique Brown in public, but he'd beam as he told friends and relatives that his son would surpass him as a monstrous offensive lineman in the NFL one day.

During Brown's sophomore season at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, colleges began to inquire about him.

Father and son prayed together. They talked about life and Brown's growth on the gridiron. They discussed the future, which seemed more promising each day.

Just as the two began to bond over Brown's newfound passion for the bullying style his father encouraged, Zeus got sick.

Brown thought his father had the flu, so he didn't worry. Zeus was just 40, and he'd played in the NFL for a decade. Hell, he was nicknamed after a Greek god. He seemed indestructible.

But he never improved.

The two talked that week. Brown had mauled a kid in practice and wanted his father to know, so he called him. Zeus was weak, though. Brown could tell. Still, his father offered advice.

"He said, 'You've got a good thing going, and you've just gotta continue to work,'" Brown recalled.

That was their last conversation.

On Sept. 23, 2011, days after he'd talked to his father, Brown checked Twitter and saw people tweeting condolences for "Zeus." He was confused. He'd just talked to his father 48 hours ago. Then he was called to the principal's office and told the news.

Zeus was gone.

His family soon learned that he suffered from diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition he never knew he had, one triggered by a lack of insulin.

The only thing the 15-year-old Brown knew was that he'd just lost his hero.

Four months after the funeral, Brown and his family moved to the Atlanta suburbs, closer to his mother's relatives.

Brown enrolled at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Georgia, where football coach Mark Fleetwood believed his new 415-pound talent would mature into a beast. The overweight Brown had quick hips and surprising burst, a monster hidden beneath a layer of sweets and fast food.

In a matchup against future Georgia standout Lorenzo Carter, then a defensive star for a local high school, Brown dominated.

"[Carter] couldn't get around him," Fleetwood said. "Everybody and their brother was all over the kid. I saw [Brown] stalemate him."

But the burgeoning prospect had not displayed the same dedication in the classroom. Three days before national signing day, a scholarship offer and commitment to Tennessee fell through in part because Brown never told the Vols about his academic challenges and his 1.7 GPA.

Once the staff learned about his academic troubles, former Tennessee coach Butch Jones called Brown, who was failing Spanish at the time, and rescinded the scholarship offer.

Brown, still navigating the impact of his father's death at the time, blames himself.

"I lost my dad, and I just felt like football was all I had," Brown said. "I distanced myself from my mom, my brothers and my friends, and I just turned to football. It was something I looked forward to every day. School? I kept brushing it off."

Just three days before national signing day, Brown didn't have a destination.

So Fleetwood called Oklahoma -- a school Zeus had always touted -- and asked for a favor. The Sooners took the risk and signed Brown. He qualified academically only a few days before his first collegiate training camp started.

After landing in Norman as a 380-pound mystery with a questionable academic background, he redshirted. But he was always scrappy -- perhaps too scrappy. Before he evolved into an All-American and the force who contributed to Mayfield's Heisman campaign, he was an undisciplined, gifted talent still years from his peak.

He played angry every snap. Yes, he blocked for talented, 1,000-yard running backs and protected Mayfield. But he also drew avoidable penalties and, admittedly, played for himself. He fought teammates in practice. He took cheap shots.

"When I hit that field, I feel like I can be that guy that I can't be off the field," he said. "I can be the bully. I can be the physical guy. For all the things and the hardships that I go through and I've been through in my life, I can make that person in front of me feel it."

That's why 2017 was different not just for Oklahoma but for Brown, too.

He has blossomed as a leader, as one of the captains for the prosperous Sooners. He's a 3.0 student now. He is widely recognized as one of the game's most sophisticated trash-talkers -- "I figure out these guys' backgrounds, I figure out where they from, and I try to find out the type of situation they come from" -- but he's more cautious in how he reacts to the fiery in-game moments that cost his team in the past.

During a dominant win over Tulane on Sept. 16, an opposing player punched Brown late in the lopsided affair. Last season, he might have responded. This time, he backed off, exercising discipline he lacked when he arrived.

"In the beginning, he was almost like a wild stallion," Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley said. "He's always had the aggressiveness, but I think his confidence has really grown, and then, as he started to play well, late into his freshman year, he became more of a leader. The guy has changed his body, he's changed his outlook. I know last year he had a bunch of personal fouls, and even though you love the aggressiveness, he's even grown in that regard."

Brown's transformation from a 415-pound high school project to a first-round prospect with an opportunity to win a national title is stunning.

But he isn't finished. During the offseason, he switched his diet. Egg whites and grilled steak after morning workouts. Quinoa, chicken and spinach salad for lunch. Apple chicken sausage and wheat bread for dinner.

He entered the 2017 season at 339 pounds, determined to avoid the disease that prematurely ended his father's life. Other family members have been afflicted by diabetes, too. But Brown said the new emphasis on a healthier lifestyle is attached to the greater mission to become the man his father knew he'd be.

"Throughout the years, he's really stepped up and become that sort of guy everyone can rely on," Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews said. "It's awesome having a guy, especially on the [offensive line], that leads everybody and brings that passion to the game."

Before the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, Brown will find the left pylon in the south end zone before kickoff, part of his pregame routine. He'll kneel and pray at the same spot he and his father convened prior to his high school football games. Then, moments before Oklahoma faces Georgia on college football's greatest stage, Brown will point to the sky, where his father now watches from afar.

Then he'll hear a proud Zeus again: Yeaahhhh, dog! Yeaahhhh, dog! Yeaahhhh, dog!

"I made a promise to my dad and myself when I started playing football that I'd be a 10-year vet and a Hall of Famer before I stopped," Brown said. "That's where my mind is and where I want to go. I'm really trying to get to the next level."