Baron Browning waited longer than expected to hear his name called in the NFL draft.
The Ohio State linebacker watched intently April 30 during the second and third rounds, his family and friends joining him at the downtown Fort Worth Marriott. His mom was on one side, unable to sit still. And his dad was on the other, hanging on the edge of his seat.
Browning could sense the anxiety in the room after the second round passed, where many projected him to go. So as the middle of the third round approached and with nine linebackers being taken before him, he attempted to calm everyone’s nerves, including his own.
“It’s going to be all right,” Browning said. “At the end of the day, I’m just grateful all of my family is here with me at this moment.”
And only moments later, on the last pick of the third round, Browning got the call from Broncos general manager George Paton. He was going to be a Denver Bronco.
“The emotions just came out of nowhere,” said Browning’s mom, Keisha. “Football has always been a part of our life. My husband was good enough to go pro, but he didn't. Little Barry was good enough to go pro, but he didn’t. And now it’s crazy to see Baron finally, kind of, break through.”
Browning’s dad, Barry Sr., played safety for TCU and Oklahoma State in the late '90s. His older brother, Barry Jr., played cornerback for Stanford from 2010-14. And while his mom didn’t play football, she was a three-sport athlete in high school, playing volleyball, basketball and running track.
It’s clear to see where Browning got the freakish athletic ability that he put on display at Ohio State and Kennedale High School. His skills and versatility are two of the biggest reasons the Broncos selected him.
“We like his speed, like his athleticism,” coach Vic Fangio said. “We think he will be a major contributor on special teams and compete for one of the linebacker spots.”
But Browning’s journey to Denver and the NFL would be nothing without his family, he said.
His dad has been his inspiration, instilling the value of hard work in his son at a young age. His brother has been his greatest mentor, offering advice at every twist and turn of his football journey. And his mom has been his sounding board, always knowing what to say in the toughest of moments.
“They had a very big impact,” Browning told The Gazette. “The lessons I was taught at a young age made me the man I am today.”
And that man is going to give the Broncos all he’s got.
“He did everything it took to make his dream come true,” Barry Sr. said. “In junior high, high school and even through college — he went through a lot and achieved his ultimate goal. But the work doesn’t stop. He wants to keep pushing forward and be the best that he can be.”
‘A man against boys’
Keisha always brought Browning’s birth certificate to his youth football games.
Playing since age 4, Browning was almost always bigger than the other kids, which often led to opposing coaches questioning his age. This followed him through middle school.
“I remember he came to visit me at Stanford and I hadn’t seen him in a while and he was as tall as me and he was in junior high,” said Barry Jr., who’s seven years older than Browning. “I had a feeling then he had a chance to be pretty good.”
It certainly helped that Browning lived in the gym as a kid. Growing up, he spent most of his days working out with his dad and brother.
“There weren’t any off days laying around the house,” Barry Sr. said. “I’d get off work and we’d go run hills or do drills. They were always doing something, being active.”
In high school he played on varsity as a freshman and was the starting safety as a sophomore until he tore his right labrum in the first game.
Still, the signs were there of a future star.
“At that point, I knew we had something special,” said Kennedale coach Richard Barrett. “He had so many of the intangibles that you look for in athletes that will help them flourish down the line and he had all those. In a lot of situations, it was a man against boys.”
In the offseason, Browning ran track and was on the school’s powerlifting team.
Browning ran the 100 meters and was a participant in the 4x100 and 4x200 relays. As a junior, he ran the 100 meters in 10.8 seconds at 230 pounds. And in powerlifting, which he only participated in his sophomore year, he was one of the strongest members on the team, despite having little experience in the sport. In one of his competitions, he deadlifted 630 pounds at 15.
Baron Browning once deadlifted 630 pounds as a 15 year old... 👀 pic.twitter.com/Ex9M2ZxT0v— George Stoia III (@GeorgeStoia) May 7, 2021
All that extra training paid off five years later at his pro day, where Browning recorded a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot-10 broad jump and 23 reps on the bench press. According to Relative Athletic Scores, which has tracked players’ pro day and combine results since 1987, Browning’s pro day is ranked as the fifth-best athletic performance among 2,137 linebackers tested.
“One of the most athletically gifted kids I’ve coached,” said Bryan Barrett, who was Kennedale’s strength coach and is a former “strongman” competitor. “It still blows my mind because I had trained as a powerlifter for 15 years and I could maybe do 650 and here’s a 15-year-old deadlifting 630. For anybody to deadlift 600 pounds is quite the astonishing feat, much less a 15-year-old who just sort of piddle-paddles with it. And then you look at the way he could run, his time on the 100 meters. ... It was unbelievable.”
By his junior year, despite playing little varsity football, Browning had blossomed into one of the top recruits in the country. He had earned offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan and UCLA. And by his senior year, he was rated as a five-star prospect and No. 1 outside linebacker in the 2017 class, according to 247 Sports.
“His junior and senior year, boy, he just lit it up. He could play any position on the field,” Richard Barrett said. “Incredibly fast for his size and frame, but also very powerful, very strong, very knowledgeable about football. I knew at that point, leading into his senior year, that if things fell the way I thought they might, I figured there was no reason why he shouldn’t play in the NFL.”
Browning did it all for Kennedale, playing anywhere from safety to linebacker to defensive end. And in his senior season, Barrett even moved him from linebacker to corner in two games to shut down their opponents’ top receiver.
Kennedale won both games, with Browning having multiple pass breakups in both and even an interception in one that helped it advance to the state semifinals.
“We took Baron from linebacker and told him to go play man coverage against this guy,” Richard Barrett said. “Completely shut both of them down. And they were outstanding receivers. I remember looking across the field and their coaches were in disbelief because he’s a 6-foot-3, 240-pound kid playing press-man coverage. That’s kind of jaw-dropping.
“I think that’s a testament to his versatility, but also his willingness to do whatever he can to help the team.”
'No questions asked'
Browning’s athleticism eventually landed him at Ohio State where expectations were through the roof. But he didn’t play much as a freshman and sophomore, changing positions and dealing with several coaching changes, including now Jaguars coach Urban Meyer briefly retiring.
But Browning’s commitment never wavered. While some speculated he might leave after Meyer’s departure or that he was frustrated with his playing time, Browning remained unfazed.
“Whatever the team needed me to do, I did it. No questions asked,” Browning said. “I kind of put my agendas to the side and I put the team first. I had to learn a lot of different positions and had to be flexible and be able to move around. I think it helped me a lot because I can play inside, I can play outside, I can play D-end.”
Browning started at middle linebacker his junior year, totaling 43 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks. He moved back outside his senior year, where he was often used to cover tight ends and slot receivers, totaling 30 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two passes defensed and one sack. He most notably strip-sacked Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in the second quarter of the national championship game.
“That’s something that NFL teams and his coaches at Ohio State were able to see,” Barry Jr. said. “He was able to have some coverage abilities and he’s able to take advantage of his size and speed. Baron is the type of guy, I think, who can cover a guy like Zach Ertz, who I played with at Stanford, or someone like Travis Kelce just because of his athletic abilities.”
It’s yet to be seen where Browning will play for the Broncos. At 6-3, 245 pounds, he’s almost the identical size of outside linebacker Von Miller, who’s the same height and only five pounds heavier. He’s also as big or bigger than both of Denver’s starting inside linebackers, Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson. And he ran a faster 40-time (4.56s) than Jewell (4.82s) and Johnson (4.79s).
Fangio said they’re going to start him inside, but might “cross-train” him at outside linebacker. Browning said he will have the same mentality he did at Ohio State: wherever the team needs him, he’ll play there. And if anyone knows how Fangio’s defense works, it’s his Browning’s brother.
Barry Jr. was a freshman corner at Stanford when Fangio was the defensive coordinator. He knows his younger brother is in good hands.
“It’s a defense where linebackers can make plays,” Barry Jr. said. “I think this will be a great opportunity for Baron, especially to play under and learn from coach Fangio. I think it’s a system that fits him. I think he has a lot of upside — I think he still doesn’t fully know what he has and possesses as a player. So, I think he’s going to get fine-tuned by coach Fangio and I think they’ll put him in the right spots to be successful.
“I think he’s going to be somebody who comes in with a chip on his shoulder. Probably, in my opinion, the steal of the draft. But I think he landed in the best possible situation, going to the Broncos.”
‘A special person’
Keisha best describes a younger Browning as “Dennis the Menace.” Browning was an adventurous kid and sometimes a little too outgoing.
“When he was 8 or 9, we went to a swim party and he didn’t know how to swim, so I told him to sit on the edge,” Keisha said. “I’m talking to one of the other parents and I hear all the whistles blowing and lifeguards jumping in the pool. I knew it was Baron. He saw all the kids on the other side of the pool and decided he’d cut through the middle.”
And as he grew up, his charismatic personality often got him in and out of trouble.
“When he had to have his shoulder repaired in high school, it was his right shoulder and he’s left-handed,” Keisha said. “Well, he sweet-talked the teachers into having kids take notes for him.”
Today, Browning and his family describe him as “fun-loving” and a “jokester” — which is accurate, considering he famously fooled Meyer on signing day, telling him he was going to Alabama. Some day, they believe he may even be on ESPN as a broadcaster.
“Baron’s a jack-of-all-trades with his personality,” Barry Sr. said. “He’s a people person. He’s fun to be around, he uplifts people when they’re down. He’s just a good man.”
And that man would be nothing without his parents, according to himself.
With his mom being an associate principal at his high school and his dad being a Postal Service truck driver, Browning grew up learning the lessons of discipline and hard work.
“As good of a player he was, is and will be, he’ll always be a better person,” Richard Barrett said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt where he gets it from, his mother and dad. He's got a great, great basis. He's got a great support structure. His parents are wonderful people. They raised him the right way, he’s got values, principles. He’s very grounded in who he is. Barry and Keisha raised him right.”
Barrett believes Broncos Country will fall in love with Browning and his family. Browning certainly hopes so, too. But he’s also satisfied knowing he’s made his parents proud.
In more ways than just football, he’s become the man they envisioned he would be.
“I feel like I’m a replica of my parents,” Browning said. “Anything I do, I want people to say, ‘Wow, y’all did a really good job raising that young man.’ I just want to make my parents proud any way I can. Everything they’ve given me and the sacrifices they made, not only for me but for my older brother too, I feel like I owe my parents everything.”
But like any great parents, Barry Sr. and Keisha don’t want any of the attention for the son’s success.
For them, it’s enough to see his dream become reality.
“It was all Baron,” Barry Sr. said. “We’re just along for the ride.”