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Washington's Jake Browning is college football's top passer and its most reluctant star

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  • Jake Browning
    Jake Browning
    American-football player (1996-)

SEATTLE – It’s coming for him. Fame is crowding the line of scrimmage, hype is arriving like an all-out blitz, adulation is ready to collapse the pocket of avoidance where Jake Browning longs to reside.

Browning is perceptive enough to read the blitz. He can feel the pressure. But he dreads its arrival.

If only the Washington sophomore quarterback could call an audible and escape, he would.

But his team is 6-0 and ranked fifth in America. And Browning is the No. 1-rated passer in the nation, completing 72 percent of his throws with 23 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He threw six touchdown passes at Oregon – a throwback to his days at Folsom (Calif.) High School when he set the national record with 229 career TD passes. He’s climbing up Heisman Trophy lists.

There’s no way out of this.

Jake Browning has helped lead Washington to a 6-0 record and top-five ranking. (Getty)
Jake Browning has helped lead Washington to a 6-0 record and top-five ranking. (Getty)

So Browning does the interviews, but you can almost feel the reluctance. You can sense the discomfort when questions are about his exploits and not about the team. You can see the reticence to talk about how special this season might become.

“I just hope we beat Oregon State,” Browning said in response to a variety of questions, citing the next opponent on Washington’s schedule.

Then he put his gold helmet back on his head and walked across the empty Husky Stadium field, toward the locker room, as if the helmet might somehow protect Browning from a curious world crashing down on him.

In April, Browning retweeted something from former Washington basketball player Donald Watts: “Love the game not the attention!” It seems to speak for him and about him.

Dig back a little farther in his Twitter feed and you find a revealing paragraph from Feb. 3 – national signing day.

“Signing day is bittersweet,” Browning wrote. “Congrats to everybody who signed. But, also a huge appreciation to every high school player that gave 100%. No scholarship will ever be worth more than self-pride and the respect of teammates who saw you battle. Some of the best football players I’ve ever played with and against were under 6 feet tall and over a 4.7 40 time but could play football and compete with the best of the best.”

This doesn’t sound like a guy who is counting the days until he can become rich playing the sport. If anything, it sounds like a purist who would be just as happy going back in time to high school ball than leaping forward into the NFL.

Jake Browning loves football more than being a famous football player.

He was a tireless film-room grinder in high school, spending most of his lunch periods watching tape with his coaches, and he’s the same today. Washington teammates suspect Browning spends more time than any other player at the team facility, and the coaching staff has at times had to tell him to go home.

“He doesn’t take a day off,” said receiver John Ross. “He’ll be there all day watching film, all night watching film.”

Jake Browning has completed more than 70 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns. (Getty)
Jake Browning has completed more than 70 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns. (Getty)

Browning does, at least, come by his media reticence honestly. Jake’s father, Ed, gave me the most polite no-comment I’ve ever received when I asked to interview him for this story.

“With all the hype, I’m kind of not wanting to add to it,” Ed Browning said, apologetically. “That’s just my gut instinct.”

There is a story for Ed and Jake Browning to tell, a story about a father who was an everyday hero to his kids growing up. Jake’s mom left the family when he was young, and for several years Ed was in the single-parent role before remarrying.

But it’s not a story either is ready to dive into.

Ask Jake whether he talks to his mom and the answer is a simple, “No.”

Ask him if that bothers him and you get another no, followed by five more words: “Just the way it is.”

And that’s the end of that discussion. He’s happier talking about his 4-year-old stepsister, Ella, whom he dotes upon whenever he is home.

Kelly Richardson, who is a counselor and the wife of Folsom High School coach Kris Richardson, is close to many of the players. She is especially close to Jake, texting him updates from his alma mater’s games every Friday night, but there is one subject they haven’t discussed.

“We don’t go to his mom’s situation,” she said. “He’s pretty private on that one.”

Jake did do a Father’s Day video interview for Washington’s official athletic website talking about the role Ed played in his life.

“They’re really close,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen. “But Jake is like me – he just wants to talk about football.”

Ed Browning played quarterback at Oregon State. He encouraged Jake to play, threw the ball with his son whenever he wanted, coached him when he was younger and enjoyed talking about the game with him – but Ed never pushed. He let the Folsom High co-coaches, Richardson and Troy Taylor, do their jobs.

At one point, Richardson asked “Easy Ed,” as he’s known, to join his coaching staff. He declined.

“Ed just wanted to sit in the stands and watch his son play football,” Richardson said. “He trusted us to coach Jake.”

Said Kelly Richardson: “We see a lot of parents living it through their kids. That was not Ed at all. The best way I could describe it is that Ed was just present. He’s stepping into that place of humility and letting this be Jake’s journey.

“Ed’s done a fabulous job of raising this very humble young man. He’s going to sign autographs, he’s going to stop with the little kids. But he does not want to stand out, and I think that comes back to Ed.”

Jake isn’t going to volunteer the story of being a date to the “Evening of Dreams” prom that is held annually in Sacramento for special-needs kids. Kelly Richardson helps organize it, and Jake quickly accepted her request to be a prom date his junior year of high school.

At the dance, Jake was paired with his special-needs date and spent 4½ hours with her – dancing, getting her food and engaging in long conversations. Afterward the girl’s mom wrote a letter to the dance organizers about how nice and respectful Jake was. At the time of the prom, she didn’t even know he was a star quarterback.

Jake Browning has been a good fit for Washington coach Chris Petersen's offense. (Getty)
Jake Browning has been a good fit for Washington coach Chris Petersen’s offense. (Getty)

When Jake’s role in the prom got some local media attention, Ed was wary. The idea was to simply do the right thing, not turn it into a publicity stunt.

“I don’t want this to be about Jake,” he told Kelly Richardson. She explained to him that it wasn’t about aggrandizing the football player, it was a means of inspiring others in the community to follow Jake’s lead and get involved.

Jake did find a perfect fit for his personality at Washington, where Petersen treats superlatives and excessive praise like a lethal contagion. He and offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith first started recruiting Browning when they were at Boise State, and that recruitment was consummated when they came to Washington.

Befitting his personality, Jake’s recruitment was a low-key affair. A four-star prospect according to Rivals.com, he visited one school, committed early (spring his junior year) and stuck with it.

“Everyone is counting offers, committing and decommitting,” Kris Richardson said. “Jake and his dad didn’t do it that way.”

Jake did what a football junkie would do – he graduated from high school in the middle of his senior year and enrolled at Washington in January 2015. That gave him an opportunity to compete for playing time in the spring, and he wound up becoming the first true freshman to start the season opener in school history.

The results were good last year, not great. Browning threw for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns, but also 10 interceptions. The quarterback, like the rest of the team, was a year away.

This year you see the next step in the progression – a giant leap, actually. Petersen’s third Washington team is his breakthrough team in Seattle – leading the nation in turnover margin (plus-13), leading the Pac-12 in fewest yards allowed per play (4.42), and of course Browning is the most efficient passer in America to date – perfectly fitting Petersen’s offense.

“We’re always into passers,” Petersen said. “Everyone else is into the spread, run-around guys. We need a guy who can throw the football and read defenses, and that’s Jake.”

As long as the Huskies keep winning, Jake Browning will be the face of the program. He would love to just be another face in the crowd. But that’s no longer possible, and now he has to stand tall in the pocket and deal with the attention coming from all directions.

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