Brown Pointing The Way For Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE -- Eric Brown has been the tip of the spear for Arkansas in every sense of the words.

In the literal, the junior from Baldwin City, Kan., throws the javelin -- staking out the top two marks in school history -- and is undefeated through four meets this season with a new role as the favorite heading into the Southeastern Conference Championships this week in Nashville.

In the figurative, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Brown is a lone ranger, the point man clearing a path in an event the perennial NCAA champion Razorbacks have rarely looked to for points.

Brown -- the second-ranked collegian by less than an inch and the fifth-ranked American with a season-best of 248 feet, 5 inches -- mostly practices alone with volunteer coach Andrew McDonagh and will occasionally have a weight-lifting partner in discus thrower Tony Ugoh.

Outside of team meetings or road trips, Brown only sees legendary coach John McDonnell when the distance team does track workouts, but the man who has guided Arkansas to 40 NCAA and 75 conference titles since 1984 did his recognizance on Brown while he was a freshman.

McDonnell first noticed Brown's dedication during the fall of 2002 and liked what he saw.

"They (Brown and McDonagh) were down at the indoor track in the fall for hours," McDonnell said. "He really worked hard as a freshman and right then, I knew this kid was going to be special.

"A work ethic like that is going to breed success, especially when you have the tools to go with it, and he's a big, strong kid. He has really matured into a great athlete."

Well ahead of Arkansas' front lines at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Championships last June in Austin, Texas, Brown certainly enjoyed the element of surprise as the 12th seed in the javelin.

Arkansas had already lost a sure 10 points from Alistair Cragg's disqualification from the 5,000 and the favored 4x100-meter relay team lost anchor leg Omar Brown to injury in the 200 preliminaries.

The Razorbacks' chances at defending their team title were hanging on every point and hours before the running events began, Brown was heaving himself down the runway into the school record books.

His fifth throw of 240 feet, 7.5 inches leapfrogged him from eighth to third before being dropped to fourth later in the round.

Fulfilling a promise to himself to leave it all on the field on his final throw, Brown flung his body toward the line and landed on his belly as he watched his throw soar off into the distance.

It landed 246 feet, 3 inches away for a new school record, a third-place finish and six unexpected points that let challengers like Florida know they'd have to wait another year for a chance to upset Arkansas.

Brown's performance was the kind McDonnell has come to expect from his Razorbacks over the years.

His unofficial motto is, "when someone goes down, someone else steps up" and the mantra has been the trademark of numerous NCAA champion teams.

Like Wallace Spearmon Jr. and Tyson Gay, who won Arkansas' first NCAA titles in the 200 and 100, respectively, last June, Brown proved Razorback heroes can come from any event, not just the jumps and long runs who have keyed most of McDonnell's championships.

Brown is already the first Razorback to win a javelin title at the Texas or Penn Relays.

Now he's ready to become the school's first SEC and NCAA champion as well.

Putting His Back Into It
Making Brown's performances even more impressive is that he's doing it all with stress fractures in the vertebrae in his lower back.

That, and a chronic hip problem that requires a special insert in his shoes to balance him out, may have been a small blessing in disguise.

Brown missed all of March resting his back but now will have a more natural peak with the NCAA Championships roll around in the second week of June.

"He hasn't been pushed by a collegian yet," McDonagh said. "When that happens, he'll have the opportunity to throw real far."

The injury predates his time at Arkansas and is something doctors have said won't heal until Brown is done competing, which he doesn't plan on contemplating any time soon.

McDonnell recalled former Razorback Brian Wellman, who made the Olympics four times for Bermuda and won consecutive outdoor triple jump titles for Arkansas in 1991-92.

"Brian Wellman had a stress fracture in his back and only competed in two meets all year at conference and nationals and he won both," McDonnell said.

"Great athletes find a way to get it done."

Chance Meeting Blossoms
Brown may not have ended up at Arkansas without a chance meeting on an airport shuttle in San Diego during the summer following his junior year at Baldwin High when he'd thrown his personal best of 215 feet.

Leaving an Olympic training camp, Brown shared a ride with Arkansas field events coach Dick Booth, who was there working with the triple jumpers.

The always personable Booth struck up a conversation with the equally talkative Brown and the two found out they shared common roots in Kansas.

Booth is from Blue Mound, less than 60 miles south of Baldwin City, which is just a few miles north of Ottawa University where Booth ran the quarter-mile as a collegian.

Brown chose Arkansas over Kansas despite the fact Arkansas had no javelin tradition and no dedicated javelin coach.

A member of two state champion teams in high school, Brown was interested in the winning tradition at Arkansas and was happy just for the chance to be a part of it.

"But I liked coach Booth so much and coach McDonnell," Brown said. "I knew (Booth) coached discus throwers and he'd done so well with the triple jumpers.

"I knew he knew how to train me to be a better athlete. I came in thinking that and was content with that."

Brown was pleasantly surprised to find McDonagh waiting on him when he arrived on campus.

McDonagh, a four-time conference champion javelin thrower from Western Michigan, works for Wal-Mart and is married to former Lady'Back All-American thrower Marie LeJour.

McDonagh volunteered to aid Brown and McDonnell welcomed the help.

Brown came to Arkansas with the goal of improving his personal best to around 230 feet but was frustrated by injuries during his freshman year and recorded a best of only 206-7.

The 25 pounds of muscle he added in his first fall under McDonagh caught up to him in his sophomore year, forcing him to revise his goals upward.

The Winning Mindset
Brown won the Texas Relays in his first meet as a sophomore with a toss of 235-6, surpassing his original goal at Arkansas and opening his eyes to the possibility of the school record of 241-11 held since 1990 by Ed Kaminski.

He didn't surpass that mark again until he returned to Austin for the NCAA meet when he shattered the record on his last throw to cap a near-40 foot improvement from his first to second seasons.

McDonagh said Brown crammed two years of improvements into one.

"That's not normal," McDonagh said. "Instead of it being 20 feet and 20 feet, he did 40 in one year.

"He's been training hard, he's focused on being No. 1. He hasn't settled on improving 40 feet last year. He wants to improve 40 feet this year. He's not settling for anything."

No collegian has beaten Brown yet this year, though one tried to come close at Penn by taking the lead on his final throw in the rainy conditions last weekend.

"Coach Booth was telling me some kid from a another school went ahead of him on his last throw and came back and kind of smiled at him," McDonnell said. "Eric wasn't going to throw any more because it was slippery, but didn't want anyone to beat him."

Brown came back and threw 233-5 to win by more than 10 feet.

"That's the quality you want to have," McDonnell said. "'Don't mess around with me. Don't get me mad.'"

The horrible form on his school-record toss last June in Austin still makes Brown laugh, but proving it was no fluke is no laughing matter for him.

Now he has goals of making the U.S. team for the upcoming World Championships or at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

"Doing well at nationals and getting third performing better than I was supposed to was nice," Brown said, "but I don't want to be, 'OK, he'll get third again.'

"I want to win, not just score a few points. I want to go for the very top.




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