In The Trenches

Junior offensive tackles Wes Sims (left) and Jammal Brown (right) have overcome many obstacles during their playing days at Oklahoma.

The following article was published in the August issue of Inside OU Sports Magazine.

COPYRIGHT OUINSIDER.COM/2003

The first time Wes Sims ever saw Jammal Brown at one of Oklahoma's Junior Day gatherings, he was sure his brown eyes had deceived him.

"I thought he was an assistant coach," says Sims, himself a 6-foot-5, 317-pounder, of the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Brown. "He was that big of a guy. Then, they told me that was Jammal. I couldn't believe it. I'd never seen anyone as big as he was."

On the surface, Brown, who plays right tackle for the Sooners, and Sims, who plays left tackle, appear to be very much alike. Both players weigh 300-plus pounds, run sub-five-second forty-yard dashes, and are returning 14-game starters on OU's offensive line, but the bookend tackles have far more in common than just size, speed and experience.

Both played high school football in Oklahoma, redshirted during the 2000 national championship season and, tragically, each has experienced the loss of a parent. Yet for every handmade Italian cross that Brown hangs in his Norman home, Sims has a story and the photographs to prove he once caught a 25-pound catfish.

Brown is the ultimate homebody who enjoys being lazy, likes to play NCAA Football 2004, and is a father (his daughter, Halle, will be 5 years old in August).

Whereas, Sims' reputation is synonymous with parties, fast cars and last, but not least, OU's sizzling coeds.

No matter the duo's likes and dislikes, one thing is certain: Brown and Sims will anchor a 2003 Sooner offense that only returns four starters (the others are center Vince Carter and wide receiver Will Peoples) and needs a wealth of leadership to make up for its abundance of inexperience.

"It's always started with the (offensive line)," says Brown. "And this year ain't gonna be no different. If we don't do our job, no one else can do theirs."

Last season, Brown (second team) and Sims (third team) were both All-Big 12 Conference coaches' selections, but three years ago neither player's future was quite so clear. After all, Brown once played defense and Sims, well, he wasn't even selected to the Daily Oklahoman's All-State high-school football team his senior year.

Lawton's Legend
When Jammal Brown strolled on to OU's campus as a true freshman in the summer of 2000, the baby-faced, man-child from Lawton MacArthur High School was already being mentioned in the same breath as former Oklahoma defensive tackles Lee Roy Selmon and Tony Casillas.

And, why not? After all, it had been 13 years since a streak named Darrell Reed last roamed the landscape of Owen Field on frost-chilled afternoons — when playing in November actually meant something.

With folklore greater than that of Will Rogers, Brown's stop at OU was merely rumored to be just a two-year hiatus in route to playing on Sundays.

The next Brian Bosworth? Brown wasn't. But a defensive savior? Perhaps. But if not, the highly-touted Lawton native was at least the second coming.

"There was a lot of pressure," says Brown, who chose OU over Nebraska, Tennessee and Miami. "I probably thought about that too much. I wanted to make an impact right away, so I figured I didn't have time to learn. That ended up playing against me a little bit."

All-American Outcast
While Brown basked in the Sooner spotlight, Wes Sims' arrival in Norman that same sweltering summer garnered far less fanfare, despite his Parade All-America and USA Today first-team status.

Sure, Sooner fans were excited about the two-sport standout from Weatherford who could seemingly lift a hot tub single-handily from your local Sundance dealer. But an off-the-field incident that previous November still hung over Sims' football potential, like one of Howard Schellenberger's ill-fated promises.

"A lot of people were looking down on me," says Sims, who picked the Sooners over Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Penn St. "That all had something to do with my past, but nothing with how I played on the field."

That something originally started out as innocent mischief on a frigid, blustery night. And like most teenagers in Custer County, Sims and four high-school teammates simply sought to escape boredom when they stopped at an Interstate 40 overpass and dropped several water balloons, one of which damaged a car's windshield, on the traffic below.

That same night, Sims was arrested by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and charged with a felony worth up to 10 years in jail. He later pled no contest and was handed a one-year deferred sentence, which included stipulations that he perform 50 hours of community service, pay $800 for the damaged windshield, and spend a weekend in the county jail.

"I broke down a little bit in there," says Sims. "And I realized someone could have really gotten hurt. I learned a lot from that."

A month later, following a 46-0 rout of Fort Gibson and future teammate Teddy Lehman in Oklahoma's Class 4A high school state championship game, Sims didn't make the Daily Oklahoman's All-State team.

His snub wasn't related to the water balloon incident, but he was left off because he was "not Weatherford's best player" that season. In fact, "He wasn't even the Eagles' best lineman." Those statements, written by a Daily Oklahoman scribe, still torment Sims. And at times, they serve as his motivation.

"I've never really been able to let it go and I don't think I'll ever be able to until I can be the top at this level," said Sims. "Then I'll go back and show them I should have been at the top then."

If You Can't Stand The Heat
Jammal Brown's introduction to two-a-day practices in Aug. 2000 was short-lived at best. He only survived a handful of the sessions due to heat exhaustion before hurting his left knee, an injury that required surgery and prompted him to redshirt that season.

"I wasn't in good shape," says Brown, who only became a full academic qualifier his freshman year after the NCAA waved his ACT requirement. "There's obviously a big difference between high school and college ball. I really wasn't used to that type of hard work."

Later that season, as Brown stood near actor Denzel Washington on the sidelines of the Orange Bowl in Miami, he marveled at the pre-game fireworks just minutes before OU was set to face Florida State in the 2000 national championship game. Then, Brown suddenly thought of his older brother, Patrick, who once lived in Florida before being sentenced to 10 years in an Oklahoma state prison for trafficking cocaine in 1996.

"He would have loved it," said Brown, who credits his brother, an inmate in Hominy, Okla., for piquing his interest in football. "I wish my whole family could have been there."

Sure, he wasn't playing in the game, but nonetheless, Brown was spellbound.

"I'd never seen anything like that before," says Brown. "It was an unbelievable atmosphere."

Down, But Not Out
Like Jammal Brown, Wes Sims also redshirted during the 2000 season. Yet the adjustment to practicing with the scout team and rarely getting meaningful repetitions against the first-team defense took a heavy toll on Sims, a four-year starter in high school.

"At first, I really questioned whether or not I was good enough to play at the college level," says Sims. "That really bothered me because I was getting punked all the time."

Day after day, Sims labored as what he considered a "scrub" until one fateful practice in October, when he finally proved to himself that his Sooner future was ever so bright.

His moment came as a player on the scout team, which at the time was imitating Nebraska's offense for the first-team defense. During one of the plays, Sims collided with a blitzing Torrance Marshall, and amazingly, stood his ground.

"That's when I knew I had something special," says Sims. "I didn't doubt myself much after that. I just had to work with it (ability) a little bit and learn how to use it."

A Blessing in Disguise
Frustrated, discouraged, and miserable, Jammal Brown nearly quit the OU football team in August 2001. Unable to crack OU's defensive tackle rotation and still hampered by his bothersome left knee, which has undergone four operations, he was moved to the offensive line.

"Initially, I was pretty disappointed," says Brown. "But truthfully, I've lost some of my athleticism after all my surgeries and to be a defensive tackle you have to be a tremendous athlete. Still, I'd never played offense except for a few times in high school, so I really didn't know what to expect."

Following the switch, Brown briefly considered transferring to either Miami or Tennessee, but decided against it after several conversations with his father, Charles Brown.

"God put me at OU for a reason," says Brown. "So, I knew something good was going to happen."

Later that season, Brown was pressed into emergency duty on the offensive line after Wes Sims suffered a knee injury. That next week, Brown made his debut at then third-ranked Nebraska, which beat the Sooners 20-10.

"That was tough," says Brown. "I couldn't hear nothing. I had to watch the ball just like the defense does. It was awful."

A Knee-Jerk Reaction
In 2001, Wes Sims started OU's first seven games (six at left guard, two at right tackle), but in a flash the redshirt freshman's brilliant season nearly buckled with a twist of his left knee.

His injury came against Baylor and it took Sims exactly two steps to gauge the seriousness of his sprained knee.

"I really thought I could walk it off," says Sims. "I tried to and landed flat on my face."

As Sims lay on Owen Field's turf, he struggled to keep his composure, while contemplating his future.

"It scared me there for a little bit," says Sims. "My knee was wobbling around all over the place."

Luckily, the injury didn't require surgery, just extensive rehabilitation, and a little more than 10 weeks later, Sims reclaimed his starting right-tackle spot just in time for OU's 10-3 victory over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.

"That was my goal," says Sims, who will graduate in December 2004 with a business management degree. "But to be honest, I was just happy to comeback."

Heavenly Bliss
At first glance, watching Quentin Griffin scamper for 29 yards while grasping the back of Jammal Brown's jersey during a 68-0 romp over Texas-El Paso last season doesn't amount to much — at least on film it doesn't.

Sure, the game was against the Miners, which limped to a 2-10 record in 2002, but for Brown, a communications major, that single play signified his arrival as an offensive lineman.

"I absolutely creamed that free safety," says Brown. "I'm still not sure he knows what hit him."

In describing the play, Brown's raspy voice suddenly trails off, as if he's reflecting on the highlight. A surreal, almost eerie, stillness sets in, but Brown quickly breaks his rare silence with a stirring revelation.

"My momma was with me," says Brown, who tapes a picture of his mother, Zola, who died of lupus in 1998, and daughter, on his wrist before every game. "We always play the game together, so she sees the defense, too. When the defense walks up with a blitz, I tell her ‘OK, momma, I know you see it, too. Let's pick it up, and we do.'"

Family Matters
Following OU's heart-pounding 37-27 victory over Alabama last season, a distraught Wes Sims sat motionless in the Barry Switzer Center.

In the season-opener vs. Tulsa, he hadn't allowed a sack, but on this particular occasion he'd been victimized twice. Dejected, Sims couldn't help but think of his father, Steve Sims, an avid Sooner fan, who died in 1999 after a lengthy bout with cancer.

"I let him down," says Sims. "I'd never really had a game like that. I felt terrible."

In that moment, while his teammates celebrated, Sims gave himself the ultimate gut check.

"I reminded myself that I was doing this for him (father) and my family," says Sims. "After that, I started playing a lot more confident. I wasn't quite as tentative as I used to be. I stopped thinking I'd play well, because I knew I'd play well."

The Jinx?
Athlon's, Lindy's, Street & Smith's, and Sporting News. Jammal Brown and Wes Sims have read all the college football previews, most of which mention the Sooners offensive line among the nation's best, but they aren't willing to anoint themselves as such just yet.

After all, they've yet to play a game this season, and, secondly, the pair is painfully aware of the magazine curse. How can they forget a rain-soaked, mud-coated Tommie Harris scowling on the cover of Sports Illustrated last year?

Still, national championship expectations are again looming large in Norman this season, just like the Sooner nation expects.

"Right now, we're at the bottom," says Brown. "We've gotta work hard to reach the top."

Fitting words for two players who know that challenge all too well.

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