This wasn't how it was supposed to be for the fifth-year senior from Harrisburg, Pa. He had started every game since the beginning of the 2001 season, 24 straight in all. The plan was he would lead West Virginia to another bowl game, and then move on to the next level, following a long line of Mountaineer offensive linemen who have gone on to success in the NFL. Mike Compton and Rich Braham both have been in the League for at least a decade, and last year's senior leader, Lance Nimmo is trying to make his mark with the New York Jets.
The 6-5, 305-pound Brown has never talked much about his aspirations to play at the next level, but those who know such things were quick to point out that Tim had the size and athletic ability to play in the NFL.
All Brown really wanted, though, was a good, enjoyable senior season. But then, three days before the opener against Wisconsin, his Achilles tendon snapped. Suddenly everything changed.
"I just turned to run and bang; it felt like somebody hit me in the back of the leg with a baseball bat," explained Brown. "I didn't know what was wrong, but I knew right away it was bad.
"It's hard to explain all the emotions that run through your head when something like that happens. Every football player has to deal with injuries, but you never think the really bad one is going to happen to you. When it does, it's tough. You get mad, you feel sorry for yourself. You go through a range of emotions. Especially since this was going to be my senior year, that made it even tougher."
With the injury several weeks behind him and the torn Achilles now surgically repaired, Brown has come to grips with his fate. One of three married players on the Mountaineer team (along with fellow linemen Jeff Berk and Geoff Lewis), Tim was able to lean on wife Lachelle for emotional support, as well as his parents Kevin and Donna, who have long been fixtures at not only West Virginia's games but also many of their practices. The Browns (he is a minister) made the trip from Harrisburg on a semi-regular basis, and now that Tim was injured, they were by his side providing support again.
While his family has helped prop up his spirits, Tim has also gotten a lift from the possibility that his college career is not yet over. Brown was the only true freshman offensive lineman to see game action in the 21 years that Don Nehlen (1980- 2000) was at the helm. He played two games at center (Miami of Ohio and Maryland) before being sidelined with a broken bone in his foot. He received a medical redshirt for that season, because he had played in less than 20 percent of his team's games. Brown recovered from that injury, and went through the next three seasons without incident, starting 24 straight games, which was West Virginia's longest streak heading into this season. NCAA rules stipulate that a student/ athlete has four seasons of eligibility, and they must be completed within five years of when that person enrolls in school. The "4 in 5" rule is the anthem of Division I, and there are few exceptions. But Brown could be one of them. Though somewhat rare (WVU's football team has had none in memory), there have been injured players who were granted an additional year in which to get in that fourth season of eligibility. Dan Conley, a linebacker at Syracuse who had numerous knee operations, is one of those. He missed two complete seasons because of knee injuries, including the 1993 campaign in which he would have been a fifth-year senior. But Conley, who is now an assistant football coach at WVU Tech, a WVIAC school in Montgomery, W.Va., was granted a sixth year by the NCAA and returned to lead the Orange to a 7-4 mark in 1994.
The key to receiving that sixth year is to have lost two (or more) seasons to injuries in which the player would qualify for a medical redshirt. To be eligible for a medical redshirt, a player cannot play in more than 20 percent of his team's games, and he can't play in any games in the second half of the season. Having played in only two early games as a true freshman and none this season as a fifth-year senior, Brown meets this criteria and is hopeful that he'll be granted an extra year as well.
"From what I understand of other cases like mine, I have a good chance of getting another year," noted Tim, who is a member of the Athletic Director's Honor Roll as a physical education major. "I know nothing, but I've talked to Brad Cox (WVU's compliance director) and a couple of people who deal with the NCAA a lot, and they tell me that in past history, guys on other teams with the same kind of injury have gotten a sixth year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Hopefully I'll know by the end of the season."
The Mountaineers want to get a decision on Brown as soon as possible. Such notification can't happen until the season is over, but WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez doesn't want it to take any more time than necessary for two reasons – one, a positive decision will provide Brown with more motivation in his rehab work, and he's got a long and arduous effort in front of him, and two, whether or not Brown is available for West Virginia will impact the Mountaineers' recruiting needs. If Brown does not get another year, WVU may have to shore up its thin offensive front with a lineman who can provide immediate help, like a junior college player. But if Brown is available, West Virginia can concentrate on recruiting younger linemen who could develop for a year or two before being pressed into service.
Over the years, a couple of Mountaineer athletes in other sports have qualified for and gained a sixth year, but no one can recall a WVU football player getting an extra season, because none have really met the criteria for it. West Virginia tried to get wide receiver David Saunders an additional year after his junior campaign in 1997 was wiped out by a preseason knee injury. But it was ruled that Saunders' first redshirt season, which came in 1994 as a true freshman, was a normal non-participation redshirt and not based on any medical hardship. Thus Saunders' career at was not extended another season. Brown, though, does meet the key criteria of two seasons lost to medical redshirt, and thus WVU's director of NCAA compliance, thinks he has a good case.
"Until it (Brown's appeal) is granted, you can't say it is definite, but we feel there is an excellent chance he'll get another year, because he does meet all the criteria," noted Cox. "We have to wait until the season is over first, and then we have to send in the paperwork to the (Big East) conference to show that Tim indeed was eligible for a medical redshirt. We've already got that from his first year, and now we'll apply for one for this season. Then we'll send the conference's approval to the NCAA. If they view it as a rubberstamp case, they'll approve it through administrative channels. But there is an appeals committee that will look at it too, if it gets that far. Hopefully, it doesn't, because we think it is a case that fits the rules exactly and will be rubberstamped."
One thing Brown insists he's not worried about is the NFL marketability. Obviously, the pros would be leery of Tim if he were just coming off an Achilles injury. But give him another college season to prove he's back to 100 percent, and the NFL would probably be very interested again. That's all true, but Brown says he's not worried about that. He feels that fate has cheated him out of his senior season, and he wants another opportunity at a final hurrah.
"I'm not worried about that (the pro aspect)," stated Brown. "I just want to play another year. I didn't get a chance to play my fifth year. I never got that chance, and I would like another shot at it."
So Brown now sits and waits. He's got a lot of time to do both. His current big, bulky cast will stay on three months, at which time it will be replaced by a smaller walking cast. Then comes the rehab, as he tries to recover the strength and conditioning he'll obviously lose. Tim knows he has a tough road in front of him, but all he wants is another chance at his last chance.
Brown has at least overcome the first hurdle – the emotional one. He's now to the point where he can watch games and practices again. That was even tough initially.
"At first it was hard to watch, but it's getting better now," explained Brown. "The first two games were hard to watch, and it was hard to watch practice for a little bit, but I'm getting better with it now.
"I've been hanging around practice a little bit now. I'm allowed to do that, and it helped, because I'm at least there. I haven't gotten involved with trying to coach any yet. Coach Trickett has that covered. I don't know how he has five eyes in his head to watch everyone, but he does."
This article appeared in last week's print edition of the Blue & Gold News. For more great indepth stories such as this, subscribe to the Blue & Gold News print edition today!