Sam Brownlee knows that his name, roughly translated in eastern Iowa football Latin, means … “another Hawkeye running back just got hurt.”
Brownlee rocketed up the Hawkeyes’ depth chart in 2004, one ACL injury at a time, before being thrust into the backfield for the second half against Ohio State.
A week later, Brownlee suddenly and stunningly was starting in front of more than 108,000 screaming fans at Penn State.
To understand how the small-town star from Emmetsburg wiggled through the knee-assaulting minefield that season, imagine Billy in the old “Family Circus” cartoons taking the most indirect, dotted-line route from Point A to Point B —snaking and twisting in all directions before improbably arriving at the destination.
Eight seasons later, there still is no such thing as “being buried on the depth chart” for running backs in Iowa City.
“I can never live that down, I guess,” Brownlee said this week, punctuated with a laugh. “Everybody always seems to bring it up.”
Starting tailback Damon Bullock left the game against Northern Iowa on Saturday with an apparent concussion. His backup, Greg Garmon, carried the ball just three times before slowly ambling off with an elbow injury.
Two more tailbacks already had been X’ed off the potential list of fill-ins: Michael Malloy was sick and it proved too soon for the return of Jordan Canzeri, who is mending a torn anterior cruciate ligament from the spring.
Iowa already has lost some margin for error at the position when Barkley Hill tore his ACL before season’s start.
So as fast as someone with a bird head on his helmet could mutter pestilence, plague and locusts, the painful planets had aligned again.
Mark Weisman, a non-scholarship transfer, shifted from fullback to featured back against Northern Iowa — and finished with a who-saw-this-coming 24 carries, 113 yards and three touchdowns.
For long-time followers of Iowa football, the coming out party for Weisman triggered the Brownlee whispers to sprout anew.
“It’s crazy to see the injuries and things that keep happening,” Brownlee said.
Brownlee worked in commercial real estate and for a bond company before he returned home to partner with his father, Craig, on the family farm. They also run Brownlee Management, a company that guides farmers through the financial aspects of the profession.
He still attends games when he can, including last Saturday. As Bullock and Garmon became sideline-bound, Brownlee was perched in Kinnick Stadium with other members of Iowa’s 2002 team who were being honored.
“I was sitting next to Marcus Schnoor, the guy who got hurt in front of me (in 2004),” Brownlee said. “We looked at each other a little weird when those guys went down.
“It was nice to see another guy, Weisman, step in and do well.”
For many Iowa fans, simply uttering “Sam Brownlee” symbolizes a decade’s worth of ball-carrier bumps and bruises — some of the tackler variety, some of the police persuasion, and others from the transferred-before-exhausting-handoffs file.
When the 2004 season began, a pair of potential starters vanished before they trampled a single blade of grass that season. Future NFL draft pick Shonn Greene failed to meet academic standards out of high school and incumbent Fred Russell left early to play in the pros.
Then the medical parade began …
Jermelle Lewis? Torn ACL.
Albert Young? (See Lewis.)
Marques Simmons? Ankle injury.
Schnoor? (See Lewis, Young.)
Champ Davis, a fullback and option to patch a hole in Iowa’s pad-wearing M*A*S*H unit, missed the end of the season due to injuries, too.
So the Hawkeyes turned to Brownlee, a player who started the season as fourth or fifth string — depending on your depth chart math.
“That’s the million-dollar question at Iowa: Why do all the running backs get hurt?” said Brownlee, 28. “Anybody can get hurt. You’re prone to it at running back because of the stress you put on yourself, and the hits you take.
“I don’t think anybody can explain why so many running backs have been injured at Iowa, though. String of bad luck, I guess.”
The list of here-today, gone-tomorrow Iowa backs in recent years is staggering.
The group is well chronicled, but a few who failed to complete their eligibility for a variety of reasons in recent years alone: Jeff Brinson, Jevon Pugh, Nate Guillory, Adam Robinson, Jewell Hampton, Brandon Wegher, De’Andre Johnson, Marcus Coker, Mika’il McCall …
See a pattern developing here?
Ever wonder if running backs coach Lester Erb plows through Alka-Seltzer packets like Kobayashi at a hot dog eating contest?
Brownlee finished 2004 as one of six in Iowa history to lead the team in rushing with less than 300 yards in a season since records began in 1933.
The 277 yards Brownlee logged eight seasons ago was the lowest total since Jerry Niles recorded 176 in 1938. A year before that, some guy named Nile Kinnick finished with a team-best 214.
“It’s great to still be associated with Iowa football — no matter how,” Brownlee joked. “If it’s the least yards in a season, then I’ll take it. I’ll take whatever I can get.”
Brownlee’s first starting assignment in 2004 was a 6-4, beauty-in-eyes-of-beholder win at Penn State.
“That was a special game,” he said. “That was the week coach (Kirk) Ferentz’s father passed away. So to win at Happy Valley, under those circumstances, was something I’ll never forget.”
Coaches, however, recall another moment.
“They always bring up a carry I had in the second half against Ohio State,” Brownlee said. “It was 3rd-and-9. My claim to fame — I juked (all-America linebacker and current NFL player) A.J. Hawk out of his jock and got 10 or 11 yards.”
Iowa started the “Brownlee season” a forgettable 2-2 before winning eight straight games. The Hawkeyes — fueled by one of its best defenses, with future pros Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge and Matt Roth — shared the Big Ten championship with Michigan.
The team also created one of the most enduring memories in bowl history.
Iowa trailed defending national champion LSU until the final play, when quarterback Drew Tate connected with Warren Holloway for his first and only career touchdown reception to win the Capital One Bowl, 30-25.
“I made the mistake of being one of the first ones down the field to jump on Warren,” Brownlee said. “Pretty bad mistake, actually. I had about 10 guys jump on top of me. I thought I was going to suffocate and die.
“That was a special year, though. I didn’t have the greatest stats, but we seemed to find a way to win.”
As Iowa fans chew nails to nubs over Bullock, Garmon and the rest of the running game, comfort might come in the form of 2004.
That, and a running back no one thought would be pushed into the limelight.
“People always remember me from that year, when all the running backs went down,” Brownlee said. “Everybody asks me the same thing: ‘What do they do to you guys, the running backs, in Iowa City?’ ”
Bryce Miller can be reached at (515) 284-8288 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook: @Bryce_A_Miller
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football