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How tough love drove brothers Equanimeous and Amon-Ra St. Brown to reach NFL dreams

Early morning workouts. Trips to Compton. Learning three languages. That’s how a former Mr. Universe and his wife pushed two of their sons to the NFL.

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ANAHEIM HILLS, Calif. — The garage door to the Orange County townhome would slide open around the same time each weekday afternoon. A middle-aged dad would then accompany his three sons outside and guide them through a fast-paced weight training workout.

It was a somewhat typical suburban scene in every way except that the boys doing bench presses and bicep curls hadn’t yet lost all their baby teeth. And the father barking instructions was once a world-class bodybuilder, a two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World.

“Other people thought I was crazy,” John Brown told Yahoo Sports. “Some guy in the 1920s said that lifting weights early stunts your growth and everyone believed him. It’s probably the same guy who said the world was flat.”

To Brown, these after-school lifting sessions were about more than keeping his boys in shape or finding something for them to do. Brown believed that his sons had the natural ability to one day dominate the sport of football and that his purpose as a father was to challenge them to reach their full potential.

When Brown’s sons were 5, 6 and 8 years old, he purchased some lightweight plastic PVC pipe at Home Depot and used that to teach proper lifting form. Only when the boys mastered the correct technique did Brown allow them to move on to actual bars and dumbbells.

Brown’s sons lifted weights as often as five afternoons a week during elementary school and did so with the speed and precision of a well-drilled military unit. When one boy bench pressed, the other two would spot. Then, without saying a word, they would switch places as soon as the bar reached a resting position. Once all three boys were done, they’d move on to working other muscle groups as their father’s favorite reggae and hip-hop classics blared in the background.

Instilling a voracious appetite for weightlifting in his prepubescent sons was just one way that Brown bucked convention while steering their athletic careers. Stretching before a workout, Brown says, was strictly forbidden. A diet too heavy in fruits, vegetables and lean protein was, too. Hoping to help his sons produce explosive strength and power, he encouraged them to stuff themselves with eggs, red meat and his proprietary homemade shakes and not to skimp on salty snacks and sugary treats.

Brown often had to defend his atypical methods against criticism when his sons were young, but now it’s becoming harder to argue with his results. All three of Brown’s sons blossomed into coveted wide receiver recruits in high school and played for major colleges. Two have carved out roles in the NFL.

There’s the oldest brother, Equanimeous St. Brown, who has caught 13 passes for the Chicago Bears so far this season after spending the previous three years in Green Bay. There’s the middle brother, Osiris St. Brown, who has entered the business world after four injury-plagued seasons at Stanford. And then there’s the youngest brother, Amon-Ra St. Brown, who has already solidified himself as Detroit’s top receiving threat and seems poised to accomplish even more. Amon-Ra gets a rare chance to showcase his Cooper Kupp-like talents to a national audience on Thanksgiving when the Lions host Super Bowl-contending Buffalo.

When other parents ask his secret, John Brown says it’s taking his hard-earned lessons from bodybuilding and applying them to being a parent.

“My kids are lucky they had me because I pushed them,” John said. “To make your kids great, it’s a second job.”

John Brown's dedication turned him into a two-time Mr. Universe. (Courtesy of John Brown)

John Brown’s dedication turned him into a two-time Mr. Universe. (Courtesy of John Brown)

The making of Mr. Universe

For as long as he can remember, John Brown aspired to do something extraordinary. In fourth grade, the Compton, Calif., native boasted to classmates that he’d someday win a stack of Olympic gold medals. As a teenager, he traded his track spikes for football cleats and threw himself into the pursuit of NFL riches.

Hellbent on outworking other football prospects and transforming himself into a prized recruit, Brown lifted weights obsessively. He couldn’t afford the 25 cents the Compton College gym charged per workout, so he struck a deal with the manager of the facility. He offered to clean the gym each night after it closed if he could use the weight room for free.

By 16, Brown was sculpted enough to draw the attention of a hulking stranger at the park. Local bodybuilder George Caracas noticed Brown working out without a shirt one day and urged him to consider switching sports

“Forget football, you should be a bodybuilder,” Brown remembers Caracas telling him. “You could win Mr. Universe someday.”

Bodybuilding was an alien sport to Brown, but the individual aspect appealed to him. In football, Brown often grew frustrated relying on teammates who didn’t work as hard as he did. Compton Dominguez High piled up losses each season, making it difficult for Brown to showcase himself to college coaches.

Caracas persuaded Brown to enter the Mr. Watts contest, where he competed against men of all ages. Brown took third place despite having no idea what he was doing.

Encouraged by his success, Brown stopped by a convenience store on his way home and purchased some fitness magazines. Then he stood in front of the mirror comparing his own body to those on the magazine covers.

“I decided, ‘OK, I’m going to do this,’” Brown explained. “The next day, I told my coach, ‘I’m done. I quit. I want to bodybuild.’ ”

Though Brown’s football teammates scoffed at his goal of becoming a bodybuilding champion, their mockery only provided motivation. Brown studied the body measurements and fat percentages of some ex-Mr. America and Mr. Universe winners. Then he used those as targets and worked tirelessly to match or surpass them.

While still in high school, Brown built a wobbly backyard bench press using wood and nails that he scavenged from neighbors’ garages. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he trained his legs and back. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, he worked on his chest, shoulders and arms.

As Brown grew bigger and stronger, his focus shifted to maintaining his weight. When he went out to clubs or parties, he’d allow himself three hours to dance. Then he’d find the nearest chair and conserve calories until his friends were ready to leave and he could load up on protein again. Each morning, Brown would wake up to the sound of his alarm at 3 a.m. and force himself to eat a pound of ground beef, beans and onions. He grew to detest those pre-dawn meals so much that he called his ground beef concoction “dog food.”

“One time I put it in a blender to see if it would go down easier,” Brown said with a chuckle. “That didn’t work so good.”

Brown’s discipline helped him fulfill Caracas’ predictions of bodybuilding glory. The Jheri-curled muscleman became an icon in his sport in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning Mr. Universe twice and Mr. World three times, guest posing across the United States and Europe and gracing numerous magazine covers.

While Brown’s chiseled 6-foot-2, 240-pound physique was impressive, it was his showmanship that set him apart. Most bodybuilders of Brown’s era posed to classical music. Brown woke up audiences by taking the stage to James Brown or Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Sometimes he’d lip-synch or breakdance to the music. At least once he came out with a dozen roses and handed them to ladies in the front row.

The lesson that Brown took from his own ascent was that no goal was unattainable if you work hard enough. He vowed to help his sons climb to similar heights in their chosen sport, even if he had to push or drag them there.

John Brown had his three boys — Equanimeous, Osiris and Amon-Ra — working out in their driveway before they turned 10. (Courtesy of John Brown)

John Brown had his three boys — Equanimeous, Osiris and Amon-Ra — working out in their driveway before they turned 10. (Courtesy of John Brown)

John Brown’s unique parenting approach

When he and his wife Miriam began brainstorming names for their first-born son, John Brown was certain of only one thing: He wouldn’t consider John Brown Jr.

“My name was very mundane,” John said. “I didn’t want that for them.”

John preferred something flashy, something distinctive, something that would look good on the back of a jersey or sound good when announced over the stadium loudspeakers. That’s why he borrowed the name Equanimeous from a character in a friend’s book. That’s why he named Osiris and Amon-Ra after Egyptian gods. And that’s why he added St. to his sons’ surnames.

Brown’s unique parenting approach helped ensure that the football world learned the names of his sons. In addition to the early weightlifting and protein-heavy diet that he pushed upon his sons, Brown also went to great lengths to toughen up his boys.

Once a week, Brown took his boys to a football camp in Compton to give them the experience of competing against kids from a grittier, harsher background. Osiris told Yahoo Sports that the experience was helpful, but that it was often the Compton kids who were more intimidated by the St. Brown brothers than the other way around.

“We had such an adult mindset toward football,” Osiris said “They were doing it for fun. Our dad had us treating it like a business.”

The perils of pushing children too hard are well-documented, but Brown’s sons never rebelled against his tough love. The most push-back Brown got would be an occasional eye roll behind his back when he demanded they wolf down one too many protein shakes, endure one too many early morning workouts or finish one too many sets of cone drills.

“Starting so young, we had no idea what other people were doing,” Osiris said. “It seemed like what we were doing was everyday stuff. By the time I realized how uncommon it was, I was already grown. I was already in college. It had already paid off, so I was grateful I went through it at that point.”

Whereas Equanimeous and Osiris developed other interests besides football, Amon-Ra was more laser-focused like his dad. He was the sibling most likely to devote his spare time to studying clips of NFL receivers or doing extra training.

Amon-Ra has often told the story of why he catches 202 balls from the Jugs machine after each Lions practice. It’s a daily habit that dates back to John approaching the father of a sure-handed receiver Amon-Ra’s age to learn more about the boy’s methods. The father told John that his son owed his great hands to catching 200 passes a day on a Jugs machine. After that, Amon-Ra agreed to do the same — only he vowed to do 1 percent more.

The youngest sibling effect also accelerated Amon-Ra’s development. He had to compete extra hard to keep pace with his older brothers lifting weights, running sprints and especially playing pickup basketball.

“My older brother is taller than both me and Amon,” Osiris said. “Obviously he’d take advantage of his height and do big brother ball, but Amon would always challenge him.”

When Amon-Ra transferred to Orange County’s most dominant high school football program entering 10th grade, he had already established himself as an elite wide receiver prospect. Even so, John asked longtime Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson to put his youngest son on the junior varsity team and to make him earn his way up the depth chart.

John was disappointed when he showed up to Mater Dei’s first practice and discovered that both Amon-Ra and Osiris were working with the varsity. He recalls Rollinson sheepishly telling him, “I’m sorry Mr. Brown, but I’ve never seen nobody get out of their car, put their shoes on and then two seconds later they’re in my end zone.”

Miriam Brown sharpens their minds

Just as John was unafraid to buck convention to push his boys to reach their athletic potential, their mom took the same approach when sharpening their minds. Not only did Miriam demand that her sons earn straight A’s in school, she also insisted on raising them to be trilingual.

When her sons were old enough to begin elementary school, Miriam enrolled them in a French academy in Los Angeles. Uncertain how much of the language they had picked up after a few years, Miriam took all three boys to Paris, enrolled them in school there for a semester and left them no choice but to speak French to communicate.

Miriam herself spoke nothing but German to her sons at home and demanded that they speak only German to her. She made no exceptions, not even when Equanimeous, Osiris or Amon-Ra invited an American friend over for dinner.

“I didn’t care if their friends understood what I was saying,” Miriam said with a laugh. “I told the boys they could translate later.”

Osiris remembers his mom making him earn the right to play Xbox, hang out with friends or talk on the phone. He and his brothers would only get their phones or video game consoles back if they learned 10 new German or French vocabulary words.

“She would quiz us before we could leave the house,” Osiris said. “She was super strict about anything that had to do with our education.”

The boys’ combination of high test scores and NFL talent had college coaches beating a path to their doorstep. Ex-USC football coach Clay Helton recalls feeling awestruck when he discovered that the young receivers he was recruiting spoke three languages and bench pressed as much as many collegiate offensive linemen.

“Some people have fathers and mothers,” Helton told Yahoo Sports. “These kids had a mama and a daddy. They loved their children and drove them to not be average but to be great.”

While Helton lost Equanimeous to Notre Dame and Osiris to Stanford, he described pursuing Amon-Ra as a no-brainer. John had warned Helton that Amon-Ra might be the most promising of his three sons even before the teenaged receiver struck fear in the heart of defensive backs and blossomed into a high school All-American and a five-star recruit.

Amon-Ra arrived at USC with impossibly high expectations for himself. In June 2018, he told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to win the Heisman “all three years,” and yes, author J. Brady McCollough clarified, he was serious.

The Downtown Athletic Club never extended Amon-Ra an invite, but his three seasons at USC were still a success by any reasonable measure. On a USC offense teeming with future NFL receivers, Amon-Ra led the Trojans in receptions playing in the slot as a freshman. Two years later, he pushed to move outside after Michael Pittman graduated and again emerged as his team’s go-to option.

“There are only a few kids who can play on the inside and outside at that level, and Amon-Ra proved he was one of them,” Helton said. “He had the wiggle to find open grass inside yet also the strength, power, speed and route running ability to win 1-on-1 matchups outside.”

Amon-Ra St. Brown of the Detroit Lions (left) and Equanimeous St. Brown of the Chicago Bears pose with each other's jerseys after Detroit's 31-30 win at Soldier Field on Nov. 13. (Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Amon-Ra St. Brown of the Detroit Lions (left) and Equanimeous St. Brown of the Chicago Bears pose with each other’s jerseys after Detroit’s 31-30 win at Soldier Field on Nov. 13. (Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Turning disappointment into motivation

On the morning of April 30, 2021, Amon-Ra awoke expecting to enjoy one of the happiest days of his life.

Feedback from NFL front offices suggested that he was a surefire second-day draft pick, so the highly touted receiver invited a few dozen friends and family to his girlfriend’s house in Newport Beach to celebrate with him. ESPN even sent a camera to capture Amon-Ra’s jubilant reaction when a team picked him.

Five receivers heard their names called in the second round that night; Amon-Ra wasn’t one of them.

Five more came off the board in the third round. Again, Amon-Ra’s phone didn’t ring.

When the Denver Broncos passed on the youngest St. Brown brother with the final pick of the third round, the party turned grim. Embarrassed and fuming, Amon-Ra said goodbye to guests as they awkwardly headed home early.

“He had a poker face, but inside I knew he was furious,” older brother Osiris said. “He had all these people come over, all these friends and family expecting him to be drafted. I think he felt in a sense that he was letting them down.”

After the party, Amon-Ra returned home and retreated to the JUGS machine. He caught his usual 202 passes before his head hit the pillow that night.

The next morning, after the Detroit Lions selected Amon-Ra with the seventh pick in the fourth round, John spoke with his youngest son. John had promised his boys since they were little that he’d always be honest with them. Typically, that meant calling them out after a lethargic practice or a lazy workout. This time, it meant reminding his youngest son how good he was and how good he could be.

“I don’t know what that was but that was bulls***,” John told Amon-Ra. “Now you’ve got a chance to go prove them wrong. All we wanted was a chance and they gave you a chance. Now you’ve got to go seize the moment. But you’re better than that, trust me.”

Over the past 18 months, Amon-Ra has proven that. Any concerns about an underwhelming 40-yard-dash time have melted away, as have questions about whether he can succeed on the outside as an NFL receiver or only in the slot.

By the end of his rookie season, Amon-Ra emerged as Jared Goff’s favorite target, catching eight or more passes in each of his final six games and piling up 560 yards and five touchdowns during that stretch. He has been just as dynamic as Goff’s No. 1 option this season, aside from an injury-plagued four-week October stretch.

The memory of his disappointing NFL draft weekend is the motivation that fuels Amon-Ra more than any other.

This past August on Hard Knocks, Amon-Ra rattled off from memory all 16 receivers drafted ahead of him in order and the colleges they attended. Then, after shredding Washington for 184 total yards and two touchdowns in mid-September, Amon-Ra spoke to reporters and couldn’t prevent his petty side from seeping through. Without prompting, he brought up Dyami Brown, the seldom-used receiver who the Commanders drafted a round ahead of him the previous year but did not record a catch against the Lions.

“I don’t know how many catches he had … or how many yards he had,” Amon-Ra deadpanned, before later adding with a smirk, “I didn’t see him in the game much.”

That viral quote didn’t surprise anyone close to Amon-Ra.

“There’s no man,” says Helton, “that puts a chip on his shoulder better than Amon-Ra St. Brown.”

In case Amon-Ra’s legendary work ethic or competitive streak ever slips, he can always count on his father to keep it real with him. In August, John inspected Amon-Ra’s physique while watching Hard Knocks and then told his youngest son, “You’re not drinking enough water. You look depleted.”

John insists he only has one regret about the way he raised his boys: He wishes he had made each of his boys get minimum-wage summer jobs at McDonald’s so that they learned the value of a dollar.

Other than that, John says, he wouldn’t change anything. Not having them begin lifting weights in elementary school, nor taking them to Compton to toughen them up, nor stuffing them full of protein at every meal.

“I’m concerned for kids who don’t have parents like me,” John said. “There’s so much potential out there, but so much potential gets squandered.”

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