The hills at Loch Raven High School are hell. The first slope rises from the baseball field like a grassy wall, a 50-something-degree incline stretched over maybe 30 yards. Get to the top, and a respite awaits: a short jog across a parking lot cooking under the midday sun. At the end of the pavement is another hill. It feels even steeper, even crueler.
“I tell everyone,” said Daniel Harper, who helps train track and field athletes at the Baltimore County school, “the hill will make you right if you’re wrong.”
The most watched offseason in recent Ravens history has taken Marquise “Hollywood” Brown to backyards and home gyms, to football fields and tracks. Over the past three months, the second-year wide receiver has caught up to passes he’s launched from a Jugs machine, made route-running cones out of training partners and turned his workouts into a bodybuilding showcase. His Instagram Story has become must-see TV.
But no venue of Brown’s viral summer is more symbolic than those hellacious hills. The 2019 first-round draft pick’s journey to the brink of stardom has been nothing if not uphill. He entered his rookie year nine months after a season-ending Lisfranc injury. He played on anyway, finishing with 584 receiving yards on what a trainer he’s worked with called “one foot.” Then the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the NFL’s offseason. Brown would have to get up to speed himself.
As veterans report to training camp in Owings Mills this week, the quiet 23-year-old whom some know as “Jet” is ready for takeoff. Interviews with three trainers who’ve worked with Brown this offseason depict a player hell-bent on domination and healthy enough at last to do it. He is stronger and faster now, a more complete receiver. But it is not the made-for-social-media highlights that have left them awed; it is Brown’s complete commitment to reconstructing his body, almost from the ground up.
“When I first met him, his [left] foot wasn’t all the way healed,” said P.J. Quarrie, a former Bowie State running back and Baltimore-based trainer for The Foot Doctor Sports who works with several Ravens players. “He pretty much played on one foot. That’s why all of the Ravens fans, what they saw last year of Hollywood, they didn’t see the real Marquise Brown. He wasn’t full speed coming out of his breaks, running full speed, stuff like that. He was still fast.
“Imagine what he can do full speed, healthy, for a whole season.”
Getting up to speed
When Quarrie started training Brown this spring, he had him take his shoes off. He noticed two troubling signs almost immediately: Brown’s pained left ankle and swollen midfoot.
Quarrie starts many workouts with what he calls “prehabbing,” exercises intended to properly align and activate the musculature of the ankle and foot. Brown’s ankle mobility, Quarrie said, was “very, very limited.” It wasn’t so bad that Brown would’ve had to miss a game — he sat out just two last season — but any kind of sudden cut off his left foot was painful, Quarrie said.
Then there was the knot of scar tissue on the foot, a reminder of Brown’s 2019 surgery. As big as a golf ball, it required massages and careful attention every workout.
Quarrie had entered those early sessions expecting to see Brown fly; hobbled receivers don’t normally go for 100-plus yards in their playoff debut. He soon found himself more concerned with how well Brown could walk.
“That was one of the main things: [We] had to build his strength back in his foot,” Quarrie said. “We took it all the way back to, like, basic walking. Walking stuff, proper way to move, building it up, and then you’re going from there.”
Progress came quickly. When an associate of Brown’s reached out to Harper in June and asked whether he could take on another client, Harper said Brown could drop by for an introductory session. Brown told him that pain was no longer a problem; it was speed. He wanted to get faster — or at least as fast as he used to be.
So Harper, who leads the EYT Spartans track club and coaches at Calvert Hall, took him out running. Or hopping. Or pushing something heavy around a track, sometimes while hopping. At Loch Raven, Harper’s focus was plyometric power. Hill runs promote proper biomechanics — arm drive, knee lift, ankle flexion.
It wasn’t enough for Brown to summit the peaks on two feet. For a receiver like Brown, “both feet are never on the ground,” Quarrie said, “unless you’re walking.” During one workout set, Harper had Brown climb the first hill with one foot — the bottom half with his left, the upper half with his right, no stops allowed. It was like asking someone to climb a staircase with a stubbed toe.
After Brown hopped to the top, he slowed to a jog. Then he ran the second hill with Harper. This time, he could use both feet.
“Good luck identifying if he has the injury or not,” Harper said. “You won’t be able to tell.”
In a socially distanced offseason, Brown has let his workouts speak for themselves. Rehab reports have been elusive; he hasn’t been made available to Baltimore reporters since the Ravens’ playoff loss. But one detail Brown shared in a rare interview this spring with Bleacher Report was especially jarring: At one point last season, he weighed 157 pounds.
Brown needed bulking up. He’d played at around 170 pounds at Oklahoma. But what had made his offseason recovery possible was now making weight gain difficult. When Brown committed to working with Harper, he also took him on as a strength and conditioning coach. That meant about nine workouts per week. He just wasn’t eating enough.
“What was happening is, we saw a detriment in weight,” Harper said. So he took on another role for Brown: nutritionist. “And the results can be seen the moment he takes his shirt off.”
Brown’s vein-popping, eye-catching physique has been rigorously sculpted, the product of both open (bench press) and closed (back squat) kinetic-chain workouts. There are no vanity exercises; every movement has a functional application, Harper said.
Say Brown needs to beat press coverage against a bigger cornerback. Harper’s had him set up in a push-up position, his hands cupping a medicine ball. The goal isn’t just to go down and up; it’s to explode over a nearby 6-inch hurdle, absorb the impact, do another medicine ball push-up, then explode back over the same hurdle, again and again.
“I have not done that with too many non-1 percenters, you could say,” Harper said. “Maybe three other guys I know right now are doing it. One’s from the [Atlanta] Braves, and one’s getting ready to go play in the farm system for the Orioles.”
What if the 5-foot-9 Brown needs to win a jump ball? Harper started Brown on 30-inch box jumps Friday, then, unsatisfied, added three more weightlifting plates for him to clear. “He still was floating. It wasn’t enough.”
Over five-plus weeks of track sessions and home workouts, Brown’s raw power has slowly returned. When Harper asked him to do Nordic hamstring curls — an exercise that has athletes curl their body backward from the knee up after lowering themselves from a kneeling, fixed position — Brown initially couldn’t do more than control his descent.
Last week, Harper said, Brown was strong enough to pause at full extension, smile for a camera, then carry on with his set, as if it were a walk in the park.
At his preferred pace, he’s much improved, too. During one track workout, Brown wore a Catapult GPS tracking vest and ran a series of “Flying 30s,” in which he would gradually accelerate into a 30-meter sprint at his top-end speed. Before his injury, Brown told Harper, he’d run as fast as 23.9 mph at Oklahoma. That day, he got up to 22.9 mph. And that was on the ninth repetition. At maybe the heaviest weight of his career.
“He’s doing it the right away,” said Quarrie, who said Brown now weighs a “solid” 180 pounds. “His body understands, ‘OK, I got this extra 15 on, but we know how to move with it.’ And it doesn’t look like he lost one step. If anything, he’s more explosive and maybe even faster at 180.”
Ready for takeoff
If Brown looks like a natural this season, a do-everything wide receiver on a Ravens offense in desperate need of a downfield threat, it’ll be because of how unnatural he looked at times this offseason.
On the track, Brown had suboptimal shin angles and poor arm drive, Harper said. As a route runner, Quarrie said he could be inefficient on out-breaking routes. Blame it on inexperience or the injury, but Brown still needed some imperfections sanded off, some bad habits unlearned.
He happened to be an ideal student — respectful, responsive, devoted. Harper marveled at how Brown could correct any biomechanical deficiencies almost “immediately.” He called him a “sponge” for information. “It’s just, ‘What did I do right? What did I do wrong?’ And then he would just tweak things.”
Quarrie remembered asking Brown whether he wanted to limit his reps early in his rehab, when his left foot was still bothersome. He could sense Brown was in pain. “I’m not quitting,” Brown told him. Said Quarrie: “That’s the type of guy he is. ‘I’m not stopping. I’m going to finish the whole workout.’ "
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With his speed renewed and his strength growing, there is in Brown a newfound confidence, Quarrie said, quiet but unmistakable. When he catches passes in drills, he turns upfield and darts past imaginary defenders, as if the “Madden” video game he dominates off the field has come to life.
When videographer Eric Bowden shot a recent local workout, Brown flitted in and out of frame, sometimes too fast to pin down. The experience reminded Bowden of another NFL speedster he’d had to capture: New Orleans Saints returner Deonte Harris, a Baltimore native and one of the league’s quickest players.
But it’s Brown’s ability to dust cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage that inspires even loftier comparisons. “I’ve seen some guys that can do that — Antonio Brown is one of the guys that would be able to do that,” said Seth Minter, founder of The Foot Doctor Sports, who’s trained Marquise Brown in Florida and worked with some of the NFL’s top receivers. “Odell [Beckham Jr.] is the same way. They’ve just got this ‘it’ factor. When you see them, they can just turn it on.”
For now, all Brown can do is work and wait. The hype has reached critical mass. One collection of workout clips on YouTube had been viewed over 187,000 times as of Monday night. Quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Mark Ingram II have called him the league’s next breakout player. On Brown’s most recent Instagram post (follower count: 574,000 and climbing), a shirtless picture of the receiver in a Ravens helmet, Denver Broncos rookie Jerry Jeudy wrote: “U [sic] could tell who been putting in the work.”
Which might as well be Brown’s mantra for 2020. In footage of one late-June workout, recorded and shared on his Instagram Story, he toweled himself off and looked into the camera.