December 31, 2009

Strong as blood: Stepbrothers Brown and Mayo take Baltimore by storm

It's three days after Christmas and Devin Mayo and Navassa Brown are enjoying a well-earned winter break. Seated side by side on a comfy couch at their home in Reisterstown, the two Franklin High football stars indulge in a game of Madden 2010. Like any teenage PlayStation aficionados, the stepbrothers' eyes are glued to the big-screen LCD TV while their fingers move faster then a stenographer's.

Devin groans when Brett Favre overthrows an open Sidney Rice down the left sideline. The wide-eyed sophomore safety, who recently transferred to Franklin from St. Frances Academy, looks ready to take the field himself. He is wearing a skin-tight Under Armour shirt and athletic pants. Devin is only 5-foot-10, but he is already packing 185 pounds, evidenced by the bulging biceps protruding from his sleeveless shirt.

Navassa, who goes by the nickname Tommy (Navassa is a family name passed down through several generations), shuns his brother's Foot Locker look in favor of a yellow Hollister hoodie and ripped jeans. Tommy is a year older than his brother, but he's an inch shorter and about 10 pounds lighter as well. The sleepy-eyed junior wide receiver-running back is also much less eccentric. While his brother is more apt to go haywire on a PlayStation controller, Tommy merely shrugs and sinks back in the couch when his virtual cornerback fails to knock away a pass.

The video-game battle is just a simple scene, but it's quite revealing. It's evident these two stepbrothers don't share much in common.

Of course, that hasn't kept them from forming a bond as strong as blood.

"We're always around to help each other out," said Tommy.

"It's just cool between us," said Devin. "We're different people, but we're always there for one another."

On the field, Devin Mayo and Tommy Brown have the potential to be the next Tiki and Ronde Barber - running back and safety dominating football's upper echelon. No, Devin and Tommy aren't twins like the Barber brothers. And no, they don't look like future NFL stars yet.

But both are gifted athletes with Division I potential. Devin has already stood out at numerous underclassmen camps, while Tommy has been in contact with a few BCS college recruiters. Whether or not they develop into elite players remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: They're in this thing together.

"On the field and in workouts we motivate each other and push each other," Devin said. "We're both really focused on the goal."

And what exactly is the goal?

The pair smiles sheepishly. After a bit of prodding, they answer:

"The NFL, man."

Only the dedicated may aspire to such greatness. Mayo and Brown enjoy their fair share of Madden, but make no mistake -- these two are much more in tune with real-life football than the fantasy world of EA Sports. Both realize what it takes to be great. Their workout regimen is unrivaled, their dedication unparalleled. Every day, they raise the proverbial bar higher and higher. Merely being among the best is no longer good enough.

"I want to be the top player in my class and I'm willing to work for it," Mayo said. "And I'm not talking about just four and five stars. I want people to say, 'I want to hit people like Devin Mayo.'"

"I want to be the best," Brown echoed. "I want to redefine my position."

***


Eight years ago, Joe Mayo and his son, Devin, lived by themselves at their home in Reisterstown. But one day Joe, a real-estate agent, spotted an attractive single woman. Sensing opportunity, Joe played the "cute kid" card and had Devin hand deliver one of his business cards to the fine young lady. A few days later that young lady made an appointment to see Mr. Mayo. Needless to say, Joe Mayo and Angie Brown didn't discuss real estate.

"I told her, 'You're going to be my wife,'" Joe said.

Angie, who worked for a law firm, didn't exactly take him seriously, but after two years of courtship the two did indeed tie the knot. Before the marriage, however, the couple had to introduce their two young sons, Devin and Navassa. Joe and Angie certainly loved one another, but how would the boys get along?

Naturally, John Madden answered the question.

"When Joe first brought me over to see Devin, I went upstairs and we were playing Madden," Tommy said. "We were really getting into it; it was a close game. He won, but I actually didn't care. I was just happy because we had such a good time playing together."

"They formed a bond immediately," Joe said. "They just cliqued."

After Joe and Angie moved in together, Tommy and Devin had to share a bedroom. And that was just fine by them. To a pair of prepubescent boys, it was like having your best friend sleep over every night.

"When they were sharing a room, it was never a tug-of-war," Angie said. "They were always just talking together or playing games. They could talk all night if I didn't stop them and tell them to go to bed."

But all relationships hit snags, and eventually the two boys with polar opposite personalities clashed. Tommy was a private person who rarely said much. He preferred the comforts of his own room to large groups. Devin, on the other hand, could be as talkative as a talk-show host. He naturally attracted hangers-on from school. Just like their newlywed parents, the two stepbrothers had to learn how to love each other despite their differences.

"I compare their relationship to a marriage," Joe said. "Their personalities are different, but their differences make them stronger and better together. They each complement one another."

Tommy and Devin reconciled, and it's served them well in life and on the football field. Whenever Tommy retreated inward, Devin lit a fire under him. Whenever Devin went into ADHD mode, Tommy was his Novocain.

Franklin coach Anthony Burgos recalled a moment when Devin psyched Tommy up before an offseason combine drill. Tommy responded by dominating the opposing cornerback during one-on-one sessions. Later, when Devin didn't get a foul call, Navassa calmed him down and told him to focus on the next play. Right on cue, Devin stopped his man.

"Devin would force Navassa to let it loose, showing him it's OK to be a different person with the helmet on," Burgos said. "At the same time, Devin learned a lot about staying humble on the field. They're brothers, but they're two different kids and that's what makes their bond special."

Although they've rarely played on the same teams, the two can sense one another on the field. Like a quarterback and his go-to receiver, Tommy and Devin seem to know exactly where the other will be.

During a Rec-league championship game, the brothers both starred on the same defense. Tommy, the faster of the two, lined up at cornerback. Devin, the stronger stepbrother, played safety. On one stretch run, Tommy chased down a running back trying to get around the corner. Knowing his brother would be in pursuit, Tommy angled the runner inside. That allowed Devin to fire into the backfield and drop the 'back for a loss.

"Most of the time we'll just look at each other and know what's going on," Tommy said. "If Devin is about to make a tackle, he knows I'm right behind him coming up to help out."

Devin agreed.

"It's a trust thing," he said. "I know I can depend on him to make a play. I know he's going to be there."

That on-field trust stems from hours upon hours of off-field workouts. They train together four days a week at Troy Jones' Eldersburg gym, TZSports. Jones, who has worked with professionals (Mark Clayton, Derrick Mason), college athletes (Tavon Austin, Leon Kinnard) and amateur stars (Adrian Coxson, Tyrek Cheeseboro), turned Brown and Mayo into workout warriors.

It didn't take much to motivate Devin. With the help of his father's constant prodding, Devin developed into a football-workout junkie. At four years old, he was already sneaking onto teams with six and seven year olds just to test himself. When he was eight, he used to walk across the street to the Owings Mills Sports Arena to lift with grown men. Jones, who trained in that gym before starting TZSports, took notice immediately.

"I couldn't believe it -- eight years old," said Jones, who has been training athletes for 14 years. "He wanted to get big at eight years old. He was in tune to what it took to be a good athlete; he was willing to work hard."

Tommy didn't have Devin's same motivation. Growing up he was rather stocky and uninspired, according to Angie. In fact, when he first met Joe and Devin, the nine-year-old Tommy preferred exercising his fingers on PlayStation controllers to working up a sweat on the track.

"Tommy would watch Devin, but he didn't want to even play sports," Joe said. "But Devin and I kept pushing him. He tried it and he loved it. But then we told him, 'If you care about sports, you have to prepare and give it your all.'"

With encouragement from Devin, Tommy bought in. Thus the two started training with one another. By the time Tommy was ready for high school, the little fat kid (Joe's words) had turned into a primetime football player.

"I have old videos of Tommy playing after he had been working out awhile," Jones said. "He was a natural. He was just so explosive and so fast."

A year after Tommy enrolled at Franklin, his stepbrother followed. Tommy had already been promoted to varsity, where he was among the team leaders in total yardage. Devin, meanwhile, ripped apart the jayvee and earned a varsity spot at the end of his freshman year. The two excelled so quickly on the field and in practice their teammates couldn't help but notice.

After football workouts, their peers began to follow them. Unlike most kids who hit the showers and the TV set after practice, Tommy and Devin headed to TZSports. There, Jones ran them through conditioning drills that would make a weaker digestive systems lose its lunch.

Two brutal workouts in one day? Their teammates were shocked.

"Our teammates used to ask us if it was worth it," said Devin, who left Franklin after one year in order to "refocus himself," according to Burgos. "We'd say, 'In order to be the best - in order to reach the goal - you have to do this. It's definitely worth it.'"

Those who were up for the challenge started gravitating toward Brown and Mayo. Sometimes 10 or 15 kids would spend the night at their home just so they could get a ride to the Eldersburg gym. Joe piled so many players into his seven-seat caravan it "looked like a clown car," he said.

The two stepbrothers quickly developed an area-wide reputation. High School stars from Baltimore, Frederick, Carroll, Arundel, Harford and Howard Counties flocked to TZSports to train with Devin and Tommy. They became more than just football players. They were trendsetters.

"They're both leaders," Burgos said. "These two gentlemen are tremendous and I enjoy coaching both of them."

Angie and Joe couldn't be more proud. Of all the personal accomplishments - championship trophies, National Underclassman awards, Rivals 100 camp letters -- that hang on the walls and sit on glass shelves, the quality they admire most is Tommy and Devin's leadership.

"All the success Tommy and Devin are having is not for them, it's for everyone around them," Joe said. "They've shown others the way to do it - hard work, dedication, giving 100 percent, being respectful, being humble. That's all we've ever wanted as parents."

Tommy and Devin's personal development is a testament to the family's strong Christian faith. Angie and Joe take the boys to Church every Sunday ("We would go every day if it were up to my wife," Joe quipped). Devin even has the Bible verse Psalms 28:7 tattooed on his bicep: "The Lord is my strength and my shield …"

"We always told the boys to pray before every game," Angie said. "We made sure they knew and remembered who gave them strength: God and Jesus."

Devin and Tommy will cull up that strength even more in the future. Life will inevitably become more than just football, friends, family, school and video games.

But for now, the two brothers are enjoying their time together. Devin transferred back to Franklin after one year at St. Frances, and next year he will be reunited with Tommy for the first time since Rec ball. After that, it's off to college for Brown and one more year in high school for Mayo.

Although they'd like to play for the same college team, the brothers realize chances are slim. So 2010 could be their last opportunity to don the same jersey.

"It's going to be just like Rec all over again," Tommy said. "We're going to complement each other on the field and help the team compete for a state championship."

Regardless of whether or not that comes to fruition, Mayo and Brown have already made an impact. Next year will merely cement their legacies.

"I see how others have followed in their footsteps, but I also see them leaving some footprints of their own at Franklin," Angie said. "It's been exciting watching them play. They're very special players."

And very special young men.




 

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