ELKHART — Mark Brownlee plays football like he loves it, and confirms he loves it, but there’s another sentiment that the Elkhart Central running back says is the real reason for his record-smashing effectiveness.
“I hate to get tackled, hate it,” Brownlee said this week. “I just focus on not getting tackled. Whatever I gotta do to not get tackled, that’s just how I see it.”
Brownlee and the No. 9-ranked Blue Blazers (9-2) host No. 11 Mishawaka (7-3) in Friday night’s Class 5A sectional championship at Rice Field. It’ll be a rematch of the Cavemen’s 22-17 victory in Week 6.
Sometimes a bruiser, sometimes a blur, the 6-foot, 215-pound Brownlee is coming off a school-record 307 yards and five touchdowns on a career-high 39 carries in last week’s 38-31 semifinal victory over No. 6 Concord.
While he steadfastly places his above-described hatred at the core of a running style that blends power, speed, vision and patience, the Ball State commit also acknowledges that there’s more to his production than just that one emotion.
Brownlee can sometimes come to a virtually complete stop as he probes a situation, then shift and accelerate in almost one motion.
“Not getting tackled is really what goes through my mind first,” Brownlee reiterated, “but when I see a hole and I see somebody (on defense) come fill it, I just hurry up and look the other way or something, see where I can go. If not the other way, I just go where I was going, but if I see something a little open, I just turn my foot and go.”
It’s a plan that can be both exasperating and exhilarating for Central coach Josh Shattuck.
“You gotta be really careful with a kid like Mark, because you don’t want to take away that creativity as a runner,” Shattuck said, “but we’re just trying to get him to understand what we’re trying to do when we call certain plays. Against Concord, we challenged him to not make cuts until he’s through that first level. We felt if we could get into a more north-south battle, that would be better for us. He did that, and then he made a lot of 5-yard runs into 15-yard runs. He wore them down.”
At 209.4 rushing yards a game, Brownlee is second in the state to 5A top-ranked New Palestine’s Charlie Spegal, a senior fullback powering for 220.4 per outing.
Even though Brownlee’s missed two games – one following an early-season official’s ejection, the other due to injury – he stands tied for second in Indiana in rushing touchdowns at 29 and fourth in total rushing yardage at 1,885 to go with his 8.0 per carry.
He’s been consistent, too. His season low is 138 yards, and he’s had six games over 200.
Last season, Brownlee averaged 154.7 per game and 7.1 per carry to go with 15 TDs, cracking 200 yards four times.
“A lot of running backs, you can teach them how to read certain things, read butts to make cuts, and you can get into a lot of fancy terminology, but Mark’s just got a knack as good as anybody I’ve ever coached,” said Shattuck, who is in his third year at Central and 14th year of high school coaching overall.
“I’ve coached kids who had unbelievable ability to get north and south, and scat-type kids like (current Blazer) Dom Davis, where you get them out in space and they’re hard to tackle, but Mark’s got a unique ability to be both,” Shattuck said. “So we try to have enough schemes that purposely get him the ball on the perimeter and enough schemes to get him the ball between the tackles. He knows that when he runs north and south, and runs aggressively and violently, I just don’t think high school kids can tackle him. With the help of an offensive line that’s been phenomenal the last couple of years, he’s done a lot to change our program.”
Brownlee played his first two high school seasons at Elkhart Memorial, seeing regular varsity action as a freshman, before transferring in the middle of his sophomore school year to Central.
“I just wasn’t doing too well there, and all my friends were here anyway,” Brownlee said of switching schools.
Brownlee, whose three siblings include two older sisters and a younger one, joined a flag football league in fifth grade, then moved into tackle ball at North Side Middle School.
“My mom (Kyseidra Jackson) wouldn’t let me play tackle until middle school,” Brownlee said, “so I started playing flag, was a wide receiver, never knew anything about running back. In seventh grade, I played a little bit, and then eighth grade they moved me to running back, and I just went from there.”
Brownlee’s also played basketball at both Memorial and Central. He opted not to go out last season, but says he’s had a change of heart and will go out for the sport again this season.
Following high school graduation, it’s on to Ball State.
“I’m really looking forward to it, ready to do things on the next level,” Brownlee said. “I feel like I’m capable of doing anything if I put my mind to it.”
In Muncie, he plans to study social work.
“Growing up, I had a lot of help,” Brownlee said, “so I’d like to help kids out with their problems, help families work on their communication, things like that.”
He says his coaches have been among those who have helped him most.
“What I love about football is the relationships with coaches, teammates and just the atmosphere,” Brownlee said. “It’s exciting just to get on the field and play.”
As he says that, though, he hesitates for a moment, almost like he does on one of his carries, eager it seems to throw in a fun twist.
“You want to know something?” Brownlee added, lowering his voice and leaning forward in his chair as if to tell a secret. “Football’s not even my favorite sport. Basketball. Love basketball.”
After all, in basketball, you usually don’t get tackled.