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November 14, 2011

Duane Brown has started for Houston since the beginning and hopes to stay with the Texans for the long term

By: Jimmy Robertson

Former Tech offensive tackle Duane Brown looked forward to the NFL Draft following his senior season in 2007. And after the Houston Texans took him in the first round of the 2008 draft, he looked forward to his first NFL game.

But reality came crashing in when he realized the Texans’ first opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers, a preseason pick by many to win the Super Bowl.

Brown spent his first game attempting to block Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison. To put the matchup into perspective, Harrison went on to be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year that season.

“That was the longest day of my life,” Brown said, laughing, while looking back on the game. “The game was at Pittsburgh, and he had the crowd behind him. I think I gave up two sacks, and I didn’t even finish the game. I sat out the last two series because of cramps.

“But that game made me grow up fast. I realized just how fast the game is. I couldn’t have asked for a tougher test as a rookie, but I feel like I became a stronger player because of it.”

Things have gotten much better for Brown, who started every game at the critical left tackle spot his rookie season. In fact, Brown has started every game of his career since arriving in Houston.

He first learned under legendary line coach Alex Gibbs, who specializes in the zone-blocking scheme that requires offensive linemen to be able to move quickly. Offensive linemen in the scheme need to be able to run and pull to block linebackers.

Gibbs liked Brown coming out of Tech, but didn’t like it when Brown showed up at his rookie training camp weighing 330 pounds.

“My senior year at Tech, I weighed 310,” Brown said. “I thought I needed to get bigger and stronger, so I ended up at around 330. But he and the rest of the staff wanted me to drop 15 or 20 pounds because, in this scheme, you have to be able to move. So I dropped the weight and got down to around 310 again, and I really think that helped me.

“Now, I’m around 320. But I’m stronger and just as mobile.”

In addition to learning under Gibbs, who spent two years with the Texans before leaving to go to Seattle, Brown also got lessons every day in practice from teammate Mario Williams, the former N.C. State defensive end whom the Texans took with the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. The two of them already were acquainted, having faced each other on the collegiate level.

In the 2005 season opener, Tech travel to Raleigh, N.C. to face the Wolfpack, and Brown, who had been moved to tackle in the spring, started his first collegiate game. Williams registered a couple of sacks, but not much else, and Tech won the game 20-16.

“It’s a little unique,” Brown said. “I went against him in my first college start, and then I face him when I get here. We’ve talked before about that game, and I did okay against him, but Marcus [Vick] had a lot to do with that.

“Facing him [Mario Williams] every day in practice, I had growing pains there, too. He’s such a unique athlete, with his size and speed. I’d face him in pass rushing drills and in one-on-one drills. He really helped me when I go up against some of the other dudes, showing me what they do, and that’s helped me be successful.”

Brown obviously took his lessons to heart. In 2009 – Brown’s second year – he protected the blind side of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, and Schaub threw for an NFL-leading 4,770 yards. Last year, Brown started 12 games and cleared holes for tailback Arian Foster to rush for a team-record 1,616 yards.

Things didn’t go entirely smoothly for Brown a year ago. Last September, before the third game, the NFL suspended Brown for four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy. Brown was taking a supplement, and that supplement contains a substance that is banned by the NFL because the league considers the substance a performance-enhancing drug.

Brown did not realize that when he started taking the supplement and called it an honest mistake. He admitted he should have checked with Houston’s medical staff before taking the supplement, and he served the suspension.

“That was one of the most disappointing moments of my life, and I took responsibility for it,” Brown said. “I let my teammates down, and to sit and watch them compete was difficult. Plus, my family had to deal with the questions.

“I was naïve and didn’t know, but that incident has made me smarter and helped me grow as a person. Now, I’m trying to help others and make them aware of what can happen. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that because that was a very difficult part of my life.”

This season, things appear to be going better for Brown. He and the Texans are fighting for a playoff spot in the wide-open AFC South Division, and the Texans have a favorable schedule down the stretch, making the playoffs a distinct possibility.

Brown continues to do his part for the Texans’ attack, which includes opening holes for Foster and protecting Schaub. Tech fans give him grief about Schaub, a former UVa quarterback. Schaub led UVa to a win over Tech in 2003 – the last time the Cavaliers have beaten the Hokies.

“Yeah, the Tech people have been telling me to let him take a few shots,” Brown said. “That was a joke we [him and Schaub] had for a long time. But he’s a great guy, and I’m glad he’s our quarterback.

“We don’t talk a lot about the rivalry, though. There’s not much he can say. We’re killing them right now.”

Brown wouldn’t mind doing even more for the Texans than blocking. While at Tech, he played on special teams, including the punt team and the field-goal block team. But in Houston, he only plays on the field-goal team.

“Our special teams coach said he remembered watching film of me [at Tech] covering punts while wearing my knee braces,” Brown said. “But those days are over. We have enough people here to cover punts.”

Next season could be his last in Houston, as the five-year deal he signed following the 2008 NFL Draft expires. Brown figures to make big bucks one way or the other – with the Texans or with another team. But he wants to remain in Houston.

“I’d love to stay here my whole career,” he said. “Houston is a great city. You have all the different types of food, and it’s warm here and the people are hospitable.

“The organization here is great, too. We have a top-notch owner [Bob McNair], and the staff here is first class. Rick Smith [Houston’s general manager] and Coach [Gary] Kubiak, their doors are always open. If you’ve got something personal going on in your life, they’re more than willing to help you in any way they can. So the situation here is good.”

Brown remains close with several former Tech teammates, and former Tech cornerback Rashad Carmichael is a member of the Texans’ roster as well. Carmichael, a third-round draft pick of the Texans in April, is on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury.

Brown hopes to get back to Blacksburg for the North Carolina game. If not then, then maybe for the Hokies’ spring game.

“I haven’t been back since I left,” he said. “When I go back that way, I usually go to Richmond to see my family. But I definitely need to get back to Blacksburg to check in with everybody. Hopefully, I can work that in during our off week. We’ll see.”