Jake Browning has accounted for more touchdowns than any teenage quarterback in the United States, ever, but he doesn’t care to dwell on his statistics.
“I’m more than just a quarterback,” said Browning, 18, who will lead the Folsom High School Bulldogs in today’s state CIF Division 1 championship game against Oceanside High School at StubHub Center in Carson.
“It’s a big part of my life, but it isn’t all of my life,” he said. “I’m just a normal high school kid.”
Browning’s classmates, teachers and coaches agree that he transcends his national career record of 223 touchdown passes. Asked what makes him special, they don’t talk about numbers, either. They talk about Browning’s modesty, compassion and self-effacing sense of humor.
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In a crowd, Browning, 18, blends in. The love of his life is Ella, his 2-year-old sister. When a junior prom beckoned last May, Browning’s date was a special-needs student. And if you want to see him upset, ask him about the death of a young student whose suicide was triggered by bullying.
Folsom football co-coach Kris Richardson expressed unapologetic admiration for the young man with dark blond hair and hazel eyes. Richardson appreciates the little things about Browning, the traits that play against sports-world stereotypes and reveal a unique empathy.
“Neatest thing,” Richardson said. “I saw Jake driving around, and there was his little sister, in the back seat, in the car seat. He enjoyed toting her around. I think he’ll miss her when he goes to college more than he’ll miss any of us.”
Ella treats her big brother like a jungle gym, climbing all over him. The siblings watch football games on TV together. At Thanksgiving, they chose pumpkins together. They take cellphone selfies, including Ella in the back seat with sunglasses.
Browning stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 205 pounds. He carries a 3.58 grade-point average and will graduate this week, skipping his spring semester so he can enroll immediately at the University of Washington on a full football scholarship.
“I’m ready,” he said.
Jake Browning didn’t become a quarterback by chance. The job was practically coded into his genes. His father, Ed Browning, played the position at Oregon State. When Jake Browning was young, his father shared bits of wisdom gleaned from the football field and talked about how the sport could be more than just a game.
The elder Browning goes by the nickname “Easy Ed,” for his low-key approach to life. The teenage Browning is every ounce his father’s son.
“My dad never pushed the sport on me, but he did tell me that he’d help me with it, but that I had to take it seriously,” Jake Browning said.
For all of his maturity and perspective, the younger Browning takes the game quite seriously. As a preteen, he met a future mentor in Troy Taylor, a 1980s-era star quarterback at Cordova High School, whose collegiate records still stand at UC Berkeley.
Today, Taylor serves as co-coach at Folsom with Richardson and operates a school for prospective quarterbacks in Sacramento called the Passing Academy, which helps players of all ages and skill levels break down the mechanics and understand the science of throwing a football.
‘Eager even then’
Browning was 10 when he first came under Taylor’s tutelage, a tender age for any child to begin pursuing serious athletic ambitions.
“I do think 10 years old is too early, mostly,” Taylor said. “It really depends on the kid. If he’s focused and driven, then it’s fine. I know it could drain the fun out of a kid, but that wasn’t the case with Jake. He was eager even then. And he’s the same exact guy then as he is now: even keeled, just a smaller version.”
Ed Browning, who unlike many sports-mad fathers had the advantage of actual experience within the pressure cooker of big-time college football, said he is delighted with his son’s progress, especially the aspects of team building.
“The thing I’m happiest about for Jake is that he’s experiencing playing with his buddies and coaches that he grew up with,” said the elder Browning, an executive for a financial services firm. “He’s just one Folsom player among many that is getting to experience this. That’s what this is all about, more than rewards and statistics.”
Since becoming the Folsom starter in 2012 – he threw 10 touchdown passes in that first game – Browning has been a fixture in the Bulldogs’ coaching offices, hungry to learn all angles of attack. He doesn’t mingle with girls in the quad during lunch hour. He prefers to banter with coaches and study football films of Folsom and its opponents.
“We can talk to him for hours,” Taylor said. “Very mature and fun. Some teenagers, after about an hour, you say, ‘OK, I need a break.’ With Jake, we can’t get enough.”
Experienced eyes that have watched Browning play agree that he possesses maturity and character beyond his years. Former Cal and professional quarterback Mike Pawlawski said he’s not sure if he’s seen many high school quarterbacks better than Browning. Pawlawski said Browning is mechanically sound, makes the right reads and throws, and has an unlimited future.
“He does it all, and to be coached by Troy Taylor really puts him over the top,” Pawlawski said.
Coaches from opposing teams often prepared special playbooks to be used against Browning, hoping to expose a weakness. Mike Johnson, coach at Franklin High School of Elk Grove, devised new schemes to slow Browning in each of the last two playoff seasons. The strategies faltered and Franklin lost by large margins both times.
“What people don’t always see is how elusive Browning is,” Johnson said. “We had people on him, and he does a side step to make a play. Incredible talent and awareness. And it’s not hard to root for him, especially with all the false bravado you see in the NFL. It’s very refreshing to see a player of Jake’s stature, just a nice kid.”
‘I’ll tell my grandkids’
Many of Browning’s football victims have trooped forward after a game to shake his hand. Browning is flattered by the appreciation. For the opponents, the handshake is an acknowledgment that they have witnessed, and endured, something special.
Michael Thompson, a defensive back from Stagg High School in Stockton, recently approached Browning after a playoff opening loss in Folsom. “Just had to come up and say hello to you, Jake, because it was a pleasure playing against you,” Thompson said. “I’ll tell my grandkids about this some day.”
One number – 223 – defines the rarity of Browning’s high school career. That touchdown passing total is a national record.
“It hasn’t really sunk in,” Browning said of his record. “Just trying to win the next game. I’ll look back and appreciate it someday. I think I’ll always remember the wins and teammates more than the numbers. And they’re not my records. They’re team records. I have linemen who do a great job, and the second part of every touchdown pass is someone catching the ball.”
The people who know Browning best – his teammates – say the team-first mantra and humility is sincere. They even make their quarterback the objective of light jokes.
“Jake’s very genuine and real,” said lineman Cody Creason. “He’s amazing, even though he tries to be like me.”
The locker-room teasing is part of the football culture at Folsom, but it’s also an indicator of respect and a way for the teammates to manage the presence of a player who everybody knows possesses talents rarely found among Sacramento-area quarterbacks.
“You know, Jake can’t ever become too big, too arrogant, because he’s under constant attack here as we all tease him,” Taylor said. “Admiration grows with humility, and that’s Jake. He’s just one of the guys who happens to be an amazing quarterback.”
Browning dishes it out, too. He recently went to Twitter and posted a photo of his thick-bodied lineman friend Creason with the words, “Please contact me if you’ve seen Cody Creason’s neck.”
He calls his baby sister Ella “monster,” for her excessive energy. As for another sister, Hailey, a Folsom cheerleader, he said, “My first game, when I had the 10 touchdowns, she asked if I even played. I will say that she’s more athletic than I am, running and jumping. But her hand-eye coordination? Really, really bad. I’ve got her there. You have to laugh. Can’t take all of this too seriously.”
Amid the excitement over the success of the Folsom football team, the high school campus displayed a heavy, somber sadness last week, after the suicide of Ronin Shimizu, a 12-year-old boy from the community. Authorities believe the youngster killed himself to escape the despair of having been bullied for several years by other children.
The death affected Folsom students, including Browning. “People respond to things like this,” Browning said. “There’s a big difference between teasing and bullying. Everyone needs to step up against bullying.”
Browning stood tall last spring during the Evening of Dreams, a prom dance with a focus on special-needs students, where young women and men are partnered with their peers from high school sports teams around the region. The dance was organized by Character Combine, a Sacramento firm that provides sportsmanship clinics for coaches and athletes.
“I’ve never seen Jake without a helmet on and throwing for 600 yards, but I saw him at his best at this dance,” said Jason Harper, founder and executive director of Character Combine. “There was Jake with this nice girl, and I thanked him. He thanked me.
“He’s wired so well,” Harper said of Browning. “His accolades on the football field, in the classroom are one thing. When his conscience oozes that passion beyond competition, that to me is a mark of a real champion.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.
Folsom High School quarterback Jake Browning by the numbers:
15-0 – Folsom’s won-loss record this season, a regional record
43-2 – Won-lost record over three seasons
85 – Touchdown passes this season, a state record
223 – Career touchdown passes, a national record
5,351 – Yards passing, tops in the country for 2014
16,342 – Career passing yards, third most in national history