He wasn’t always “Cool Hand Jake.”
He was once “Little Dude Jake.”
As an 8-year-old with the Folsom Junior Bulldogs, Jake Browning’s helmet was wider than his torso, his twig arms snaked out of his shoulder pads. But the kid could chuck it.
“I was pretty good when I started,” Browning said a laugh, pinpointing the origins of a career that has flourished in Seattle as the Washington Huskies’ star quarterback.
“Then everyone hit puberty and I didn’t, and that sucked. Physics can be pretty hard if you’re the smaller guy in football.”
But Browning’s natural instinct and feel for the game were unmatched, and he grew into his own – in body and in spirit, and in lore.
As Browning enters his third season as a starter for the Huskies, his presence on the college football landscape couldn’t get much bigger. He leads a program boasting its highest preseason ranking – No. 8 by the Associated Press – in 20 years. Washington opens Friday night at Rutgers.
Browning tossed 43 touchdowns last season, tying the Pacific-12 Conference record, and guided the Huskies to a conference title and into the College Football Playoff semifinal, a crushing 24-7 loss to Alabama that still pains him.
He is wiser now, and thicker, too, with 215 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. And hungrier. He’s expected to contend again for the Heisman Trophy, but dismisses it, and he won’t touch any topic on the NFL.
“If confidence is the word that I use to accomplish some of these cool things, OK,” Browning said. “I just need to take it the next step forward.”
Browning said he does not want to be defined only by football. He cherishes family most of all, including father Ed Browning, who went by “Easy Ed” for his cool demeanor. Ed played quarterback at Oregon State from 1987-91 but never pushed his son into athletics.
Browning’s focus during a brief summer stay in Granite Bay was 5-year-old sister Ella. She treated her brother like a jungle gym. He drove around Folsom, Ella in the back seat with sunglasses on. Cool Kid Ella, indeed.
“It’s kind of trippy because everyone thinks she’s my kid,” Browning said with a laugh. “She thinks the University of Washington is in the sky because I have to take an airplane to get there. She literally thinks I go to school in outer space.”
Does he set her straight?
“Of course not,” Browning said. “That’s classic comedy. I can’t tell her the truth. What’s the fun in that? I can’t ruin that for her!”
Browning’s star has never been brighter, but he just wants to blend in.
“In Seattle, there’s a lot of other stuff going on, so I fit in and it’s ideal,” Browning said. “I can walk around a hipster crowd and people don’t know who I am. I gravitate toward people who treat you like a normal person because I’m a normal person.”
But, in some ways, normal left the building during his varsity debut.
‘I’m not Football Player Jake’
At Folsom High School in 2012 against Woodcreek, Browning followed his coaches’ simple instruction: If they blitz, throw. The Timberwolves kept blitzing, and he kept throwing, finishing with 10 touchdowns and 689 yards.
Browning accomplished something no other high school player had – 229 career touchdowns, including 91 as a senior for a 16-0 team – but he never gloated. Not then, not now.
He talks about the other guys, the championships, the memories.
His Folsom coaches still find Browning ripe for ribbing. Bulldogs coach Kris Richardson, when asked about Browning before Pac-12 Media Day offered, “Tell Jake I hope he combed his hair and wore a nice shirt, tucked in!”
Browning’s sister, Hailey, is a cheerleader at Boise State. She reminds him who the better athlete is (after his 10-touchdown debut, she asked him, “Did you even play?”).
“My family thinks it’s a little weird and funny that people in Folsom are wearing Washington stuff,” Browning said. “They don’t think of me (as a star). I’m just Joe Schmoe. They talk down to me, call me a bum (laughs). I’m not ‘Football Player Jake.’ ”
But he is in Seattle.
Admiration grows with humility and Browning has the attention of his coaches, teammates and opponents.
“Jake’s our guy,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “He’s really good now and he’ll continue to grow. He’s not a rah-rah leader, but to be a good leader, you have to have credibility, and he has a lot of credibility in our locker room.”