Preston Brown’s path to the NFL – and ultimately to his hometown Cincinnati Bengals after signing a free-agent contract last week – was fueled by numerous pit stops at Burger King.
But rather than burgers and fries, the visits centered around traffic cones and beanbags as Brown’s father, Mike, would help his son, a starter at Louisville, make the adjustment from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.
“They moved him inside for his junior year, and he just wasn’t making tackles where a MIKE backer should make tackles,” said Mike, a Hamilton native. “They should be 3 yards or less. I brought cones and beanbags from a cornhole set and we ran some drills.”
The cones represented the five offensive linemen, and Mike would randomly toss the beanbag between cones so Preston could practice coming downhill to fill gaps.
So a handful of times each month, Mike, his wife, Patrice — a University of Dayton graduate — and their daughter, Paige, would meet Preston at the Burger King in Carrollton, Ky. – which was halfway between their home in Cincinnati and the Louisville campus – for practice in the parking lot.
“I didn’t want to go all the way to Louisville and be offensive to the coaches there,” said Mike, a former high school football coach at Northwest, Woodward, Aiken and Princeton high schools in Cincinnati. “When you’re coaching, you’ve got 12 linebackers and there’s only so many chances for each of them to run a drill. That’s all we did was drill work. It was just a way to get Preston some extra work in without stepping on anyone’s toes or be disrespectful.”
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Preston started at outside linebacker in his first game as a freshman but found himself bench in the second half and relegated to special teams the rest of the year. After a strong sophomore season, the Louisville coaches moved him to middle linebacker, starting the sessions in the parking lot with his dad.
“He felt there was some things I needed to get better at, and It was fun to be out there with my dad working on fundamentals,” Preston said. “He had been drilling me on footwork since I was 5 years old. And it really paid off. I started getting a lot more tackles for loss and stopping guys closer to the line of scrimmage. It’s things we still do today, but now we just do it at (the University of Cincinnati).”
During his junior season, Preston emerged as one of the leading tacklers in the country for a Louisville team that went 11-2, won a Big East championship and beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
As a senior, he led Louisville in tackles as the Cardinals went 12-1 and won the American Athletic Conference, and the Buffalo Bills drafted him in the third round of the 2014 draft.
He appeared in 64 games with 62 starts in Buffalo before becoming a free agent last week. And when the Bengals showed interest, he jumped at the chance to come home.
“If this team was somewhere else it still would have been a possibility, but since it was at home it definitely jumped to the top of the list,” Preston said.
He wore a Cincinnati Reds t-shirt to his introductory interviews with the local media Wednesday at Paul Brown Stadium before slipping into a Bengals polo. And Mike, Patrice and Paige joined him to tell stories of his upbringing, including the practice sessions in the Burger King parking lot.
“The Bengals were my only visit,” Preston said. “Once I came here, I was pretty much sealed.
The NFL leader in tackles last year with 144, Preston agreed to a one-year deal with the Bengals for $4 million, even though he could have made more money by signing a longer contract with a smaller annual salary.
“I felt like this was the best situation for me,” Brown said. “It wasn’t really about the money. No matter where I signed, it was going to be more money than I’ve ever seen.
“I’ve been following the Bengals ever since I knew what football was,” he added. “I’ve seen the the turnover they’ve had at this position, and I want to be a guy that come in here and be a staple and stay here for longer than one year.”