'It's been a journey': The Brown twins' long road toward NFL dreams

ByAdam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Friday, February 3, 2023

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois running back Chase Brown and safety Sydney Brown began their lives two minutes apart, identical twins born at 5:33 and 5:35 a.m., respectively, on March 21, 2000.

"Everything they've done," said their mother, Raechel, "they've done together, at the same time."

This past season, they helped revive the Illinois football program, which posted its highest wins total (8) since 2007. This week, they will become the first twins to play in the Senior Bowl. This spring, the Browns are expected to become just the sixth set of twins taken in the same draft over the past 40 years.

They've done it despite an unsettled home situation that made it difficult to keep up in school while growing up in London, Ontario. The Brown twins moved to an estimated 20 homes and shelters with their mom and younger sister, Mya, before they were 16. Chase and Sydney became football stars, but in Ontario, where hockey is king, that didn't mean much.

They didn't come from a family of college graduates, and without a platform to maximize their athletic ability, they couldn't conceive of a path to a university degree.

They needed help.

"Our goals were to play college football, but we didn't know how we were going to get there," Chase said.

They didn't know much about college football, either.

"If I'm being honest, I thought South Dakota and f---ing Alabama are on the same level," Sydney said.

Six years later, Chase finished the 2022 season as the nation's No. 2 rusher (1,643 yards), and a Doak Walker Award finalist with 10 games of 100 yards or more. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selection. On Dec. 14, he won the Jon Cornish Trophy, given to the best Canadian player in college football.

Sydney earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, leading an Illinois defense ranked No. 1 nationally for much of the season. He tied for the national lead with six interceptions and added 59 tackles. He had two defensive touchdowns in the regular-season finale at Northwestern.

They are believed to be one of the first set of twins to earn All-Big Ten recognition in the same season.

Their football journey has already taken them across a border and several state lines, and required sacrifice, resilience and the maturity to assess their lives and make difficult choices.

The toughest of which came at age 16.

RAECHEL BROWN WAS just 18 when she had Chase and Sydney, a single mom juggling work and immense responsibility. She lived at times with her father and brother, but both eventually died. She leaned on her mom, Nancy, the boys' beloved Nan, and her stepfather, Alan McQuillan, but life wasn't easy.

Raechel estimates that she moved more than 20 times, including to shelters. She also became very ill after having Mya, which limited her ability to work.

"It's been a journey," Raechel said. "A lot of great and a lot of not-so great all mixed together."

Chase and Sydney didn't live with their father, Darren Isaac, who played briefly in the Canadian Football League, and weren't close with him when they were young. But Isaac and others on his side of the family played football, which "drew our interest into the sport," Sydney said.

They started in flag football at 7 and coaches soon told Raechel that her boys had high-level potential. Even though she worried about injuries, she moved them up, and they began traveling around Ontario for games. When the boys were 15, coaches from other teams told Rachel that she had to get them to the United States.

Although some FBS programs recruit players directly from Canadian high school programs, Chase and Sydney weren't going to have the academics to take that route. They were doing the "bare minimum," Raechel said, to stay on the field.

"I had people tell me straight up it's not possible, they're never going to be able to go to college," Raechel said. "Public schools like to put kids in a little box here. They weren't being forced to do anything that was going to get them to where they wanted to be."

As high school freshmen, the Browns applied to Mercyhurst Prep in Pennsylvania, but were denied. They reached a critical point during the summer between their sophomore and junior years. After being evicted because of a lack of finances, Raechel and Mya were living in a shelter, and Chase and Sydney alternated between that shelter and their Nan's home.

They had connected with Justin Dillon, a recruiting consultant in Canada. Dillon had mentioned the twins to Josh Clark, who helped launch the IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and had placed players at IMG and other area schools. Clark thought Saint Stephen's Episcopal School in Bradenton would be a good fit for the Browns.

"It was getting to be late summer," Clark said. "Saint Stephens had the setup and was looking to succeed in football, and [the Browns] needed a home. There wasn't a lot of time. It was helping two kids out with the private school that had the resources and provided them with a good life."

Things moved quickly. After the twins were admitted, Raechel began speaking with Saint Stephens coach Tod Creneti and others. The boys couldn't live with a coach or a faculty member, so a host family was found. Phil and Karen Yates were empty nesters whose kids had gone to Saint Stephens.

"Phil called me and we had the most emotional conversation I've ever had in my life with a complete stranger," Raechel said. "I remember crying. He asked if I thought the boys were going to be OK without me. I said, 'I depend more on them than they depend on me.' That was the reason why it was so important for them to go and focus on themselves."

The next day, Raechel and the twins began the 20-hour drive to Florida, along with McQuillan, her stepfather. They met the Yateses for dinner. By the end of the week, Chase and Sydney were moved in and attending classes.

Raechel cried for hours on the drive back home -- "the world's worst passenger" for McQuillan. But she knew this was the right decision.

"We just took a leap of faith," Sydney said. "Within a week of applying to the school, we were fully engulfed with everything."

THE MOVE WAS seismic for Chase and Sydney, and came with several aftershocks.

They went from living in subsidized housing and shelters in a Canadian city to a gated community on Florida's Gulf Coast. Chase and Sydney were behind academically when they arrived, but math was an especially urgent need.

They were high school juniors taking basic algebra, taught only at the middle school at Saint Stephens.

"Honestly, that humbled us," Sydney said. "You have these twins who come down from Canada to Florida, and all our buddies [in Canada] thought it was sick. But we get down there and it's like, 'Hey, you've got to dial in.' Walking to the middle school every day ...

"It was the walk of shame," Chase said.

Phil Yates had tutored kids in math over the years, so every night for several months, he and Karen worked with the twins to catch up in school.

The twins had some initial homesickness, especially Sydney, but they FaceTimed with Raechel, and she made several visits. They settled into life in Florida.

Creneti initially told the Yateses that they would need to host the Browns for only two weeks. Phil soon replied that Chase and Sydney weren't going anywhere.

"It felt very natural," Karen Yates said.

The Browns stayed with the Yates family until their final semester, when the Yateses moved to Texas and Chase and Sydney stayed with their neighbors, Tom and Michelle Cross. By then, the time with Phil and Karen had already made an impression.

"What we thought success was completely changed when we moved in with them," Sydney said. "We were never exposed to that side of society, and really understood the potential that life can bring, if you go to school, if you get your s--- done, if you develop a proper work ethic, if you're an efficient person in society.

"It was such a big flip. We learned so much about how we don't want to go back."

Football was the easy part. The Browns had to sit out Saint Stephens' first two games in an acclimation period, and those two games would be the team's only losses during the two seasons Chase and Sydney played.

After the 2016 season, Chase got his first scholarship offer from Syracuse, rich in running back tradition. But he waited for other offers to come, including Western Michigan, which had a top aviation school. After living with Phil Yates -- a test pilot after 25 years in the Navy, where he flew F-14s and F-18s -- Chase was all-in on becoming a pilot. Even as other offers came in, Chase was set on WMU, taking no other official visits.

"I would have hung up the cleats, put the helmet away, put the pads away, just to go be a pilot," Chase said. "I thought Phil was a rock star."

Sydney's recruiting went slower. His height was a concern for some schools, even those who wanted Chase. When offers finally arrived, they came mainly from smaller programs like South Dakota.

"Bama's next," he joked to himself.

But just before the early signing date, Sydney got a surprise offer from Illinois and he jumped at the chance to play in the Big Ten.

The only problem was it would separate the twins.

"They wanted to go to college together," Raechel said. "That was the dream."

THE BROWNS ARE identical twins but also mirror twins, a subtype in which each sibling's features and traits are opposite from the other, creating a mirror-image effect. Sydney is right-handed; Chase is left-handed. Chase is laid back; Sydney operates with relentless intensity. When they were little, Raechel noticed their hair curling in opposite directions.

Like many twins, though, the Browns are drawn to each other.

As a freshman in 2018, Chase had 352 rushing yards for Western Michigan and returned 12 kickoffs. But he found out his scholarship didn't cover flight classes, which he couldn't afford.

He saw Sydney thriving at Illinois, starting 10 games and recording 55 tackles and five pass breakups. Despite a strong spring at WMU, Chase transferred.

"I wanted to be with him," Chase said of his twin. "I wanted to have that relationship, where he could push me, I could push him, like we had in high school."

While waiting to be admitted, Chase slept on the floor of Sydney's apartment, on a "dog bed" of blankets and pillows. After gaining admission, he and Sydney moved to a larger place and began training camp with the Illini. The one-time transfer rule wasn't in effect yet, so Chase sat out until mid-October, when he received an immediate-eligibility waiver to play. He appeared in four games, mostly on special teams, to preserve his redshirt.

"His work ethic stood out to me right away, but he was a little impatient in his play," said Cory Patterson, who coached Illinois' tight ends at the time before switching to running backs in 2021. "Everything was fast, because he's a fast kid. The way he talked, the way he thought, it was like [snaps his fingers three times], he wanted to give you the answer, 'I want to get out there, I want to do it for you, I want to make it happen.'

"As he became more patient, you saw him develop."

Sydney had a more linear trajectory at Illinois, earning third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2019, when he finished second in the Big Ten in interceptions (3) and sixth in tackles per game (8). When Aaron Henry arrived as defensive backs coach following a transition, he saw a detailed, observant player, fully dedicated to the game.

"I don't think I've ever been around a player wired like him," Henry said of Sydney. "Every day, he leaves the practice field, he has a 20-minute stretch routine. He has a 20-minute stretch routine he does right before he goes to bed. Then he eats the same thing for breakfast. It's almost like OCD. He probably could have been a really good MMA fighter, just the way he approaches life and the way he approaches this game."

Patterson has noticed similar discipline from Chase, who "just wants to work."

Just how driven and disciplined are they? After taking the twins to Indianapolis for Big Ten media days in July, Illinois coach Bret Bielema watched them agonize over whether to drink a Coke before dinner.

They bring out the competitiveness in each other. One time in preseason practice, Sydney landed a big hit on Chase -- "Stroked him," Henry recalled -- only to have Chase pop him in his facemask.

"We're throwing hands at each other," Sydney said. "I get kicked out of practice, he still gets to practice. I'm a total freak if you take something from me. He took my reps from practice. The competitive nature, it carries onto pretty much everything we do. It carries onto the hydration board, who's going to drink their DripDrop first.

"It's just fun having somebody that's equally competitive on the other side of the ball."

GROWING UP IN Canada, the Browns didn't really talk about the NFL. Playing major college football was their goal. Both have earned their degrees at Illinois.

But their college careers have put both on the NFL radar. Chase, who has 2,648 rushing yards the past two seasons, is No. 137 on ESPN's draft prospect rankings. Sydney has surged to No. 125 on ESPN's prospect list, displaying a combination of speed, intelligence and physicality to thrive as a pro safety.

NFL scouts project both as Day 3 picks who will need to contribute on special teams and find the right schemes. Sydney's special teams prowess should help his value. Before games, opposing coaches told Bielema how often Sydney jumped out during their special teams scouting.

"I can see a special teams coordinator falling in love with the guy, just in terms of his toughness and the speed," a scout said.

Bielema described Sydney as a "niche fit safety," suited for some NFL systems but not all. He's a safety-linebacker hybrid who can play in the box because of his instincts, core strength and coverage skills.

"He's got the impact and the power and ability to make short-area very powerful tackles, sheds blocks kind of like [former NFL safety] Bob Sanders," said Bielema, who spent three seasons as an NFL assistant before coming to Illinois. "But he kind of has that big-play mentality of [New England Patriots safety] Jabrill Peppers. Especially the last half of the season, Sydney just took over the game on several occasions."

Chase likely will be "more of a complementary back," a scout said, lacking the biggest build at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds. He reached 1,000 rushing yards in 2021 but eclipsed 18 carries only three times. Chase emerged this past season as not only a prolific and productive ball carrier -- he had 20 or more carries in 10 of 12 games and just one performance of fewer than 98 rush yards -- but also a versatile one.

He had 27 receptions, nearly eclipsing his total from his first three college seasons (31), and improved as a pass blocker.

"He can run right by you, he can run right through you and he can make you miss, that's a very unusual combo," Bielema said. "But the third-down value he brings is just very, very uncommon. ... When you have a running back who can run it and protect, that's going to bring good value."

With their NFL journey set to begin in just a few months it's likely the twins will be separated again. For now they are savoring their time together, though.

"How many people could say they played college ball with their brother?" Chase said. "We're going to be able to look back on these four, five years of our lives and be like, 'Remember this game? Remember when this happened?'"

Listening to his twin, Sydney nodded.

"There's so much more to life."

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