To know what Brandon Mebane is about, you have to know where he’s been.
Mebane grew up in a tight-knit family across the street from Crenshaw High School. He didn’t play football until his freshman year, but four years later he was one of the best players in the city.
He went to California on a football scholarship and helped lead the Bears to three bowl victories during their most successful run in school history. A third-round draft choice by the Seahawks in 2007, he has started since his rookie season.
Now, five years into a successful NFL career, the 6-foot-1, 311-pound defensive tackle was signed to a five-year, $25 million deal in the offseason – showing just how valuable the team thinks the 26-year-old is to its defensive scheme.
“Brandon was born to be a prototypical NFL defensive lineman,” said Crenshaw football coach Robert Garrett, who coached Mebane in high school. “God put him on earth to do that. He’s fulfilling God’s will. We all have a purpose in life. And I appreciate that.”
As good a player as Mebane is, he’s just as good a person.
Maurice Kelly, senior director of player development for the Seahawks, asked Mebane to take defensive end Red Bryant under his wing when Seattle drafted Bryant in the fourth round of the 2008 draft.
The two quickly became friends, with Bryant moving into Mebane’s house during his rookie season. Mebane offered Bryant support when he struggled to get onto the field his first two seasons in Seattle.
“My first two years I wasn’t playing, and he would always encourage me,” Bryant said. “And he had been starting since his rookie year. But he saw play-making ability in me. When I got down on myself because I wasn’t able to get on the field, he would always encourage me.
“And a lot of times you don’t see that in that National Football League because it’s so competitive. And for him to think enough of me, just meeting me coming from Texas A&M, it just speaks volumes of what type of person he is. I consider him my best friend, and more like a brother.”
But to really know Mebane, you have to go to where it all started.
HOME SWEET HOME
Walter Mebane still goes to Crenshaw High football games. Recently, he took in a playoff game against El Camino Real on the same field where his son dominated, sitting on a bench bundled up in a white Seattle Seahawks jacket.
That neither of his sons – Brandon’s brother Walter Jr. is older by 15 months – were playing didn’t stop Walter from giving his two cents on how the Cougars were doing. A receiver coming off the field gave him a curious look, wondering who let the chattering guy he doesn’t recognize onto the sideline.
The Mebanes live in a brick house right across the street from the football stadium, so keeping an eye on the boys was never an issue.
“I would go sit on the porch, and (Brandon) and Walter would always wave because they knew I would be out there watching,” Walter Sr. said.
Brandon’s mother, Joyce, made sure to record all the boys gridiron exploits.
“I didn’t understand football, but I would film it,” she said. “And then they’d come home and watch it and complain.”
Baseball, not football, was Brandon’s first sport. Because he weighed 195 pounds at 11 years old, he couldn’t play football with kids his age. So Mebane grew up as a catcher and first baseman.
The Mebanes had a batting cage in the backyard.
Brandon’s life was regimented.
He washed dishes, took out the trash and did yard work – all under the watchful eye of his father. And with the threat of gang violence just outside his doorstep, Walter Mebane even took the time to drive his kids the one block to the front door of Crenshaw.
“Just having both parents in the house, no matter where you grow up at, it helps in overcoming those obstacles,” Brandon said. “And I think a lot of people we grew up with, unfortunately the streets took over their lives. A lot of them are in jail, and a lot of guys passed away. We just had to keep God first and keep moving. As our parents always told us, it’s easy to get in trouble, but it’s hard to get out.”
Walter and Joyce – who grew up on the same block and attended the same elementary, middle and high schools as the two boys – still live in that brick house.
Move? Why would they move from their home, despite their son’s riches and a neighborhood known nationally for its crime and gang activity?
“Man, you can’t ask for a better spot than this,” said Walter Mebane, a retired postal worker. “It ain’t the greatest, but it’s home. It’s the best home I ever lived in.”
Brandon Mebane began playing football his freshman year in high school.
Like all players that age, Mebane had dreams of carrying the ball. But Crenshaw defensive line coach Manuel Chachere had other ideas for the 6-foot, 250-pound Brandon.
“You could see in Brandon just the natural things that he had,” Chachere said. “He started playing varsity as a sophomore, and he was playing both ways a lot.”
Crenshaw has seen its share of star athletes. Former Sonics announcer and UCLA basketball legend Marques Johnson hails from the school, as does former baseball slugger Darryl Strawberry; Johnny Gray, the American record holder in the 800 meters; and former Los Angeles Rams running back Wendell Tyler.
Crenshaw currently has 19 players in NCAA Division I programs, including freshman offensive lineman Marcus Martin at USC, Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas and Washington cornerback Gregory Ducre.
“One thing about here is our kids have always got to prove it,” Chachere said. “And that’s one thing we make them understand. Some people are going to get a pass, and you can’t worry about that.
“But they’re going to want you to prove it.”
Chachere learned early that Mebane was not allowed to fail.
One day, the coaches sent Mebane home because he was having a bad practice and complained of having a headache. The day after the Cougars’ next game, Chachere had a conversation with Brandon’s dad.
“Mr. Mebane said, ‘Well let me tell you something coach: Brandon’s not allowed to have headaches. Call me and I’ll tell you if he has a headache,’ ” Chachere said. “And I knew then that this was a kid we could push and try and get the most out of.”
Garrett, who speaks with a rolling baritone voice and has a shock of black hair bulging out of a blue and gold baseball hat, noticed Mebane’s talent at an early age.
“You noticed him by his work ethic as a young kid,” Garrett said. “He was very coachable. A lot of young kids are not coachable because they know everything and they make a lot of errors. And they do things their way.
“But Brandon did only what you told him to do. And if you didn’t tell him to do something, he didn’t do it because he was that type of guy that adhered to instruction.”
As much as Mebane played for his coaches, he always played for his older brother.
Brandon played defensive tackle next to his brother his sophomore year. On offense Walter Jr. played center and Brandon played guard.
“I always wanted to match how he was playing and basically not let him down, not let the team down,” Brandon said. “So every week playing next to him I knew I had to come with it because I had my brother right there next to me.”
Walter was a good player – he went on to play linebacker at Temple, and is finishing up his degree in Philadelphia – but Brandon was a great one.
In his junior year, Brandon was selected the city defensive player of the year. As a senior, he was the Los Angeles City player of the year. He had 15 scholarship offers out of high school – including from USC, where Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was coaching.
“He plays with a lot of reckless abandonment,” Garrett said. “Not passive at all. You appreciate that from a kid who enjoys the game. That’s something you can’t teach. That’s something you’ve got to want to do.”
MATURING AT CAL
Although Mebane could have attended college just about anywhere – Washington was his second choice – he chose to go to Cal.
“The two things my parents always instilled in me and my brother is we always had to go to church and we always had to go to school,” Brandon said.
“Playing sports was an option. They said if you start playing it then you have to finish it, and try and be your best at it.”
Athletics was in his genes. His father played basketball at Norfolk State. His mother was a softball player and a decent bowler with a 170 average.
And his size came from his grandfather, a mountain of a man at 6-8 and 320 pounds who played football at Hampton University.
Quietly, as is his nature, Mebane made an impression when he arrived in Berkeley in 2003.
He would start 31 games for the Golden Bears, finishing tied for 14th in school history with 14 1/2 sacks.
Cal also had success as a team during Mebane’s tenure, going 36-15 over a four-year stretch, including two seasons with 10 wins, and winning three bowl games.
“He ain’t changed,” said Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, one of Mebane’s teammates at Cal. “He was always quiet. He always was just goofy, just laughing and giggling all the time.
“But on the field, he was a monster. We had a couple of – I guess you would call run-ins. Me and Mebane banged heads a lot in practice, especially in the spring games we ran into each other a lot.
“But just overall, he’s always been a great teammate. He’s always going to tell you the truth. He’s just one of those guys that if you ever need him and call him, he’s going to be there for you.”
Mebane takes pride in his classroom success at Cal, where he earned a degree in social justice.
Dr. Verda Delp, an English professor at Cal, tutored Mebane. He said Mebane developed a work ethic in his studies to match the one on the football field.
“I think he finally decided to put in the time, and he’s an incredibly determined guy when he does that,” Delp said. “And it just worked out for him. We talked a lot about his previous schooling before Cal. And I think as the football star he didn’t get a lot of support. He needed some catching up to do about how to approach the tasks he needed to do.
“But I think the most important thing is that he learned to trust his own thinking. And that he did have ideas, and then he expressed them.”
LEARNING TO BECOME A LEADER
Mebane, who was drafted with the 85th overall pick in the third round in 2007, is one of 11 players still on the roster Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over nearly two years ago.
There’s no question Mebane is getting it done on the field.
He ranks first in the NFC among interior defensive linemen in tackles this season with 38, anchoring a Seattle run defense that is giving up just 103.5 rushing yards a game.
What makes Mebane so effective in Seattle’s defensive scheme is his ability to consistently beat a double team.
It’s one of the reasons the Seahawks wanted to bring him back and move him from more of a pass-rush interior defensive linemen – where he was solid the previous two seasons – to more of a run-stuffer role like the one he thrived in during his first two years in the league.
“We just knew that he would be very solid, and that would help us in the run game,” Seahawks defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “So that was the biggest thing. And we also knew that he could get some real good push to determine protection in the pass game, so that position really just fits his body and his makeup.”
Switching Mebane to nose guard allowed Seattle to pursue Alan Branch in free agency, and he has combined with Mebane to give Seattle a solid 1-2 punch inside.
And recently, Mebane has added something else to his game – leadership.
“He’s a leader on this defense,” Wash said, “because he knows what he’s doing and has the instinct and the savvy. He has a good voice with the players, too. And he’s been a big factor for us.”
That wasn’t always the case.
“At first I had kind of an issue talking in front of people,” Mebane said. “And one of the coaches, (linebackers coach) Ken Norton, came to me and said I needed to start opening up, telling guys what’s up. He used to do it at first, and I used to sit back and say, ‘I ain’t doing that. I don’t want to say I was being selfish, but I wasn’t expressing myself and how I feel verbally.
“ As the coaches and general managers changed, you realize that we are those older guys now. The way we’re trying to do it is we’re trying to build through younger players and grow as a team.
“At first we didn’t know what they were really doing. But as the season goes on, we started to realize what they’re doing, and that they are building from scratch.”
And it has all combined to help mold Mebane into an emerging force with Seattle.
“He’s really benefited from his years of experience. He’s very much part of the game plan,” Wash said.