Sam Brownlee

Running Back, 2003-2006

November 6, 2017

Written by Brian Finley

Up until last Saturday, Iowa’s largest margin of victory win over Ohio State came in October of 2004, as Iowa shelled the Buckeyes 33-7. Drew Tate threw for three scores and ran for another, but for a lot of Hawkeye fans the most memorable play of the game came in the first quarter, on third-and-nine.

Sam Brownlee, fifth-string, walk-on tailback took a handoff to the left, cut back to the right, stepped out of a diving tackle from all-American A.J. Hawk, made it to the outside on the right, and bowled over Buckeye safety Nate Salley at the sticks for a first down.

The on-air analyst, Bob Griese exclaimed “that’s the run of his short life!” Sam himself wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
“People say I juked A.J. Hawk and ran for 10,” Brownlee said. “I have a picture somewhere of AJ Hawk diving at my feet and me running away.  That’s my claim to fame.”

Sam Brownlee grew up in Emmetsburg, Iowa, a town of less than 4,000 people. Like most athletes at such small schools, Sam played multiple sports. He was accomplished at track, basketball, and football for Emmetsburg High School.

“It was fun growing up in a small town where you can participate in everything, and back then it just seemed like the thing to do,” he said. But football was the ultimate goal. “Everyone worked every year to become a varsity football player.  It really instilled a lot of great work ethic.”

Brownlee drew some light recruiting attention and letters from area schools, but most of his opportunities to play in college were at the Division II or III level. Having watched fellow Emmetsburg walk-ons Bruce Nelson and Grant Steen, he wanted to be a Hawkeye.

Reese Morgan had kept in touch with Brownlee and invited him to Iowa City as a walk-on. While he wasn’t invited to Iowa’s 105-man fall camp roster his freshman year, he joined his new teammates when classes began. He was also told he’d be a running back, having previously thought he’d be playing defensive back.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming in, I just wanted to work as hard as I could,” Brownlee said of his first few years on campus. “I wanted to be in there.  My early goal was mostly get in on special teams.”

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He had three carries in the 2003 season, then in 2004, the injury bug struck the Iowa team. Marcus Schnoor, Albert Young and Jermelle Lewis went down in the first few games. Sam Brownlee and Marques Simmons were splitting carries, and then against Ohio State, Simmons left with an injury, leaving Brownlee to shoulder the load. He was ready.

“I always felt like I could compete with anyone that was there, that was my mindset,” Brownlee said. “I was preparing just like I was going to play. I felt like I needed to do that, just in case, no matter what.  The way I was brought up was to be ready no matter what.

“I was maybe not quite as athletically gifted as some, but more than many.  Especially in the weight room, and in drills, I could definitely compete at that level.”

Iowa would go on to win a share of the Big Ten title and stun LSU on the final play of the Capital One Bowl. Most teams, faced with that sort of adversity, would have folded. The leadership on the field for the Hawkeyes kept them afloat.

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“There were a lot of great older guys, even some younger guys, who stepped up and showed leadership with what they did,” he said. “It was a great team effort, the way everyone came together.

“That’s what really propelled us to do what we did that season.  There were no shining stars, it was a lot of people that did what they needed to do to win.”

As the rest of the backfield got healthy, Brownlee’s role was reduced to spot duty in his final two years on campus. While at Iowa, however, he worked hard to earn a degree, with a double major in Economics and Political Science, earning himself what he called a “glorified internship” manning the phones in the office of US Senator from Virginia John Warner.

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A few months on The Hill was enough for Brownlee, however. He returned to Iowa, taking a position in commercial real estate in Des Moines in 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, those were two of the worst years in the history of the United States real estate market, and he didn’t stick around long. He then spent a short time working for Merchants Bonding.

After his grandfather passed away in 2009, he joined up with his father to continue the family business, Brownlee Management. It’s a farm management company headquartered in Emmetsburg, helping off-site owners in everything from tenant selection and supervision through grain marketing and government paperwork. The family also has a farm of their own, growing corn and soybeans.

As he looks back on his time at Iowa, the football memories are great, but the impact that the program had on him as a person is what he sees most valuable.

“I can’t speak highly enough about coach (Kirk) Ferentz and what he does for young men in college,” he said. “Not just in football, but in life.  Respect and life lessons, things that never leave you.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

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