He was your quintessential role player.
His job as a 5-9, 160-pound backup two-way lineman was to make the more talented guys, the starters on the Meadowbrook High School JV football team, better, tougher, and more aggressive.
Knock ‘em around in practice a bit to keep ‘em honest. Simulate the next opponent’s schemes. Make the most of whatever mop-up time he could get in the waning minutes of games if the spread was wide enough.
Justin Brown knew where he stood, and he accepted it. But did he like it?
“No, absolutely no,” said Brown, Collegiate’s assistant sports performance coach of the experience his freshman and sophomore years at MBK. “I was very jealous of them (the first-team players). I wore the jersey around school, and people looked at me like, Do you even play? That stung. All my hard work was for nothing. As a kid, I wasn’t able to grasp the fact that, OK, Justin, there are people better than you at something.
“They always say hindsight is 20/20. You have to learn where your place is and how to make the most of it. Looking back, I can say all these good things. At the time, it made me very upset.”
Brown opted out of football after JV and focused his attention on track and field, specifically the throws. As was the case with football, he knew how to grind, and he wasn’t afraid of hard work. His highlight was qualifying for the Central District meet in the shot put the spring of his senior year.
The game-changer, though he didn’t realize it at the time, was a class called Fit for Life.
“It was essentially weight lifting,” he said. “It really wasn’t until that class that my body started to fill out. I realized that work in the weight room could provide positive dividends. It made me feel better about myself physically and mentally.”
In the fall of 2014, Brown headed to Virginia Commonwealth University as a pre-med major with hopes of becoming a pediatrician.
“Biology was a different animal than what I was prepared for,” he said. “I wasn’t doing well in the classroom. I’m at a crossroads. I’m thinking, What’s the alternative? Then I saw that VCU had the HPEX program: health, physical education, exercise. It spoke to me.”
Loudly. He’d found his calling. He’d found his passion. He’d also found rugby, and his teammates became his first pupils.
“I started organizing some lifting sessions,” he said. “That’s how I got my feet wet. I’m coming straight from the classroom to the gym, but it was still more than they were able to get looking up something in Muscle & Fitness (magazine).”
He graduated in December 2019 and landed a job as a rehabilitation technician in the physical therapy department at VCU Health. After a year, he began work as a personal trainer, then became a sports performance coach for Chosen 1 Generation, an AAU basketball program in Petersburg.
Last spring, his dentist, Dr. Chris Kondorossy, mentioned that Collegiate, where his wife Beth serves as a track coach and Upper School director of student life, was advertising for a strength and conditioning coach.
“Lo and behold,” Brown said, “here I am.”
“Justin has been a great addition to the Collegiate community,” said Chris Peoples, who oversees the sports performance program. “He’s young, he’s enthusiastic, and he’s very encouraging and positive. What he brings to the table is connecting with the kids, being able to have conversations with them, relate to them, and help them understand that, hey, this is important, and this is why.”
From his own experience, Brown well understands the importance of positive reinforcement when it’s warranted.
“In high school,” he said, “I was getting some dividends. I wasn’t a starter, but I loved pats on the back and a coach saying, ‘Good hit, Brown’ or ‘Good hustle, Brown.’ I can work with that. I’m not getting what I want, but it’s that pat on the back that I sometimes needed.”
Brown’s goal – actually a recurring theme in his life – is simple: make those with whom he works better.
“What I’m asking them to do is hard,” he said. “In high school, I worked hard because there was something I wanted. I worked hard because I wanted to do hard work. In the weight room, there’s an object that needs to be moved for a purpose. Sometimes, that object’s going to be heavy. I’m going to ask you to lift it in a certain way that’s going to be hard for you.
"What’s my best way to motivate you? I come in and say, ‘Here’s our goal. Here’s how I think we’re going to get there.’ I’m not going to stand over your shoulder and demand that you do it, but do understand: One, we’re a team. Two, this will only help you. Three, hard work can still be fun.
“I can write the best workout ever,but if you’re not motivated to do it, I’ve wasted your time, and, at the end of the day, I’ve also wasted my time because I didn’t have the best presentation of how to get that across to you. I’m here to serve you. I have to get everybody on the same page as a team. That’s when the best work can be done.”
Brown is no longer the undersized lineman trying to earn playing time. At VCU, he grew to 6-1, 260, which he carries easily thanks to his rugby days, competitive streak, and knowledge of and adherence to the principles of sports performance and conditioning.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that, thanks to his nose-to-the-grindstone, never-cut-corners mindset, he continues to savor the opportunity to effect change as a behind-the-scenes contributor who finds joy in the success of others. He sees it as his mission, in fact.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I wasn’t a starter in any sport in high school, but I took that same hard-nosed attitude that didn’t get any dividends on the football field to my course work and to the rugby pitch. I went to every practice. I ran after every loose ball. Every time I didn’t get a catch, I came straight in on the next scrum. It’s always been about working hard at everything and trying to improve.
“So truth be told, I’m still that role player. My job is to make these kids better the same way I made my contemporaries on the football field and rugby pitch better. The weigh room opens possibilities. The weight room is hard work, but it’s more than lifting heavy objects. The weight room is a gift.”