Defensive Player of the Year: Zach Brown, Baker

BAKER — Zach Brown sat staring into his locker.

The battered pads, the scuffed maroon helmet, the muddied cleats, they all stared back at him, accentuating the eerie silence.

The Gators linebacker said Baker’s locker room was quiet that night. Defensive end Chris Raines had abandoned his post as resident DJ. The sounds of Kodak Black were nowhere to be found. The Baker football team’s favorite song, 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different,” remained unplayed.

“Wow,” Brown thought. “This is crazy.”

Heavily favored to make a return trip to Orlando and the Class 1A state championship game in 2017, Brown and the Gators fell one game short, losing to Blountstown, 41-21, in the state semifinals. It was crushing. The weight of outside expectation compounded with failing to meet the lofty standard the team sets for itself. The Gators hadn’t lost a game in almost a year, and even that loss had an asterisk next to it. Baker lost to Pahokee in the 2016 state title game, but Pahokee later vacated that win for academic ineligibility.

Brown said some in the locker room cried that night.

He didn’t.

Where others felt sadness, failure, loss, Brown — a starter for two seasons — felt something more: A sort of pride.

“I didn’t cry because I gave it all I could,” Brown said. “I left it all out there as much as I could. I gave everything I had.”

He did so every Friday night and every day during the week. Players and coaches used words such as “tone-setter” and “leader” to describe his character. Junior running back Junior McLaughlin said Brown was a beast in the weight room.

For these reasons, Brown has been named the Daily News Small Schools’ Defensive Player of the Year.

He has the stats to back it up, too. Brown had 108 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks, seven quarterback pressures and two recovered fumbles.

More impressive, Brown lost only two games on the field at Doug Griffith Memorial Stadium in Baker. His first came as a sophomore. The second came in his final game as a high school football player.

Between those games, the locker room was always the place to be on Friday nights, Brown said. Players would stay hours after the games had ended, blasting music and acting like fools.

“It’s great fun,” Brown said. “We’re just being stupid idiots, wasting what little bit of energy we might have had left over. It was fun. Those were definitely fun times.”

It made the night after the Blountstown game all the more poignant. Brown said he thought all the way back to the beginning of his football career, his peewee days at 7 years old. With no offense to what he accomplished at Baker, Brown said those were his favorite memories. That’s where he made friends. That’s where he learned to love the game.

For it all to be over now felt wrong.

“Like all that lead up and it ends just like that?” Brown said

A month after the Blountstown game, Brown speaks in better spirits about it. He said it helped knowing the Tigers didn’t win another game, falling in the state finals. For the most part, he’s moved on.

He’s already applied to the Air Force Academy. It’s his dream school. All he needs is a Congressional letter of recommendation. He said his dream has always been to be a fighter pilot. His father used to service A-10’s when the family lived in Utah. Brown was hooked the minute his father let him sit in the Warthog’s cockpit.

Air Force has a football team, but Brown doesn’t yet know whether he will continue his career on the gridiron. If not, he said he can rest easy even without the state title ring.

He laid it all out on the line. He’s proud of the guys he lined up next to. He’s proud of the memories, the battles and the hardships. He’s proud of the legacy he hopes he left behind.

“That’s a lot,” Brown said. “Everything really is there to be proud of. We made it to the semifinals of state three times in a row and made it to state once.

“Technically, you could say that we won.”