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A back with a gift of grab

Toledo's Mark Brandon, only 5'7¾", is No. 2 in the nation in interceptions

Mark Brandon is very religious, but two years ago as a freshman walk-on cornerback at the University of Toledo, he told a stretcher. On a team questionnaire, he listed his height as 5'9".

"Yeah, that wasn't really true," admits Brandon, who was actually 5'6½". "I guess I was afraid to be ruled out just because I don't have the vital statistics."

These days Marvelous Mark, as he is getting to be known in the Mid-American Conference, needn't worry so much about his statistics. For the past three weeks he had led the NCAA in interceptions and now is second, with nine. And though he didn't keep up his one-theft-per-game pace last Saturday as Toledo suffered its first defeat of the season, 26-10 to Northern Illinois, 1983 has brought Brandon another dividend: He has grown to 5'7¾".

"Sometimes I can't believe how good things have gone for me this year," says Brandon, a junior broadcasting major who didn't become a starter for Toledo until the eighth game of 1982. "But I guess good things happen when you believe in yourself."

Considering Brandon's physical assets, college recruiters can't really be blamed for not believing in him. Besides being short, he has only average corner-back speed—4.6 for the 40—and a respectable vertical leap of 29 inches. Although he starred for three years as an option-style quarterback and defensive back at Warren (Ohio) Western Reserve High, alma mater of the prodigious Browner brothers, he was not offered any football scholarships. Indeed, his best sport might be baseball, though he hasn't played it at Toledo. He was a .512-hitting second baseman as a high school senior.

"On paper he's not big enough, fast enough or strong enough to play big-time college football." says Dan Simrell, who's in his second full season as Toledo's head coach. "All he is is good enough."

Brandon has been better than good this season. Against archrival Bowling Green he saved a 6-3 victory with an interception in the end zone with 13 seconds to play. In a 37-34 thriller over Kent State, Brandon intercepted on the first play from scrimmage and ran 18 yards for a touchdown.

Along the way Brandon broke the Toledo season interception record of seven, which had been held by, among others, Curtis Johnson, a 1969 Toledo graduate and a starter on the Miami Dolphins' 17-0 Super Bowl team in 1972-73.

Confidence, along with great hands and quick feet, is Brandon's stock-in-trade. "If I go out there and think I'm too small, it will take away from my confidence," he reasons. "If people think I'm disadvantaged, it's extra incentive that can help me mentally. A small person has got to have confidence." And when you pal around with guys like teammate Jeff Bushong, a 239-pound middle guard who bench-presses 350 pounds, confidence comes in handy.

Simrell had his doubts about Brandon when he first saw him on the practice field. "He's such a positive kid, but I thought, 'I don't know,' " recalls Simrell, who was defensive coordinator in Brandon's freshman year. "Then he just became a thorn in everyone's side. He'd jam up our offense in practice, and he became a great special-teams player. He just wouldn't let us ignore him."

According to Chester and Connie Brandon, who both work on the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Warren, the youngest of their three sons has never let his modest stature keep him from standing out in a crowd.

"Mark is the hard-nose of the family," says Chester. "He's a take-charge person. His size has never held him back; it's just made him more determined."

Mark says he resolved to "give it everything all the time" after his sister, Mary, died of a heart attack at the age of 26. He said the tragedy has strengthened his Baptist faith. "Each time I do something well, deep down I dedicate that to her a little bit."

Brandon's girl friend, Maureen Scott, is a student at Bowling Green. He put a temporary dent in her heart with his game-saving interception against her school. "All I could think was, 'Who caught that?' " Scott says. "I was so upset. Then my girl friend told me it was Mark, and I thought, 'That little devil.' I had wanted us to win, but I was really happy for him."

Scott says Brandon never became discouraged by his anonymity in college after three years in the spotlight in high school. "Mark doesn't let himself get down," she says. "When he wasn't playing much, he'd just say, 'I'm sorry, but pretty soon everybody's gonna know who I am.' "

Brandon is better known now, and not just because of football. This year he was Mr. September in a campus-produced calendar entitled "The Men of U.T.," the only football player to be chosen. "They told me it was because of my handsome smile," said Brandon during a stroll amid the gray "collegiate Gothic" architecture of the Toledo campus.

To be sure, opposing teams in the MAC have seen enough of him to last awhile. Although Toledo, second in the nation against the run, is next to last in the MAC against the pass, Brandon has been beaten for only one touchdown in two years. And his interceptions are a big reason why Toledo leads the nation in turnover margin, averaging 2.3 a game.

In the Rocket defensive scheme, Brandon lines up on the wide side of the field, opposite receivers who are always taller and frequently faster. He is often tested with lob passes in one-on-one coverage, but the challenges have become less frequent. "Mark has the knack for being able to sense the relationship between the quarterback and the receiver," says Defensive Backfield Coach Steve Gwin.

Brandon idolizes the Dallas Cowboys' Everson Walls, but he knows that he is not considered a pro prospect. "He's a fine athlete, but, to be blunt, he wouldn't get much consideration." says Joe Keane, a part-time scout for Buffalo who saw the Northern Illinois game.

Just in case, though, Brandon nurtures a dream—of shooting up a few inches more. Last summer he hung upside down for 20 minutes a day after hearing that doing so can make people taller. Although he did grow more than an inch, Brandon isn't absolutely convinced that it was the result of his dangling.

His attitude reflects his healthy adjustment to being small in a big man's game. At a closed-circuit broadcast of the Hagler-Duran fight—Marvelous naturally was pulling for Marvelous—Brandon had to use some of his football moves to see around a tall person who kept standing up in front of him.

"Maybe," he said while straining to see, "I should tell that guy he can block my view sitting down."


Brandon (front) may cow opponents, but not Bushong, who can bench-press two of him.


Playing it tight and tough as he always does, Brandon recovered this fumble (below) in the first quarter against Northern Illinois.