From ‘scariest dude in Pop Warner’ to NFL stardom, inside Amon-Ra St. Brown’s drive to be great

  • Eric Woodyard, ESPNOct 30, 2023, 06:00 AM ET

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      Eric Woodyard covers the Detroit Lions for ESPN. He joined ESPN in September 2019 as an NBA reporter dedicated to the Midwest region before switching to his current role in April 2021. The Flint, Mich. native is a graduate of Western Michigan University and has authored/co-authored three books: “Wasted, Ethan’s Talent Search” and “All In: The Kelvin Torbert Story”. He is a proud parent of one son, Ethan. You can follow him on Twitter: @E_Woodyard

DETROIT — Not long after John Brown arrived at Valley View Sports Park in El Dorado Hills, California, the opposing coach approached him about his youngest son, Amon-Ra St. Brown.

It was around Halloween 2008, and as the 9-year-old St. Brown went through warmups for the Yorba Linda Bulldogs, Canyon Hills Panthers coach Brian Liles revealed a secret to John.

“We nicknamed your son Freddy,” Liles told Brown.

“Who’s Freddy?” John responded. “His name is Amon-Ra.”

“In practice, as we were getting ready for you guys, we called him Freddy because all the kids are afraid of him, like Freddy Krueger,” Liles said.

For Liles, it’s a memory he’d like to forget. St. Brown dominated the Panthers that day, playing tailback, slot receiver and middle linebacker. Coach Liles’ son, Justin, played quarterback for the Panthers and described St. Brown as “the scariest dude in Pop Warner.”

“At the time, he hit me so hard that I knocked out one of my baby teeth,” Justin recalled. “I literally sat up, looked at the ref and he said, ‘Are you good?’ and I said, ‘I just lost a tooth.’ And he sent me out the game and sure enough, I took out my mouthpiece and it was sitting right there.”

St. Brown said the moniker was earned.

“I always played up, so I was a younger kid playing against 10-year-olds. And so, I always had to go a little harder because kids were always a little older than me, but I was mean [when] I was young,” St. Brown said. “Always mean. I played middle linebacker, used to hit dudes crazy so that’s why some of the kids called me that because I was mean. That’s real.”

Fifteen years later, the receiver continues to be a major threat as he leads the Detroit Lions in a Monday night clash with the Las Vegas Raiders (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC). Thanks to a tireless work ethic and drive forged by his former bodybuilding champion father, St. Brown — who saw 16 wide receivers drafted before him in 2021 — has started his NFL career on a record pace and has at least one teammate comparing him to one of the all-time greats.

The Lions (5-2) are looking to bounce back from their first road loss of the season, at the Baltimore Ravens, where St. Brown caught a career-high 13 passes for 102 yards and joined Brett Perriman (1995) as the only Lions players to register 12-plus receptions in consecutive games.

The week prior, at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Brown caught 12 passes for 124 yards while helping the Lions get off to their best start since 2011.

“Certain guys are different. And I want to make a comparison, but I don’t want it to sound crazy, but the way that he is, in the weight room and on the field are very similar in my experience with Aaron Donald,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff told ESPN. “Like, it is business, business, business. He works harder than everybody.

“Aaron’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around and Saint’s right there with him just with the amount of time they put in and how serious they take it when they’re on the field. It’s a lot of fun to play with a guy like that.”


‘He was built different’

AT AGE 7, a calendar was placed on St. Brown’s bedroom wall.

It was John’s way of challenging St. Brown and his older brothers, Equanimeous and Osiris, to complete their assignments.

He directed them to do 100 pushups every night, in increments of 20 or however they desired, but they had to sign their names on the page once the task was complete on a nightly basis.

Thirty days later, when John — a two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World — checked the list, their exercises were completed. Though simple, that drill taught them all an early lesson they’d carry for a lifetime.

“The point is this here: You know what this means — for the rest of your natural life, this means that if you say you’re going to do something, you know you’re going to do it,” John said. “It’s hard for people to do that. It’s hard for guys to say I’m going to do it for 30 days straight at a young age and don’t miss [any] without their parents supervising them.

“So, for Amon-Ra and my sons, that’s part of the tools I used to give them: the drive and staying power to be consistent. So, he knows if he says, ‘I’m going to do it every day,’ he’s going to do it.”

Equanimeous, 27, is a receiver for the Chicago Bears, while Osiris, 25, completed his bachelor’s degree from Stanford in June 2021 after wrapping up his college football career.

St. Brown started lifting PVC pipes in the garage with his brothers at age 6. John also introduced his boys to healthy eating with a proper diet, and — with the help of his bodybuilder friends — developed a personal protein product for the boys that he now sells.

“I remember seeing Amon running sleds, with weights on the back in the park like when he was in third or fourth grade,” Brian Liles said. “I’m like, holy smokes. He was built different. I mean they all were. He comes from John. He’s such an intense individual and he knows because he’s had success that, ‘Man, if I can work hard, I’ll be that much better than everybody else.'”

John said Amon-Ra wants his drive to be contagious in Detroit.

“Amon-Ra wants to win the Super Bowl by 30 points. That’s what he wants, and he knows he needs a team to do it. So, he’s trying to motivate those guys,” John said. “He’s looking for a couple of other warriors that’s willing to get into the foxhole with him, that’s what he’s doing, and we can win this thing. That’s how he thinks. He’s made like that … he hates losing more than [he likes] winning. So, you guys got to understand, he’s wired a different way.”


‘I don’t even know your name’

ST. BROWN HAS memorized the name and order selected of each receiver taken before him in his draft class.

The list — Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Kadarius Toney, Rashod Bateman, Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore, Dee Eskridge, Tutu Atwell, Terrace Marshall Jr., Josh Palmer, Dyami Brown, Amari Rodgers, Nico Collins, Anthony Schwartz and Dez Fitzpatrick — is something he says he’ll never forget.

Though he was the 17th wideout taken on draft day 2021 (112th overall), his 247 career receptions heading into Week 8 topped the group.

“He’s really upset. I was there, I felt it, it didn’t feel good,” said longtime trainer Jeff Johnson, who was with St. Brown and the family on draft night. “That was the first time that he’s been on the wrong side of the politics.

“We thought and we still think that we’re better than the guys that were drafted before him.”

St. Brown’s career started slow. He played 43 snaps without a target in an Oct. 24, 2021, game against the Los Angeles Rams but still found a way to make his presence felt when matched up against All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

“I was blocking him, and I didn’t care who it was. I was going to go hard,” St. Brown said. “He got all mad and he was like, ‘I don’t know who the f– you are. I don’t even know your name.’ I was like, ‘That’s cool. I don’t care’ and kept blocking him. It never changed for me.”

That inner assurance eventually led to a record-breaking season. When given a bigger opportunity later in the year, he capitalized, setting Lions’ franchise marks for receptions (90) and receiving yards (912) by a rookie in a single season.

His production has continued. Heading into Monday night, St. Brown has caught four or more passes in 17 straight games, which is tied for the second-longest streak in team history.

He has recorded at least five receptions and 50 receiving yards in six straight games (he missed the Week 5 win over the Carolina Panthers due to an abdomen injury) to start the season, joining Lions great Herman Moore (1997) as the only Detroit players to do so.

His 13 receptions at Baltimore tied him for the third-most receptions in a single game in franchise history, one behind the record held by Calvin Johnson (2013) and Moore (1995).

Moore studied St. Brown’s tape when the Lions drafted him. He said St. Brown would tip his routes with arm swings that would signal whether he was breaking right or left. He now sees a well-rounded and seasoned receiver who shows great discipline in his route-running.

“If you look at who he was coming in, all the way until now, you see that he’s always worked on his craft and because of that, I think he’s sharpened quite a bit,” Moore said. “It’s great to watch him and his patience in his routes.”

Johnson, who has watched St. Brown’s growth as a route-runner, calls St. Brown a “perfectionist” who is always looking to master the details of his craft — from how he stems, to how many steps he takes in routes, and how he comes back to the ball.

“He takes something to the next level when it comes to the details,” Johnson said.


‘That’s how you work if you want to be great’

JAMESON WILLIAMS WATCHES St. Brown closely.

The Lions’ second-year wideout has noted the extra work St. Brown puts in after practice, including a daily routine of catching exactly 202 balls on the Jugs machine. His example is motivation not only to Williams, but the entire Lions roster.

“For me, just watching him and seeing him for the past year or two, it’s just making me step up on my game a little bit,” said Williams, the 12th overall pick in 2022. “I’ve got to get back to what I’ve been doing … the way he works, that’s how you work if you want to be great.”

St. Brown says he’s obsessed with improvement and looks for any advantage. So it’s not unusual to see him toting tennis balls around the facility to catch or logging the extra hours on the Jugs machine or in the weight room.

“There’s moments in life where you’re tired or you’re feeling sorry for yourself and you’re going to do it, but you want to complain a little bit. Don’t go and ask him how he’s feeling,” wide receiver Kalif Raymond said. “He’s not going to tell you that he’s feeling bad, he’s just going to go in there, put the work in and show you that he must feel great, even if he doesn’t, you’re not going to know from him. Don’t go ask him if you want somebody to give you some feel-good, take-it-easy advice because that joker works hard.”

During practice, the defense knows to focus on St. Brown. Wherever he goes, that’s usually where the play is going, and his precision ultimately helps them get better.

He’s built up enough sweat equity to earn his respect as one of Detroit’s six captains, and that mindset is transferring to the team.

“It depends on what he wants to do that day. Sometimes, I see him bouncing [tennis balls] off the wall. Sometimes, I see him juggling. Sometimes I see him throwing them to himself,” Lions safety Kerby Joseph said. “Sometimes, I see him throwing them with Kalif. I don’t always hound on him but when I’m around, I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s working.’

“One time I seen him doing tennis ball drills and I’m like, I don’t necessarily need to do tennis ball drills, but I’m like I need to do something for me to get better also, so I feel like everybody probably has that instance where he’s working so I need to work.”