By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Jeff Braun doesn’t just walk into a room.
He comes in and takes it over.
He is big — yes, very big, 6-foot, 5-inches and 321 pounds big with closely cropped hair and a man’s beard, thick and full but neatly trimmed.
He speaks rather softly for someone so big and involved in a game like football, where he is one of the unseen heroes of the West Virginia University offense, an offensive lineman who operates in the obscurity of an offensive lineman.
After all, there is much to watch with this West Virginia offense — Geno Smith throwing, Tavon Austin juking, Stedman Bailey catching and J.D. Woods taking that one better by snaring footballs with one hand. Who would look into the pits?
He isn’t even one of the most well-known offensive linemen, even though he is and has been a starter since the Bill Stewart days. Tackle Quinton Spain, who is big as a house and strong enough to move one, is the most visual of focuses, and center Joey Madsen, who is as quick with a quip as he is with the snap, is the one in line to perhaps be named winner of the Rimington Award as the college game’s top center.
But Braun walks into the room possessing an honor of his own from this past week, an honor that lifts beyond the boundaries that are built around most football players, taking him off into the real world as something more than just a curiosity.
During the week WVU was readying itself to go to Texas for its most important game of the season so far, Braun was selected as one of 147 finalists for the National Football Foundation’s Scholar-Athlete Award.
Look at the name closely. It said “Scholar-Athlete,” not student-athlete. It is for someone who does more than just go to class, and while the football abilities are part of this award, to say nothing of the work in the classroom, the award includes yet other areas on which to be judged — citizenship and leadership.
It is in these final arenas where Braun is really different, for he has concentrated on making a difference with youth, with the community.
“I just wanted to give back,” he said. “Early in my career I felt it was hard because I wasn’t starting and wasn’t in the spotlight. As I progressed, I felt it was time to have my voice be heard.
“I was able to go out there and express my feelings toward certain issues and help the cause,” Braun continued. “The biggest thing I want to eventually get into is bullying, because that’s what meant the most to me most growing up.”
Bullying? Someone bullied Jeff Braun, the kid who was 6-1 and 260 entering high school?
“I was bullied my whole life, right up until the ninth grade,” he said
“Everybody,” he answered. “I was bigger and people liked to pick on me. I didn’t realize until I was older that I could use my size to my advantage.”
His worst time was around 11, when his father died, and the kids were taunting him.
“I lost interest in everything. I would rather be at home,” Braun said in a recent profile of him. “I had battles with my mom; I told her I was sick, I just didn’t want to see those people. That’s what made me into an introvert today.”
He kept much of it inside himself, which only made it hurt more, and even when his family convinced him to play on a travel football team, the problems continued.
It wasn’t until he hit high school that he realized how to deal with it, and it came in part through football.
“As cruel as the way they had said it was, I was big,” said Braun. “It hit me, ‘I can’t change that I’m a big guy, so what can I do to utilize it?’ That’s when football really heated up for me.”
As part of the team, Braun was able to learn about many of the people who had taunted and bullied him.
“Once I got to high school and I started to play football and had success, a lot of it stopped,” Braun said. “And a lot of those people (who taunted him) were on my team. Now looking at it, becoming friends with some of those guys you can see that they weren’t trying to tear you down; they were just trying to do the ‘normal’ thing, to be cool … which is sad. It made me realize I’m a better person for it.”
Football got him through high school, straightened out not only his direction in life but his view of life itself, earned him a college scholarship and put him into a situation where he can take advantage of his situation and help others.
He made his grades in college, not in the fashion of genius, but enough to carry a high GPA.
“I’ve had Cs,” he admitted. “I didn’t get very many, but I’m not a straight-A student, and I try to maintain that high grade point.”
His education was slowed some by the process of discovery in college, of learning exactly what direction he wanted to head.
“I started out in exercise physiology but realized that was going to be way too tough for me to do with football,” he explained. “I switched to physical education because my whole family are physical educators. Then I realized I really don’t want to teach, I really want to coach. So I switched to a board of regents degree. That will get me into grad school, and hopefully a graduate assistant job coaching somewhere.”
And, as a coach, he will be able to continue his work with young people and help some avoid the discomfort he felt as he was being molded into the person he is.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.