49ers Ji’Ayir Brown unfazed by Super Bowl LVIII due to resilient road to NFL

Feb 11, 2024, 6:00 AM

Ji'Ayir Brown #27 of the San Francisco 49ers takes the field prior to the game against the Philadel...

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Since the age of 14, San Francisco 49ers rookie safety Ji’Ayir Brown has been the man of his household.

Growing up in urban New Jersey, Brown had to grow up fast due to his environment. In turn, that made him hardened and resilient to everything, including his dream of making the NFL.

A third-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Brown is only a rookie on paper. Sure, he has a lot to learn still in the NFL. But the former Penn State captain is far from wide-eyed kid in the big leagues.

“I don’t like being viewed as a child,” Ji’Ayir Brown said. “Just the way I was brought up, I had to grow up a lot faster than a lot of kids. I wanted to be the man in my house at a young age, and I’ve been through a lot of stuff than people who are older than me haven’t been through. With that experience in life, it’s hard to go back to trying to be like a kid. When life ages you mentally, your physical age doesn’t matter.”

That aged perspective is apparent to the 49ers as well, especially his veteran counterparts.

49ers S Tashaun Gipson Sr. referred to Ji’Ayir Brown as an “old soul”, a younger athlete that has the discipline and maturity of those that came before. On top of that, the rookie has become a sponge on the football field, taking in any information he can from the perennial NFC contenders.

Because of his adaptability (and god-given talent), the work has translated on the field. Something his veterans aren’t surprised by one bit.

“I’ve seen him grow since training camp honestly. He’s one of my favorite rookies I’ve played with,” Gipson said about Brown.”[49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga] Huf is Huf, you can never duplicate that. Obviously losing him was huge, but to have a guy like Ji’Ayir and I don’t think he gets talked about enough. He’s a heck of a player, gonna be a heck of a player for a long time…You want to have a guy like that.”

Even those that came in the middle of the 2023 season have seen Brown grown in spades, both as a player and as a leader.

“He’s not afraid of the moment and he plays big. He tackles well, and he leads the pack at times. He’s not afraid to speak up. He doesn’t act like a rookie, doesn’t play like a rookie. And honestly, we can’t expect him to at this point, you know, we need him,” 49ers S Logan Ryan added about the rookie.

Brown was brought in to be a starter after the 2023 season, with the 49ers letting long-time S Jimmie Ward walk in free agency last spring.

But instead of starting, the rookie was stuck behind Gipson and All-Pro Talanoa Hufanga after leading Penn State to the Rose Bowl. While other former collegiate standouts would be be vindictive about it, Brown took it as a learning curve, working to get better, day-in and day-out, on the practice field alongside those guys.

“It’s a blessing, man. Some rookies come into [position] rooms with guys who’ve only been in the league two years, three years. And, they get to learn together. And through that process of learning together, sometimes they have to learn through experience and learn through hardships,” Brown explained. “These [49ers veterans] got so much experience and lead the day. They helped me learn without having to burn my hand on the stove to realize it’s hot.”

Brown is no stranger to obstacles though, having done so to even make a Power 5 collegiate conference.

The New Jersey native had very few offers coming out of Trenton Central High School, forcing him towards the Junior College route. Brown settled for Lackawanna College, with a student body of only a mere 2,000-plus students.

What he learned on the Falcons carries with him to this day, honing his craft without the bright lights and abundant resources.

He was a standout in his two years of JUCO ball, earning Northeast JC Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. The next season, he transferred to Penn State, becoming a captain for the Nittany Lions’ historic program.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

But while talent can only get you so far, it was Brown’s drive to make his dream a reality that molded him into an NFL-caliber prospect. And that started with humble beginnings in Northeast Pennsylvania.

“It grounds you, because you don’t have the resources that the big colleges have. You don’t have the media that the big colleges have, you don’t have all this,” Ji’Ayir Brown stated. “It’s football at it’s rawest form, there’s no politics in it. And you have to have a certain edge about you to make it through those moments.

“JUCO gives you that appreciation of having the media, having the resources, having the coaches having all this stuff that all these D-1 programs offer, the NFL offers. When you do get it, you’ll appreciate it…Going to JUCO kept me grounded to later on in life appreciate all of this that I have in front of me and not take it for granted.”

And that’s what Brown has done, stay grounded since he got to the NFL. An example of that: Strip himself of his own moniker.

Ji’Ayir Brown has been known as “Tig” since he was a child, given to him by his mother for always bouncing around the house. A credit to the Winnie-the-Pooh character, Brown plays just like that, and has at every opportunity in the NFL thus far.

But when he got to the league, he reverted back to Ji’Ayir in order to earn his title once more.

He’s done that to a degree, filling in admirably when Hufanga went down with a torn ACL in Week 11 of the regular season. Brown sported a stellar 77.9 Pro Football Focus grade for how he started out of the gate. But his play was inconsistent down the stretch, making typical rookie mistakes.

Typically, that’s no biggie. But this is the 49ers; No margin for error. And because of that, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan opted for the veteran Ryan to open the 2024 postseason against the Green Bay Packers.

Brown was back to the bench.

But once more, he didn’t waver, keeping his head down and earning that starting spot back the following week against the Detroit Lions. And while he didn’t have his best performance, his ability to respond in the face of adversity is uncanny for a 24-year-old rookie.

And what shined even more-so for Brown: His ability to lead by example.

“I think I responded well, man. Of course, I didn’t agree with the decision to move me from the starting lineup. No player would agree with that, let’s just call a spade, a spade. But I’m gonna control what I can control at the end of the day. My attitude, my approach, never changed.

“I’m blessed to be where I’m at. I’m blessed. I know what kind of talent I have. Can’t no man, can’t no person define me. There’s only one person that can define me and that’s God…I’m gonna be who God meant [for] me to be and I’ll always be that person regardless.”

Religion and faith have become a trending theme of this 49ers group, bond together by a higher power.

49ers quarterback Brock Purdy has been outspoken about his faith this week, as has running back Christian McCaffrey over the course of his career.

Brown is of a similar nature, rooted in religion as a reason he’s made it this far in his football journey. As well as a reason the 49ers are as healthy as ever entering Super Bowl Sunday.

“It’s a good reason we here. You don’t just come back from 24 to 7 leads, man,” he said. “God rewards those, man. Things have to go your way…I think Kyle and [49ers general manager John Lynch] also do a good job of recruiting players who have that external force driving them. Because I believe that with that force it allows you to push past certain things and reach for different heights. So, God has played a tremendous role in this season. In our health, look how healthy we are!

“A lot of things can go wrong throughout the season. But for us things may have not went to how we wanted it to go, but it went got us here, it still got us to where we wanted to be…We didn’t want to lose those five games we lost, three-straight. God had to teach us a lesson, how sometimes you gotta go through trials and tribulations to get what you want.”

Because of all that, Brown hasn’t been surprised by anything in his first season in the NFL. The only thing that did take him by surprise was the California tax bill, with him and I sharing a good laugh about being young men in one of the largest economies in the world.

As far as on-the-field shockers: None of that. Brown knew what he was drafted into the moment his name was called last April.

Another sign of the maturity and discipline of the young safety he is, ready for the big stage in Year 1.

“I always expect to win, so being in the Super Bowl doesn’t surprise me. When you work hard, you expect the best results. You don’t get those results, you keep working until you get them. So, I’m not surprised by this because we worked hard to get here,” Brown said.

Let’s not get it twisted however: Ji’Ayir Brown knows his opportunity to shine came a year early. The Penn State alum understands that if Hufanga was healthy, he’d be starting alongside Gipson on the 49ers’ backline.

But that’s what makes this unit feel so special: The awareness and realization of the moment forthcoming.

All-Pro Hufanga has played a part as well, staying around Levi’s Stadium as he rehabs from his serious knee injury. In those times where the former starter and current starter have met up, it’s been nothing but love.

There are no hard feelings towards Brown, wanting him to help the 49ers franchise reach their ultimate goal of Super Bowl No.6.

As far as the advice that “Huf” (and all other 49ers safeties for that matter) have given their shining rookie ahead of the biggest game of his career: Just be yourself.

“Really just to go out there and play, go out there and play your game, man. Huf has my back, man, all the guys got my back and they encourage me to go out there and be me and let my talent [be on] display,” he shared.

Upcoming Schedule for Ji’Ayir Brown and the San Francisco 49ers

  • Sunday, February 11th – Super Bowl LVIII – San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs – 3:30 PM PST

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