Keith Brady does not consider himself a morning person.
“Not at all,” he admits, squinting as he steps into the sun-dappled hallway of the 20th floor of East Campus. But Brady has a sense of humor about it and cracks a smile as he sets off for his 8:40 a.m. class (with two Spectator reporters and a photographer in tow). Decked out in khakis and a crewneck red sweater, he makes his way to Fayerweather, moving wearily two days after a physical game against Wagner. Brady—the Lions’ starting outside linebacker—has just five more days to prepare for a Saturday showdown against a tough Penn team.
Brady, a senior, is an anomaly on the 118-man football team. Only a couple credits away from a degree in industrial engineering and operations research, he is one of four School of Engineering and Applied Science students on the squad—and the only one in the starting lineup. There’s a reason that football and engineering don’t have great overlap—the time commitments of both are prohibitive to most. But Brady makes it work.
His first class on Tuesdays is Healthcare Management Systems, a required class for his major. It’s a jargon-filled course, and the student presenters for the day delved into triage systems and wait-time reduction techniques. Brady sits in the back, paying better attention than most of his classmates. Two fellow engineers slide into seats around Brady just as class gets underway, including Robbie Frierson, SEAS ’17.
Frierson and Brady delivered their presentation last week, and the soft-spoken Connecticut native was impressed by Brady’s work ethic. “It’s surprising how much he has on his plate with football practice and studying engineering,” Frierson said. “It’s definitely an impressive feat.”
Brady’s unique scholastic choices alter his social circles, distinguishing him from his teammates. “If you’re an engineer, you can’t just hang out with the team—not during school hours.”
The next stop is Nussbaum and Wu after his first class.The line is uncommonly short for 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Brady drifts to the end. He orders two toasted everything bagels—one cream cheese and one sausage, egg, and cheese. Unlike some of his teammates, Brady doesn’t pay too much attention to what he eats. He has no idea of his daily caloric intake (and frankly wasn’t pressed to find out). He’s never met the team’s nutritionist—rather, he just eats until he’s full. It’s emblematic of his approach to football and academics: Brady keeps his head down and gets things done, never overthinking the process. In a way, he channels the media-rejecting former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch. Like the hard-nosed running back, Brady speaks softly and says little, but is quick to smile. He jokes about his desire to cut class on occasion: “I just go so I won’t get fined,” he said, alluding to one of Lynch’s most infamous interviews.
After ordering the bagels, Brady walks through campus to avoid the hustle and bustle of the car and foot traffic of 114th Street. He prefers the reprieve that Butler Lawns and Low Steps provide him from busy New York City.
From a modestly sized suburb outside of Cincinnati, Brady and his family live on the water with two dogs and a cat. Brady loves the outdoors, especially the water. He’s an avid watersports expert and loves wakeboarding and water skiing. New York cannot satisfy this itch, and he doesn’t even categorize the Hudson as water. That’s not to say he dislikes New York—it’s just worn him out.
“I need my calm,” Brady said. “Silent backwoods. And my dirtbikes. And my dog.”
Bagels in hand, Brady returns to his suite before his 11:40 class. He finishes his problem sets the night before so that he could have some spare time in between classes. His suite—he shares it with three teammates and a randomly assigned sophomore—is plain but homey. A Dave and Buster’s stick-on basketball hoop hangs on a wall 10 feet from a dartboard. A TV sits in between them with a GameCube and its controllers strewn over the coffee table. Brady doesn’t play video games as often as he’d like, but he wins outright when he does, to the chagrin of his suitemates. The suite owns most of the classics—Super Smash Brothers Melee, Mario Kart Double Dash— with one exception: Madden. Brady has never played the football game, or any sport-centric variant for that matter. He chalks it up to watching too much film, and can hardly watch sports on TV. Which makes it all the more surprising that his next class is Sports in Society.
Graphic by Tj Givens / Senior Staff Designer
Brady prefers his IEOR classes—Human Factors is his favorite—but he finds solidarity in the athlete-filled Schermerhorn lecture hall. In class, Brady removes his sweater to reveal an Alpha Phi T-shirt, which he picked up from his girlfriend’s formal at the University of Miami-Ohio. They met while he worked in Cincinnati the summer before his junior year, and she comes to as many of his games as possible. She travels with his parents, who drive eight hours each time as often as possible to see their son play.
After a lecture on Racialization in Major League Baseball, Brady walks straight to the shuttle stop, which departs from 116th and Amsterdam. He catches the 1 p.m. bus up to Baker for meetings and practice. It takes about 15 minutes to get up to Inwood, and the players are an hour until meetings start. Some go to the local deli Park Terrace, but Brady stays put. He’s still full from his bagels.
Brady arrives on time to his Special Teams meeting with Justin Stovall, Special Teams coordinator and linebacker coach. Stovall is emotive on what he wants from his players, not only orating but also using his body to communicate motions and patterns.
Sitting in his Special Teams meeting, Brady has the same quiet focus that he brings to his engineering courses. And the two aren’t that dissimilar: Between the lecture-hall classroom layout and the players’ rapt attention, it’s easy to mistake the lecture on kickoff coverage for Intro to JAVA. But at Baker, it’s less about nested loops and more about this week’s opponent. Stovall lectured from his podium in English, but to the untrained ear it sounds foreign. He speaks of ‘mikes’ and ‘gaps,’ ‘pulls’ and ‘releases’—the players are drilled on this language in training camp, and Brady became fluent by the time the season began. Brady claims he picked it up quite easily because he is lucky enough to have come from a high school with a college-oriented vocabulary system. But English and football are the only languages he speaks.
“[I] took four years of Latin in high school, but I can’t speak it. [It’s a] dead language.”
After the meeting, Brady shuffles into a small, naturally lit conference room with Stovall and the linebackers. Stovall begins by asking the players to categorize the Penn offense based on their thoughts of the film, just as a TA would ask about last week’s required reading. Brady remains silent, soaking in the information and diving deeper into the film. The ‘cutups’—prepared film the linebackers must watch before the meeting—focus on the run first. Later in the week, the linebackers will focus on third downs and special situations. The hour-long session is crucial to the Light Blue practice schedule.
It’s 3 p.m. by the time practice begins. Tuesday’s drills test the team’s physicality, and Brady uses his energy effectively, finding the quickest paths to his assignment. Watching Brady move is evocative of the goal of his area of academic study: optimization.
IEOR, as Brady refers to his field, is how airports make lines shorter and car manufacturers up their yields. It’s a discipline that requires replicability and strict adherence to form. And this is how Brady plays football. On the field, Brady finds the quickest route to the ball carrier. His tackling technique stands out among his teammates. In drills, he wraps up the dummy with his back straight, driving from the knees, and in coverage he watches the quarterback’s eyes.
Practice is a blur, punctuated by brief water breaks, and it lasts until 6 p.m. After stretching and a quick shower, Brady catches the 6:40 p.m. shuttle back to campus.
On the bus ride home, Brady mentally transitions to focus on his work ahead. Group projects—brutal to coordinate for four students—is nearly impossible for athletes to fit into their schedule. But Brady confirms his plans with his classmates over text, balancing it with the problem set that’s also waiting for him at home.
This adds up to about four hours of work—on a good day. It’s an average load for a Columbia student, but an unusual burden when added to the five hours of practice [Tuesday-Friday]. And on a bad day, it’s closer to seven or eight hours, keeping Brady in his room until 2 a.m.
The constant focus on academics sets Brady apart from his teammates—both on the field and off. “Guys in [the locker room] are liberal and conservative, and they’re yelling at each other. I’m just trying to figure out what problem set I have to do that night.”
The lifestyle isn’t all too different than that of Brady’s brother, John, SEAS ‘15, during his time at Columbia. The brothers have a lot in common—both physical linebackers and engineers. “But he was doing a lot more than me. He was a BME [biomedical engineer], and he got a 4-0.” (actually, John graduated with a 3.77—a tremendous feat.)
John opted for a career in science, not football, after graduation. John earned his master’s degree in biomedical engineering in just six months, learning so quickly that a professor once asked the ex-Lion to fill in at the front of the class. Now, he’s working in Cincinnati, maintaining a demanding schedule while making medical instruments for a company called Ethicon.
Keith’s postgraduation plans don’t involve football, either. Instead, he hopes to explore mechanical engineering—completely divergent from his current studies. For the past two years Brady has spent his summers at Intelligrated, the material-handling firm that consults for Fedex and UPS. He hopes to return to Cincinnati next year to explore a new field.
But until then—Brady is still on the bus, rumbling down the West Side Highway as the atmosphere grows rowdier. Groans about upcoming academic progress reports mingle with music and ceaseless chatter. But Brady prefers sitting in his own row. “This is the time I get to relax. I like to spend these 15 minutes doing absolutely nothing.” In front of him, an argument breaks out between two first-years. “Fuck you man—you fucking interrupted me,” one bellows. Amid the din, Brady leans back into his seat and closes his eyes.
Brady arrives home by 7 p.m. hungry from his long day. He cooks himself some pasta and works on a problem set for Human Factors. His homework takes him right up to his weekly call with his mother to discuss a family visit before the Penn game. It’s a common ritual for the Bradys. Familial support is paramount to the senior linebacker, and it drove his decision to come to Columbia. He had a multitude of options to play college ball: Harvard recruited him, and he could have secured a walk-on position at Ohio State. But a familiar face—his brother’s—made all the difference and brought him to the Big Apple.
Toward the end of the night, Brady remembers his position meeting the following morning. Instead of sleeping in, he needs to get up at 7 a.m. in time to meet with Stovall and the linebackers again.
Brady’s day—on its face—isn’t extraordinary. It’s the type of day that dozens of student-athletes have every week. But Brady navigates it with a quiet grace. He’s not chatty or lewd. He’s diligent and withdrawn. Football and engineering, film sessions and problem sets have taken a toll over three-and-a-half years. “I’m tired, man. I feel old.”
Wednesday will look a lot like Tuesday—and so will Thursday before Brady heads to Philadelphia on Friday for a tilt with Penn. The Lions will lose this game 35-10 despite a strong defensive performance from Brady:6.5 tackles, second best on the team. As the day sets on Brady’s Tuesday, it’s hard not to see the setting of his career as well. With only five games left, he doesn’t have much many quarters left until he hangs up his helmet for the last time.
But until then, he’s still a student-athlete and academic anomaly. For five more weeks, he’s still The Linebacker Engineer.