Local ties bind Portland State linebackers

Brandon Brody-Heim's injury last year opened door for John Norcross

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Portland State University football player from Clark County, sophomore linebacker John Norcross, at a practice in Portland Wednesday August 26, 2015. (Natalie Behring/The Columbian)

Portland State University football player from Clark County, sophomore linebacker John Norcross, at a practice in Portland Wednesday August 26, 2015. (Natalie Behring/The Columbian)

Brandon Brody-Heim and John Norcross went to rival Clark County high schools and are separated by two years.

But the linebackers have become a package deal for the Portland State football team.

On a trip to Camas four years ago to drum up support for Portland State football, coach Bruce Barnum remembers encountering a group of football players at Top Burger Drive In.

Among the group were Brody-Heim, then a star for Union, and Norcross, an up-and-comer for Camas.

“That group, they were like they had known each other for years,” said Barnum, then an assistant coach. “You can see it on the field, but I saw it that day.”

So last fall when Brody-Heim suffered a knee injury that ended his junior year, Norcross helped fill the void.

Starting four games as a freshmen helped Norcross grow into a strong and savvy sophomore who is likely to see regular action this season.

Meanwhile, Brody-Heim used his rehabilitation to “rebuild from the ground up,” not only physically but in a mental approach that takes nothing for granted.

Brody-Heim and Norcross are two reasons Portland State sees the linebacker position as a strength this season, which begins Saturday when the Vikings visit Washington State.

“It’s going to be all-out football,” Brody-Heim said. “Fast-paced, high-intensity football. We’re going to fly around. I can’t wait.”

Renewed urgency

Brody-Heim had a promising sophomore season that saw him start 10 games and rank fifth on the team with 46 tackles.

But in the fifth game of his junior season, Brody-Heim suffered his first major injury. The anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus were torn in his left knee on one unlucky play.

Surgery and six months on rehabilitation followed. Brody-Heim’s football career was at a crossroads.

“For anybody who’s injured, they either drift away if you let them, or it gives them more of a sense of urgency when they come back,” Barnum said.

Brody-Heim has come back with more than a little urgency. He used his rehabilitation to strengthen the smaller muscles around his knee, which has him feeling stronger and more explosive.

“That was a time period where I got to rebuild myself from the ground up,” Brody-Heim said. “It was a blessing in disguise, really.”

Brody-Heim also refined his mental approach to the game.

“You can’t take this sport for granted,” he said. “At any second, it can be denied. You season could be over. Your career could be over.”

Seizing opportunity

When Brody-Heim’s junior season hit a wall, a door opened for Norcross. A freshman who started the year on the scout team was suddenly thrust into the starting lineup on the road at North Dakota.

“I was extremely nervous,” Norcross said. “I’m usually nervous before games, but that one was just different. That first snap, I was struck by just the speed of the game.”

Norcross finished that game with seven tackles, third most on the team. He would see significant playing time in the remaining six games, starting three of them. He finished the year with 28 tackles.

“John is a stud.” Brody-Heim said. “When he got his opportunity, he nailed it.”

Norcross said Brody-Heim was essential in helping him adjust to a starting role. He offered tips on how to read blockers and anticipate where the ball would emerge from the offensive backfield.

“Brody’s a great guy, so it could have been anybody and he would have helped,” Norcross said. “But that relationship obviously helped with how blunt he could be when I’d mess up.”

Fully healthy and one year wiser, Portland State’s linebackers now include seven seniors, led by last year’s top tackler Jeremy Lutali. They hope to improve on last season, when an injury-ravaged defense allowed the third-most yards in school history (443.2 per game) and surrendered 34.0 points per game.

“We’re a different team attitude-wise than last year,” said Barnum, a Columbia River High School grad in his first year as head coach. “A test for me in our first game and every game is when something bad happens, how are you going to react?”