NEW CANAAN >> Justin Brown didn’t even finish his story when St. Luke’s football coach Noel Thomas Sr. burst into laughter and took a couple of steps away from a recent interview just a few feet from Pedrick Stadium.
The Temple-bound Brown, a running back from Branford, and UConn commit Omar Fortt, a safety from Stamford, don’t often get a chance to square off in a full-contact drill during practice. However, a year ago there was one such chance and Brown took a certain amount of glee for lighting up his good friend and teammate.
“We went head to head last year just to see and I won that battle so we will see what it is looking like this year,” Brown said with a laugh.
There have been plenty of reasons to smile since they joined forces at St. Luke’s. Brown came in from Branford High School while Fortt was at Stamford High.
“We are more friends than teammates, we push each other than way whether it be in the classroom or on the field,” Brown said. He is on defense, I am on offense so we go back and forth and push each other in that way.
“Omar is a very energetic guy. He is a kid who is always going to have a smile on his face and will try to put a smile on your face and you need that sometimes.”
Even though he was the younger brother of Khairi Fortt, a former fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, Omar Fortt was devoting his energy on playing basketball and lacrosse. He was with the lacrosse team when he received word that Khairi was drafted.
Fortt, who played football at St. Luke’s from grades 6-8, figured he was done with football. There was enough physicality in lacrosse to suit his taste and his athleticism served him well on the basketball court.
That all changed after a heart to heart chat with his older brother.
“When I left St. Luke’s in eighth grade, I was really discouraged and once I left and went to Stamford High, I took my mind off of football and wanted to be a basketball player,” Fortt said. “I worked on that for two years. My junior year my brother really put it in my head that you are really good at football, you need to find a way to get into college so you don’t put stress on my parents.”
It is not the first time that Fortt’s brother was there to help Omar figure things out.
“He is one of my biggest role models, always pushing me,” Omar Fortt said. “I don’t want to seem like I want to be like him but it is definitely a rivalry, I want to be better than him. He keeps in my head that my parents are doing everything for me so you have to get back, work hard for them. All they want from me is to be successful and you will have nothing to worry about.”
While Khairi opened eyes during his time at Stamford High School, Omar took a different path.
Knowing that Thomas has helped to transform talented young athletes into college prospects including Thomas’ own son Noel Jr., a star receiver at UConn, he headed back to St. Luke’s and was received with open arms.
“Coach Noel, I know his relationship with (college) coaches and I know he can get me right for the next level and just become a man,” Fortt said. “I knew I could pass my baton off to my family and he is going to take care of me.”
Thomas Sr. said Fortt is as high quality of a person off the field as he is a talented performer on it. He said if he gets caught up in other duties, he knows he can get Fortt to keep the players in line.
“He has great character,” Thomas said. “He is the right kind of guy, the RKG that Coach Diaco speaks of all the time. He has a very high level of football IQ but his character is intact, he will do the right things. If I am not around I know Omar is going to continue the things that are important to me even in the absence of a coach and I’ll stand on the table when it comes to that with him.”
Fortt projects to play safety at UConn and couldn’t be happier about it considering that last year’s star safety with the Huskies was Andrew Adams, who is making a strong push towards earning a roster spot with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent while this year’s safety to watch is Obi Melifonwu, who could very well hear his name get called during the 2017 NFL draft.
“Coach Diaco, he is a defensive specialist,” Fortt said. “When we were at his practice, he was so hyped up and amped about plays on defense and I am ready to fill that role and be the best person I can be. They have a safety going to the NFL and I want to follow in his footsteps. I will probably get some leadership tips from him.”
Fortt is looking forward to connecting with Melifonwu and the other defensive backs during his upcoming trips to UConn. He also was rather delighted that he recently got a cell phone so he can join in on the group chats with the fellow UConn commits.
Brown’s story is somewhat unique. It is not unusual for players from Stamford, Norwalk or New Canaan to suit up for the Storm but a Branford player is likely to land at a school like Hopkins and Hamden Hall.
Brown moved in with his host family as Harold and Jackie as well as their son, former St. Luke’s standout B.J. Buckle, who is now at Wagner.
“They’re very influential in my life, I don’t know where I’d be without them,” Brown said.
Calling the move from Branford High to St. Luke’s a culture shock might be an understatement.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I am in without St. Luke’s and I don’t even mean football but as a man and all the things I know,” Brown said. “I would have had football wherever I was but the connections you have here, the people you meet it is just a good thing an you see a new side of life because I am not used to all of this stuff.”
His maturity off the field has aided his success on it. Ultimately, Brown’s success at St. Luke’s and during the summer camp tours caught the eye of the Temple staff.
Ironically, one of the first coaches Brown mentioned connecting with during the recruiting process was recently-hired George DeLeone, a former offensive coordinator at UConn.
While three freshmen running backs had carries for Temple during the 2015 season, the Owls’ returning 1,000-yard rusher Jahad Thomas is a senior so there could be a chance for Brown to compete for playing time immediately.
“I am really excited to be a part of it,” Brown said. “They finished just outside the top 25 last year, they have good recruits in my class and obviously in 2016 so we should be looking good for years to come.”