WASHINGTON — When RuQuan Brown and his father met with an Ivy League football coach in December, he recalls his father making a striking statement, one that shapes the way the teenager views the successes he has already achieved.
“He said it’s important that I’m not a unicorn,” Brown said. “It should be that there are enough black boys, black girls, whoever, who have experienced this so I’m not the only one experiencing it.”
At 17, Brown’s list of accomplishments is already long — and poised to grow longer.
Nearly every Ivy League school is vying to recruit the straight-A student and star football player to their campuses, according to Brown and his high-school football coach.
Brown is student body president at Benjamin Banneker Academic High, a prestigious application school in the District of Columbia
He owns a clothing business that aims to help stop gun violence.
And he has been the subject of local and national media profiles, which have lauded the success of the teen and all he has overcome.
The way Brown sees it, he shouldn’t be considered extraordinary. His childhood circumstances and adolescent ambitions aren’t all that unusual among his friends living in the nation’s capital.
Neither is the way gun violence has punctured his high-school years.
In September 2017, his friend and football teammate, Robert Lee Arthur Jr., was fatally shot in the District of Columbia.
A year later, the stepfather who introduced Brown to football was shot and killed at age 38.
But here’s Brown, a semester away from high-school graduation, visiting Columbia University one weekend, Harvard the next, and juggling meetings with football recruiters from colleges across the country in between.
His ambitions, his coaches and teachers say, go beyond the NFL, go beyond a six-figure salary. They land instead on ensuring that more teenagers from communities like his have the opportunities that stretch ahead of him.
“It’s important that we work toward me not being the only kid who is experiencing this,” Brown said.
The school Brown attends, Banneker, is filled with high-achievers. But what sets Brown apart, said Principal Anita Berger, is his ability to elevate other students’ voices.
He was a key student organizer as his classmates successfully lobbied the D.C. Council to fund a new and bigger campus for the school.
In French class, Brown — whose friends call him Ru — enjoys group work because he likes hearing what his classmates think. In the hallways, there are lots of handshakes, hugs and chuckles as he encounters friends.
On a recent school day, he’s wearing a hoodie with his clothing company’s logo, Love1. Robert Lee Arthur Jr. wore No. 1 on his jersey, and the logo is a tribute to him and to Brown’s stepfather and other victims of gun violence. He started the company on his stepfather’s birthday — Jan. 30, 2019 — and recruited a classmate to help.
Twenty percent of the proceeds go to an organization that buys guns off the streets and transforms them into art.
“He was born with leadership skills. He’s not afraid to speak up when others may be,” Berger said. “He motivates others, too. It’s not just about him.”
On the football field, Coach Chris Harden said it’s no different. Because Banneker does not have a football team, Brown plays as a speedy cornerback and wide receiver for Theodore Roosevelt High, a neighborhood school a mile-and-a-half north of Banneker.
Harden said Brown, the team captain, is friends with all his teammates, although they sometimes rib him for his constant reminders that they should all do the right thing. The coach said Robert Arthur Lee Jr. hadn’t been on the team long before he was killed in 2017. But it hit Brown hard because he had already come to think of Lee as a brother.
“It’s almost as if he was born into a grown man’s mind,” Harden said. “He thinks bigger than how most kids think.”
The high-school senior does not yet know which college he will select. Schools are unable to comment on potential athletic recruits, according to NCAA rules.
Brown attended a charter middle school at Howard University and often walks through the campus on his way home from Banneker. He feels at home and inspired there, and wants to ensure he feels that same way at the college he attends.
And after college? Maybe, the NFL. Or a career in business.
“My biggest goal is to go to college and continue to impact the communities that have impacted me,” he said.
Whatever he decides, his family and “the village,” as he calls it, that raised him will be a part of his future.
Brown wrote his college essay about his stepfather, the man who took him to youth football league games in Texas. He lived with his stepfather and mother before moving to the District of Columbia in middle school with his father, who was earning his dental-hygiene degree at Howard University.
The essay recalled one day when he was about 7 years old. His stepfather asked the young boy to put on all of his football equipment and run around the backyard — run until he couldn’t run anymore.
Brown recalls being confused. But he ran and ran until he cried.
He didn’t talk much about the running with his stepfather, but he’s pretty sure of the lesson he was supposed to draw — a lesson that propels him still.
“If you want to be great, if you want to be a legend, you have to run until you can’t run no more,” Brown said. “Everything runs until it can’t run anymore — and that might be a pencil that writes until you can’t write anymore.”