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Football: Tyreke Brown powers Penns Grove

The all-purpose junior star leads South Jersey in touchdowns with 21 and TD catches with 13.

Penns Grove junior Tyreke Brown leads South Jersey in touchdown catches with 13.
Penns Grove junior Tyreke Brown leads South Jersey in touchdown catches with 13.Read moreAkira Suwa/For the Inquirer

It's about 2,500 miles from California to New Jersey.

Some make the trip for business or to see relatives. Others make the trip to change their life.

That was the case for Penns Grove football star Tyreke Brown.

At the age of 5, Brown moved from California to New Jersey after the death of his mother, settling in Penns Grove with  his father and grandmother.

He has found a home in the little Salem County town and has spent much of the last two autumns putting the Red Devils' football program back on the map.

"I'm not related to a lot of people out here but they are like blood to me," Brown said. "This town has had my back since I first stepped foot in Penns Grove. They grew to love me and the excitement I bring to the game, and they are just behind me 100 percent. I know they will support me though my ups and downs and no matter what, they'll have my back."

Now a junior at Penns Grove, Brown has developed into one of the state's most dynamic players. He leads South Jersey in touchdowns with 21 and in touchdown receptions with 13.

Oddly, the game of football wasn't immediately to his liking.

"I was crying, whining, 'Dad, I don't want to play football. I hate it. I don't like the contact,' " Brown said. "I was whining to him, and he forced me onto the field.

"He was, like, 'You're gonna play, you're gonna play.' Ever since then, I fell in love with the sport and I just keep grinding and working hard."

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound athlete's love of the game came due to one simple aspect: the atmosphere. Even in youth football programs, when the ball was in his hands, he'd hear and see the crowd overflow with excitement.

Every time Brown stepped on the field, his teammates encouraged him to be part of the football family.

It's not hard to see why this type of reaction from viewers fills the field. Chants of his name roar from the crowd whenever he touches the ball. All of those that he now considers extended family waited patiently after this past Saturday's 42-35 win over Woodbury by the sidewalks, near the buses, to offer congratulations.

"Tyreke is the leader of our team," Penns Grove coach John Emel said. "It's kind of funny — when he was a freshman I used to tell people he was the best on our roster with the exception of a guy who's playing on scholarship at Temple [Kimere Brown]. He's done everything we've asked him to do."

Brown is a versatile player who excels as a receiver, passer, return man, and runner. He also is a standout on defense.

Brown, who has a scholarship offer from Syracuse, has thrown for two touchdowns this season. He has rushed for 301 yards and six touchdowns. He has caught 35 passes for 923 yards (26.4-yard average) and 13 scores. He also has scored two touchdowns on kick returns.

As a linebacker, Brown leads the team with 62 tackles, including six for losses.

"He's the type of player that, when he's dominant, we are going to be hard to beat," Emel said. "He's just a game changer."

Brown has the Red Devils, who host Woodstown on Saturday, in pursuit of their first South Jersey Group 1 title since 2012.

He believes that Penns Grove was meant to be the place where he was destined not only to play football, but to grow up as well.

"I came here at a young age, and out in California, the lifestyle is different," Brown said. "When you get off the plane and you come into Jersey, you just see a lot of grasslands. I felt at home once I was here with my father, and I just knew that this was the place where I was meant to be."