“If I’m being honest, I thought South Dakota and f—ing Alabama are on the same level,” Sydney said.
The Browns stayed with the Yates family until their final semester, when the Yateses moved to Texas and Chase and Sydney stayed with their neighbors, Tom and Michelle Cross. By then, the time with Phil and Karen had already made an impression.
“What we thought success was completely changed when we moved in with them,” Sydney said. “We were never exposed to that side of society, and really understood the potential that life can bring, if you go to school, if you get your s— done, if you develop a proper work ethic, if you’re an efficient person in society.
“It was such a big flip. We learned so much about how we don’t want to go back.”
Football was the easy part. The Browns had to sit out Saint Stephens’ first two games in an acclimation period, and those two games would be the team’s only losses during the two seasons Chase and Sydney played.
After the 2016 season, Chase got his first scholarship offer from Syracuse, rich in running back tradition. But he waited for other offers to come, including Western Michigan, which had a top aviation school. After living with Phil Yates — a test pilot after 25 years in the Navy, where he flew F-14s and F-18s — Chase was all-in on becoming a pilot. Even as other offers came in, Chase was set on WMU, taking no other official visits.
“I would have hung up the cleats, put the helmet away, put the pads away, just to go be a pilot,” Chase said. “I thought Phil was a rock star.”
Sydney’s recruiting went slower. His height was a concern for some schools, even those who wanted Chase. When offers finally arrived, they came mainly from smaller programs like South Dakota.
“Bama’s next,” he joked to himself.
But just before the early signing date, Sydney got a surprise offer from Illinois and he jumped at the chance to play in the Big Ten.
The only problem was it would separate the twins.
“They wanted to go to college together,” Raechel said. “That was the dream.”
THE BROWNS ARE identical twins but also mirror twins, a subtype in which each sibling’s features and traits are opposite from the other, creating a mirror-image effect. Sydney is right-handed; Chase is left-handed. Chase is laid back; Sydney operates with relentless intensity. When they were little, Raechel noticed their hair curling in opposite directions.
Like many twins, though, the Browns are drawn to each other.
As a freshman in 2018, Chase had 352 rushing yards for Western Michigan and returned 12 kickoffs. But he found out his scholarship didn’t cover flight classes, which he couldn’t afford.
He saw Sydney thriving at Illinois, starting 10 games and recording 55 tackles and five pass breakups. Despite a strong spring at WMU, Chase transferred.
“I wanted to be with him,” Chase said of his twin. “I wanted to have that relationship, where he could push me, I could push him, like we had in high school.”
While waiting to be admitted, Chase slept on the floor of Sydney’s apartment, on a “dog bed” of blankets and pillows. After gaining admission, he and Sydney moved to a larger place and began training camp with the Illini. The one-time transfer rule wasn’t in effect yet, so Chase sat out until mid-October, when he received an immediate-eligibility waiver to play. He appeared in four games, mostly on special teams, to preserve his redshirt.
“His work ethic stood out to me right away, but he was a little impatient in his play,” said Cory Patterson, who coached Illinois’ tight ends at the time before switching to running backs in 2021. “Everything was fast, because he’s a fast kid. The way he talked, the way he thought, it was like [snaps his fingers three times], he wanted to give you the answer, ‘I want to get out there, I want to do it for you, I want to make it happen.’
“As he became more patient, you saw him develop.”
Sydney had a more linear trajectory at Illinois, earning third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2019, when he finished second in the Big Ten in interceptions (3) and sixth in tackles per game (8). When Aaron Henry arrived as defensive backs coach following a transition, he saw a detailed, observant player, fully dedicated to the game.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been around a player wired like him,” Henry said of Sydney. “Every day, he leaves the practice field, he has a 20-minute stretch routine. He has a 20-minute stretch routine he does right before he goes to bed. Then he eats the same thing for breakfast. It’s almost like OCD. He probably could have been a really good MMA fighter, just the way he approaches life and the way he approaches this game.”
Patterson has noticed similar discipline from Chase, who “just wants to work.”
Just how driven and disciplined are they? After taking the twins to Indianapolis for Big Ten media days in July, Illinois coach Bret Bielema watched them agonize over whether to drink a Coke before dinner.
They bring out the competitiveness in each other. One time in preseason practice, Sydney landed a big hit on Chase — “Stroked him,” Henry recalled — only to have Chase pop him in his facemask.
“We’re throwing hands at each other,” Sydney said. “I get kicked out of practice, he still gets to practice. I’m a total freak if you take something from me. He took my reps from practice. The competitive nature, it carries onto pretty much everything we do. It carries onto the hydration board, who’s going to drink their DripDrop first.
“It’s just fun having somebody that’s equally competitive on the other side of the ball.”
GROWING UP IN Canada, the Browns didn’t really talk about the NFL. Playing major college football was their goal. Both have earned their degrees at Illinois.
But their college careers have put both on the NFL radar. Chase, who has 2,648 rushing yards the past two seasons, is No. 137 on ESPN’s draft prospect rankings. Sydney has surged to No. 125 on ESPN’s prospect list, displaying a combination of speed, intelligence and physicality to thrive as a pro safety.
NFL scouts project both as Day 3 picks who will need to contribute on special teams and find the right schemes. Sydney’s special teams prowess should help his value. Before games, opposing coaches told Bielema how often Sydney jumped out during their special teams scouting.
“I can see a special teams coordinator falling in love with the guy, just in terms of his toughness and the speed,” a scout said.
Bielema described Sydney as a “niche fit safety,” suited for some NFL systems but not all. He’s a safety-linebacker hybrid who can play in the box because of his instincts, core strength and coverage skills.
“He’s got the impact and the power and ability to make short-area very powerful tackles, sheds blocks kind of like [former NFL safety] Bob Sanders,” said Bielema, who spent three seasons as an NFL assistant before coming to Illinois. “But he kind of has that big-play mentality of [New England Patriots safety] Jabrill Peppers. Especially the last half of the season, Sydney just took over the game on several occasions.”
Chase likely will be “more of a complementary back,” a scout said, lacking the biggest build at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds. He reached 1,000 rushing yards in 2021 but eclipsed 18 carries only three times. Chase emerged this past season as not only a prolific and productive ball carrier — he had 20 or more carries in 10 of 12 games and just one performance of fewer than 98 rush yards — but also a versatile one.
He had 27 receptions, nearly eclipsing his total from his first three college seasons (31), and improved as a pass blocker.
“He can run right by you, he can run right through you and he can make you miss, that’s a very unusual combo,” Bielema said. “But the third-down value he brings is just very, very uncommon. … When you have a running back who can run it and protect, that’s going to bring good value.”
With their NFL journey set to begin in just a few months it’s likely the twins will be separated again. For now they are savoring their time together, though.
“How many people could say they played college ball with their brother?” Chase said. “We’re going to be able to look back on these four, five years of our lives and be like, ‘Remember this game? Remember when this happened?'”
Listening to his twin, Sydney nodded.
“There’s so much more to life.”
This content was originally published here.