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According to Chester and Connie Brandon, who both work on the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Warren, the youngest of their three sons has never let his modest stature keep him from standing out in a crowd.
"Mark is the hard-nose of the family," says Chester. "He's a take-charge person. His size has never held him back; it's just made him more determined."
Mark says he resolved to "give it everything all the time" after his sister, Mary, died of a heart attack at the age of 26. He said the tragedy has strengthened his Baptist faith. "Each time I do something well, deep down I dedicate that to her a little bit."
Brandon's girl friend, Maureen Scott, is a student at Bowling Green. He put a temporary dent in her heart with his game-saving interception against her school. "All I could think was, 'Who caught that?' " Scott says. "I was so upset. Then my girl friend told me it was Mark, and I thought, 'That little devil.' I had wanted us to win, but I was really happy for him."
Scott says Brandon never became discouraged by his anonymity in college after three years in the spotlight in high school. "Mark doesn't let himself get down," she says. "When he wasn't playing much, he'd just say, 'I'm sorry, but pretty soon everybody's gonna know who I am.' "
Brandon is better known now, and not just because of football. This year he was Mr. September in a campus-produced calendar entitled "The Men of U.T.," the only football player to be chosen. "They told me it was because of my handsome smile," said Brandon during a stroll amid the gray "collegiate Gothic" architecture of the Toledo campus.
To be sure, opposing teams in the MAC have seen enough of him to last awhile. Although Toledo, second in the nation against the run, is next to last in the MAC against the pass, Brandon has been beaten for only one touchdown in two years. And his interceptions are a big reason why Toledo leads the nation in turnover margin, averaging 2.3 a game.
In the Rocket defensive scheme, Brandon lines up on the wide side of the field, opposite receivers who are always taller and frequently faster. He is often tested with lob passes in one-on-one coverage, but the challenges have become less frequent. "Mark has the knack for being able to sense the relationship between the quarterback and the receiver," says Defensive Backfield Coach Steve Gwin.
Brandon idolizes the Dallas Cowboys' Everson Walls, but he knows that he is not considered a pro prospect. "He's a fine athlete, but, to be blunt, he wouldn't get much consideration." says Joe Keane, a part-time scout for Buffalo who saw the Northern Illinois game.
Just in case, though, Brandon nurtures a dream—of shooting up a few inches more. Last summer he hung upside down for 20 minutes a day after hearing that doing so can make people taller. Although he did grow more than an inch, Brandon isn't absolutely convinced that it was the result of his dangling.