The narrow passageway that leads up the 17 carpeted steps connecting the first and second floors of Henry and Venita Vereen’s home wasn’t constructed with two-wide racing in mind.
On almost a daily basis, however, the couple’s sons would tear up the stairs, one as intent on beating his brother to the top as the other. The foot races were rarely planned, instigated instead by something as simple as one of the boys starting to make his way toward the bottom of the stairwell or, God forbid, both arriving at the same time. Either way, proceeding normally was never an option. Because the path upward was so tight, the faster brother’s progress would be impeded by an ankle tackle from behind, causing a loud commotion. Venita Vereen would shake her head, wondering if her pleas for Shane and Brock Vereen to call a truce would ever be heeded.
“I was always on them, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t stop them,” she says. “It didn’t stop them one bit.”
It still hasn’t.
Ask Shane Vereen, a fourth-year New England Patriots running back, if his younger brother has ever beaten him in anything and he laughs, insisting he has always maintained the upper hand.
Pose the same question to Bears rookie safety Brock Vereen, and he too laughs before putting a new twist on the siblings’ competitive compulsion that extends from backyard basketball and Mario Kart to races to the refrigerator or to claim “shotgun” on family road trips.
“I’m definitely the video game champ – that’s 100 percent fact,” Brock says. “We haven’t played basketball in quite some time, but I’m definitely faster. And if [Shane] doesn’t like that, he can look at the combine numbers.”
By bringing up his 4.47-second time in the 40-yard dash at last spring’s NFL combine – compared to Shane’s 4.50-second performance in 2011 – Brock insists he has closed the competitive gap with his older brother.
As many times as Venita asked Shane to let Brock win once in a while, much in the same way Henry Vereen had allowed his oldest son to beat him, that was never going to happen.
“I beat dad,” Shane told his mother. “Now Brock has to beat me.”
• • •
Brock Vereen has spent much of his 21 years on Shane’s heels.
Shane was always the star – first as a record-breaking running back at Valencia High School in greater Los Angeles and then at Cal-Berkeley, where he became one of the nation’s top rushers as a senior.
Shane – who started on Valencia’s varsity as a sophomore – burst immediately out of the gate. Brock’s development was more drawn out. Shane was outgoing. Brock was reserved, leaving Larry Muir – who coached both brothers at Valencia – to wonder exactly what he had on his hands.
Muir had gotten to know Brock by coaching his older brother. While Shane’s 6,000 rushing yards and 89 touchdowns during his three-year career had left a definite stamp, Muir understood coaching Brock would be different. The fact that Brock kept mainly to himself made communication a challenge, at least initially.
“When you have the quiet ones, you think, ‘OK, what the heck are they thinking? Where are they at with things? Are they intimidated by things? Are they confident in who they are? Are they worried about what Shane meant to our program?’,” Muir said. “But the more you got to know Brock, the more you came to understand that his quietness was kind of an inner strength.
“He was going to blaze his own trail. That was Brock.”
Brock was already a good athlete, something he proved during his Pop Warner football days. He was a good student as well, evidenced by the 4.4 grade-point average he boasted in high school, edging Shane’s 3.8. Brock had all he needed to succeed.
But while Brock and Shane each had their own personalities and style of approaching things, those outside the confines of their family still pushed Brock to match his older brother in everything he did. Brock remained unfazed.
“I don’t think Brock felt the pressure,” Henry Vereen said of his youngest son, whom the former Canadian Football League wide receiver coached in football, basketball and baseball until Brock started middle school. “But I think a lot of people tried to put a lot of that ‘Do what Shane did’ kind of twist onto it.”
Brock became keenly aware what following his brother entailed even before he reached high school. At times, he sensed people expected him to keep up the family’s football identity after Shane left as Valencia’s most recruited player ever.
Brock garnered only two Division I scholarship offers: Minnesota and Stanford. Again, outsiders pressured him to choose Stanford, where he could play in the same conference as Shane had. But his parents – both college athletes at UNLV – encouraged Brock to choose his own path, prompting him to choose to play at Minnesota.
“Coming in (to high school) I was definitely in his shadow,” Brock acknowledges. “The comparisons were there, but they weren’t that bad. But thanks to my high school coach, my parents and my friends, I was never Shane’s little brother.”
Yet, there were those who kept insisting that would always be the case. Never one to outwardly show any frustration over the comparisons or constantly finishing second to his brother in the foot races and video game battles at home, Brock let football speak for him.
“I think that’s why Brock hits so hard on that football field – he’s making up for when he was a child,” Venita says, laughing. “I think that’s why he’s such a harder hitter. He had to be.”
• • •
In addition to being Brock’s biggest competitor growing up, Shane Vereen has also been his brother’s compass.
After Brock was drafted by the Bears, Shane made certain Brock knew if he needed anything, just to call. Shane didn’t want to be overbearing and wanted Brock to learn on his own. But Shane also made sure his younger brother understood an important nugget of truth as he started offseason workouts.
“I’ve just tried to tell him to keep his mouth shut, do what’s asked of you and go out there and try to do the best you can every day,” Shane says. “That’s pretty much all a rookie really needs to know.”
For Brock, who spent the offseason working with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s first-team unit while incumbent starting safety Chris Conte recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, the learning curve has been steep.
To make things easier, Brock spoke almost daily with his older brother. Brock was able to gain a different perspective from Shane, who, like Henry Vereen, had never coddled Brock. Having a guide to see Brock through the early stages of his NFL career has been invaluable.
“I don’t see myself at this level right now without [Shane] mentoring me along the way,” Brock said. “It’s weird to have a role model on a team you’re going to get to play against, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
• • •
As much as he has impressed Tucker and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke during the offseason, Brock Vereen’s intensive training remains in front of him. During OTAs and a three-day minicamp, he proved himself to be an intelligent decision maker blessed with good natural instincts.
Much of the learning has come on the fly, keeping Vereen focused on putting new information into practice. As promising as Vereen has looked, it is difficult for his coaches to gauge how NFL-ready the rookie really is.
“Football is a pad game; it’s a violent game,” Hoke said. “[In the offseason], all you’re doing is looking at their movement, seeing how much they pick up the scheme, how much they understand – that’s it.
“It’s not a true indication – especially with young players – how well they’re going to play pro football.”
Vereen realizes although he has passed an early test, much more awaits him. At some point, Conte will return and will be given the opportunity to compete for the same starting job many have already penciled Vereen in for. Vereen can’t afford to take such prognostications seriously, knowing as a rookie, he still lacks much of the knowledge and game experience many of his teammates possess.
“Some of these vets have been here for 10 years, 11 years, and I’m chasing that,” he says. “So I think you definitely have to put yourself in a mindset that you’re behind and you’re always in catch-up mode.”
That’s where Brock’s experience shadowing his brother will pay off.
Before the rookies left, quarterback Jay Cutler reminded them they are no longer in college and can’t consider the summer as a chance to get away and relax. How rookies adjust to the change will go a long way in determining how much time they see once the season begins. Shane, for one, is confident his brother will be up for the challenge.
“He knows he’s a rookie and he knows he’s got a long, long way to go and a long road in front of him,” Shane said. “He may not be ready right now, but he will be eventually. I’ve got 110 percent confidence that he’ll be ready one day.”
• • •
Venita Vereen dreads Oct. 26 – the day in Week 8 of th regular season when the Bears and Patriots meet in New England.
When friends bring up the game, she quickly changes the subject.
By then, Brock Vereen will have reached the midpoint of his rookie season. Despite being a veteran, Shane Vereen has difficulty making the nationally televised meeting just another game, considering the ties it has not only to his younger brother, but to his parents.
“I think it will be both stressful and the best game they’ve ever seen,” Shane says. “I’m trying to figure out who is rooting for me and who is rooting for him. But I think it will be fun. Not too many parents get to look out and see both their kids on the same field at the same time.”
Henry Vereen won’t allow himself to think too much about the game. Still, he is proud of what his boys have achieved and with the way Shane and Brock have managed to follow different paths to reach the NFL.
“I thought Brock worked a little bit harder to get where he’s at than Shane did, but that’s just how things go sometimes,” Henry says. “But I’m just happy for them.”
Brock and Shane discuss the game at least twice a week. Each time a bit of “friendly fire” – as Venita calls it – is exchanged. Shane reminds his younger brother how he has never beaten him at anything, and their first NFL meeting will be no different. Brock fires back, again finding a way to hold his own like he always has.
“I don’t think the trash talk will ever end,” Brock says.
Still, the boys’ mother wishes things could be different. She would feel better if both of her sons played on the same side of the ball. But because they don’t and because she vividly remembers those daily foot races up the stairs, she cringes to think of her boys being forced to go head-to-head.
Always the peacemaker, Venita has already asked Shane to let Brock tackle him. She has also requested Brock allow Shane score a touchdown. Deep down, she knows her boys aren’t about to comply with her wishes.
“They looked at me like I was absolutely insane,” Venita says. “But this is the first time besides clowning around at home that they have to play against one another. This will be the first time it will be a head-to-head competition.
“I think everyone is looking forward to that game but me.”