Summer Sweat Yields Fall Glory for Oliver
Undersized running back disproves doubters, outworks opposition
Oliver trained in the summer of 2011 by running up the hill at UB's old football stadium. Meg Kinsley /// The Spectrum
Branden Oliver’s outstanding performance has come out of nowhere this season, much to the delight of Bulls fans. Rebecca Bratek /// The Spectrum
Oliver has a propensity for dragging defenders into the end zone, shown here in UB's week two win over Stony Brook. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum
Oliver has found the end zone frequently this year. Nick Fischetti /// The Spectrum
Oliver leaves Bowling Green defenders in his dust. Meg Kinsley /// The Spectrum
Masses of fans who pack UB Stadium on Saturdays are left bewildered, asking one simple question: "How can somebody that small be that good?"
Branden Oliver doesn't even need to think about his answer: "I just work harder."
Oliver is a 5-foot-7-inch star from Miami, Fla. who came to Buffalo because no other Division I football coach would offer him a scholarship. He was just too little.
Now those coaches are kicking themselves.
Oliver struggled on and off the field as a freshman in 2010, but he made major changes in the summer of 2011.
Now he's the star of Buffalo's offense.
Oliver is adamant that he'll do anything to avoid another season like 2010. The Bulls finished 2-10 and Oliver ran for a mere 336 yards and no touchdowns.
Nothing was going right. He couldn't balance class and the demanding workload that comes with being a Division I starting running back.
"Last year, people always asked me: 'Why do you keep playing him?' Well, that's why - his effort," said head coach Jeff Quinn. "He doesn't make mistakes and he comes to practice every day with a mindset and a purpose: to get better. He doesn't measure himself against others; he measures himself against himself, knowing he has greatness inside of him."
It's safe to say fans have already forgotten the Branden Oliver of 2010.
He's acing tests and lighting up linebackers, dominating homework assignments and taking swing passes for six. Oliver has rushed for 853 yards and eight touchdowns so far this year, making him Buffalo's second-leading scorer. Three weeks ago - following a three-touchdown, 179-yard performance against Ohio - Oliver was named the Mid-American Conference East Player of the Week. The Bulls won the trilling matchup 38-37, thanks largely to Oliver's electrifying performance.
Oliver said he owes his success in the classroom to the experience he gained as a student-athlete last year. His success on the gridiron? He owes that to the hill at UB's old football stadium.
Determination and Humility
His feet felt like 50-pound weights as he sprinted up the hill for the hundredth time, but Oliver kept telling himself to keep moving. Sweat showered his face as he pushed himself in the summer heat. The steep hill by itself wasn't quite enough, so he forced himself to wear a 30-pound vest.
Most college football players push themselves to physical extremes in once-daily workouts. The really dedicated athletes work out twice a day. Oliver pulled three-a-days over the summer.
He wasn't just running or lifting weights, though. That wouldn't be his style.
Oliver and sophomore linebacker Khalil Mack - who's received his own share of national recognition this year - put together the most challenging workout they could conceive. Every day, they'd go to the hill, the weight room, and the film room. And every day, Branden reminded himself of his motivation: last year.
"You could say that he's an animal, but no matter what an animal does, it's going to stop doing it," Mack said. "There's a difference - Branden will never stop. Just the other night he wanted to go over to the hill."
Branden says he never wants to experience another season like 2010. Ever.
Oliver made drastic improvements with the help of Mack and the football team's strength coach, Zack Duval.
"A normal athlete and Branden are two different things," Duval said. "There isn't enough weight room for him. He basically took over our weight room. Pound for pound, he's the strongest on our team."
When you ask Branden's friends and family what he's like as a football player, there's only one word that keeps coming up - hardworking. And when you ask about his character, there's one word everyone brings up - humble.
When Branden went away to school, his brother Edwin, Jr. told him humility was imperative. He said: "if you exalt yourself, you will be humbled, but if you humble yourself, you will succeed."
Following Oliver's monster performance at Ohio and recognition as MAC East Player of the Week, Quinn said Oliver was quick to give the honor to his offensive linemen. He told them: "you guys did it."
Overcoming His Size
Oliver has muscles like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his teammates make him look more like Danny DeVito.
His favorite player of all-time is Barry Sanders - a 5-foot-8-inch former Detroit Lions running back who was one of the best rushers in NFL history. Sanders was known for his shiftiness and ability to make defenders miss.
Branden, too, is known for his elusiveness. He frequently leaves defenders on their posteriors asking: "What just happened?"
"I don't even know what I'm doing when I have the ball half the time. It just happens," Oliver said.
His height is far from imposing, but when he meets a defender head-on, you'll swear he turns into a Mack truck.
He frequently drags piles of opponents - some significantly bigger than he is - for three or four yards.
"It inspires me and it inspires all his teammates, to know that here's a guy who maybe in stature, physically, is not at the same level as some of the guys we're facing," Quinn said. "But it's all about his heart and his determination, and that's what you love about human beings that have that. That's what he brings to the table."
He decided he would never let somebody stop him just because he was too small. He would simply work harder to make up for what he lacked in size.
"We know football is not pretty. It's a tough game for tough guys," Quinn said. "Bo has that belief in himself, that he doesn't care how big he is."
Branden started playing football when he was 6. He wanted to play when he was 5, but his father told him he was too young. Branden wouldn't stop crying, and his father - Edwin Oliver, Sr. - said he knew right then and there Branden was going to be a football player.
Branden's work ethic developed during his childhood in Miami. Branden grew up with two big brothers - Edwin Oliver, Jr. and Tarell Short - who always challenged and protected Branden.
However, Branden's relationship with his brothers was always a bit bizarre. He is six years younger than Tarell and seven years younger than Edwin, Jr., but Branden says he always won their youthful fights. Oliver, Sr. says Branden isn't lying.
Edwin, Jr. just laughs. "He won with dad's help. He was always tough."
Branden's dad learned early on Branden was more than just a short kid.
A coach told him Branden would play in the NFL one day when Oliver, Sr. took his son to the Miami Dolphins' football camp.
He also recalls the time he took Branden to his brothers' wrestling match. The two older brothers were in high school; Branden was in elementary school. He wrestled the other wrestlers' siblings behind the bleachers, and the youngest of his opponents was in middle school.
Branden beat all of them.
Oliver, Sr. said he had no choice but to take Branden to the local YMCA and sign him up for wrestling. Two weeks later, Branden was in his first tournament. He miraculously advanced all the way to the championship match, where he faced a kid who'd been wrestling his whole life.
Branden beat the odds yet again, winning the tournament.
"As he was coming of age," Oliver, Sr. said, "I noticed a difference as far as desire and him wanting things more and putting a little heart 'n soul in it."
Nowadays, Branden blazes by his opponents. He's been the strong, short kid for as long as he can remember, but Branden hasn't always been fast. You wouldn't guess it if you look at him today, but Branden was the slowest in his family when he was growing up.
He knew he wanted to play football for a living and he knew he needed to get faster, so he asked his dad for help. Oliver, Sr. obliged. "I got him the best stuff for training," he said.
Branden's favorite 30-pound vest, a weighted jump rope, and a homemade sled that holds weights were among the items. Branden's speed continued to increase as he continued to train.
The brothers and their father remember the days they all used to race in the street outside their house. Branden used to always finish last; Edwin, Jr. was a major track star, and Oliver, Sr. and Short were exceptionally speedy, too.
One day, when Branden was 12, he beat his dad in a race. Short laughed, so Branden challenged him and beat him. The brothers were stunned and they called Edwin, Jr. outside.
"Everybody just kept quiet," Oliver, Sr. said. "Everyone was like: 'Wow, this kid has really gotten a lot faster.'"
In high school, he was on a relay team that set a 4 x 100 track and field record in Miami-Dade County. One of his teammates on that relay squad was Lamar Miller, the starting running back for the Miami Hurricanes.
While big-time schools like Miami were paying attention to guys like Miller, Branden was getting repeatedly passed over because of his size.
Branden said numerous schools offered to bring him on recruiting trips, but they'd cancel the trips at the last minute. Buffalo was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship and he immediately accepted.
He said the teams that ignored him gave him endless inspiration. Branden has continually been forced to overcome the odds, but he's eternally countered adversity with enthusiasm.
"One time he was in the ninth grade, and the coach never called me and informed me that they pulled my son to the varsity," Oliver, Sr. said. "[He was] 13 years old, starting against these 17-year-old guys. The first handoff, he went for 15 yards. The second handoff, the guy picked Branden up and threw him down like 'BOOM!' He got right up, went in the huddle, and ran it again."
Branden may have accomplished a lot already, but he's not finished. He is hastily piecing together one of the most successful seasons for a running back in Buffalo history.
"The enjoyment I have watching him run, hearing his name called, compared to me having mine back when I played ... now there's so much more enjoyment and fulfillment," Oliver, Sr. said.
Though Branden knew he had the potential to achieve greatness, he is still shocked by the amount of recognition he's receiving.
"After the last game, there were so many kids wanting my autograph, and I was just so overwhelmed," Branden said. "I've always dreamed about this kind of stuff."
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