One characteristic that has consistently defined Sam Brenner is his unwavering dedication to whatever he chooses to take on in life.
To find out where that approach stems from, no need to look any further than the people who brought him into this world. Sam’s parents, Jim Brenner and Eileen Malik, are former collegiate athletes and members of the U.S. Marine Corps. Jim swam for the University of Buffalo, while Eileen played basketball for Cal State San Bernardino. From a young age, they raised their only son with a sense of discipline and structure and encouraged him to always give his best effort – qualities ideal for excelling in sports.
“They had a really big impact on how I grew up," Brenner said, talking about his parents’ influence. "My mom was really strict and I had a lot of structure and discipline at home. She was strict, but was always giving me enough room to have fun. My dad was always watching football, so I grew up wanting to play the game.”
With an excellent work ethic and an instilled passion for football, the Oceanside, Calif., native excelled during his high school career. Brenner earned first-team all-league recognition twice, as well as all-North County and all-CIF honors. He was also a two-time Most Valuable Offensive Lineman for Oceanside High School. As a senior, Brenner was voted second-team all-state and played in the 2007 California Bowl All-Star game.
Brenner’s success drew the attention of Utah’s coaching staff, and he signed with the Utes in 2008. After visiting Utah’s campus, Brenner soon began persuading teammate Jordan Wynn, who was a year younger, to come join him.
“I was [sitting out a year as a gray shirt] and hanging out with Jordan, having him over to my house to watch the Utah games and stuff,” Brenner explained. “I was always in his ear saying ‘Hey man, Utah is pretty good.’ Eventually, after awhile of me being around him, he de-committed [from Colorado] and came here.”
Brenner is quite satisfied with the influence he had on Wynn, who went on to earn the starting quarterback job late in his freshman year and threw for 4,637 yards and 33 touchdowns before he was forced to retire earlier this season due to injury.
“We came from the same place and he knew the same things that I was going through. It was really, really cool to go through this experience with him,” Brenner related.
Brenner says Wynn helped him through some adversity early in his Utah career, as he struggled with a broken foot during his freshman and sophomore years.
“I kept working, like our program teaches us,” Brenner said. “I just kept working and never gave up on myself, and knew that eventually things would work out for me.”
Brenner earned a spot on special teams and saw action in all 13 games in 2009. A year later, he played in 12 games as the offensive line’s top reserve and started at left tackle in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Brenner started 12 games at right guard and one game at tackle in 2011. However, during Utah’s regular-season finale against Colorado, Brenner endured a potential career-ending neck injury during the second half.
“That was really, really scary,” Brenner said with a sigh. “It was weird just being in the ambulance, and having to go to the hospital and everything just for something that you don’t really expect to have happen to you. You are just out there playing, and realizing that it could all be gone in a second like that was really frightening. I was scared and a little confused because I didn’t really know what was going on. That was just a bad experience, but the main thing I remember was being really mad about having to leave my team behind. Luckily, I was OK and was able to keep playing football.”
Brenner made a full recovery from the injury and was back starting at right guard against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. This season, Brenner started the first two games at right guard before shifting to left tackle.
“I played tackle my first two years here, but going back there was a transition. I was rusty for sure,” Brenner said. “Coach [Dan] Finn helped me out a lot. [Student assistant and former teammate] John Cullen helped me a lot. I have talked to Tony Bergstrom a little bit about it and some other guys I have played with that played tackle. They really gave me some good pointers and helped me remember some things.”
As a senior, Brenner has made it a goal to use his position of leadership to have a positive impact on the effort given by his teammates.
“I really try to lead by example,” Brenner said. “I try to go out there and be as physical as I can and be as nasty as I can. I think guys respond to that. As far as talking, I will give a speech before the game sometimes but I am usually just really fired up and ready to go out there and hit somebody.”
Brenner has a pre-game ritual that involves stretching and music to get himself prepared both mentally and physically.
“Stretching is one thing I have really tried to focus on my senior year,” elaborated Brenner. “It helps your body so much. I try to stretch at least twice a day for 10 minutes or so, and I usually get a nice stretch in [before the game]. I'll have one of the strength coaches help me out and then I do some of my own stretching. I listen to rap, reggae, rock, hip-hop, country, whatever. Pregame, I like to listen to Rick Ross and his ‘Self Made 2’ mix tape. There’s some good hype music on there so I usually listen to one or two of those songs.”
Brenner also seeks out inspiration from some of his football idols.
“I recently heard some of Ray Lewis’ speeches, and they were really, really inspiring. [He’s] a guy who has done so much in the NFL and so much with his body. He is an amazing athlete and an amazing leader, too. His speeches are about effort and about passion for the game. They are really inspiring.”
With Utah in its second season as a member of the Pac-12 Conference, Brenner admits he enjoys playing teams from his home state of California the most.
“Being that I am from there, I love playing Southern California teams,” Brenner said. “I love to play USC and UCLA, especially when we play them back there because all my family and friends come up to the games. Seeing my friends and family after the game is a huge energy boost.”
Brenner acknowledges that his four years as a member of the Utah football program have reinforced the steadfast work ethic instilled in him by his parents. It will serve him well regardless of what life has in store.
“I think the work ethic — just working hard no matter what you are doing — giving it your best shot and not taking the easy way out, those are some really big things I have learned here. Also, the structure of our program — you have to be there on time and be where you are supposed to be at the right time. I’ll try to carry that with me too, to be punctual and disciplined out in the real world.
“I know that we work harder here,” Brenner continued. “All of my friends that have gone on to play Division I [football] have told me what they do and it’s really nothing compared to how we work here. Coming here has definitely influenced my work ethic and passion for the game.”
Brenner has also fostered his undeniable passion for life at Utah and has had the phrase ‘Have Heart’ permanently inked on his right arm as a reminder.
“That is kind of why I got it. It is a permanent thing. It is never going to come off. Tattoos are completely permanent,” Brenner said. “That is something I try to strive for, even outside of football. I always give it my best.
“You only get one shot at it and you have got to give it your best,” he continued. “You can do plenty of things the rest of your life, but you are never going to have a shot to do this again. You have to go out there and play with no regrets.”
When he graduates from Utah with a communications degree in the spring of 2013, he will also walk away with many friendships.
“I have made so many great friends with my teammates. From my freshman year to my senior year, there are guys that I came in with that I will definitely keep in touch with,” Brenner said.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company