It’s been more than a decade since Antonio Brown first made a mark on America’s consciousness. Admittedly his initial steps were baby ones: a simple byline in a 2005 Miami Herald article beneath a report on girls’ volleyball. “Norland scored early to take a 6-0 lead when quarterback Antonio Brown threw to Andre Taylor for a 13-yard touchdown.”
Though he’s graduated from bylines to front covers, ‘place’ has always been very important to the best wide receiver in football. To measure his career is to measure the places he’s been and the hurdles overcome. To understand place is to understand Brown. The man he is. And the man he might have been.
LIBERTY CITY, MIAMI
Named after the Liberty Square housing project that was built in the late 1930s for Miami’s low-income African Americans, Liberty City is Miami’s poorest, most dangerous neighbourhood. These days it’s a mix of dilapidated store fronts and corner boys. Occasional soft toys lie abandoned on the streets, not as a remnant of a broken family moved on, more as a unique memorial to the youngsters gunned down in those very spots.
It is Dade County’s epicentre of poverty and gun crime and home to some of the most disenfranchised people in all of the United States. To drive its streets is to journey into the dark heart of a social decay that pervades many of America’s inner cities. To take a wrong turn here from the nearby I-95, especially after dark, is to take your life into your own hands. That Brown escaped this neighbourhood he once called home is tribute to many factors of which football is but one. However, for all the many problems in area code 305, it’s long been a hotbed of extraordinary athletic talent.
It says much about the place and people within it that they wear athletic excellence as a badge of honour in much the same way that one of Liberty’s many gangs protect the prized drug-dealing real estate of 15th Avenue. Here there lies a long history of moral guardians who’ve guided the gifted from the ghetto and on to greater things. Men like 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell whose Liberty City Optimist Club has propelled a procession of talent – Devonta Freeman, Lavonte David and Duke Johnson to name but three – to major college football and beyond. And men like Nigel Dunn, who roamed the local area for talent such as Dwayne Bowe, Marquand Manuel, Xavier Rhodes, Andre Johnson, Roscoe Parrish, Santana Moss and T.Y. Hilton.
And Antonio Brown.
Were it not for Dunn, former head coach of Miami Norland Senior High, Brown may have been lost to one of the gangs that pervade the streets of this North Miami neighbourhood. Gangs like the John Doe’s who for many years controlled the drugs trade in Liberty City. “I first met him around the 10th grade,” Dunn tells Gridiron. “He and a younger kid got into some trouble and so I took them under my wing, pushed them hard to be better. But Tony was a good-natured kid. He was always very hard working. Just mischievous. A good kid, respectful, always smiling. But he had that streak.”
Others talk of Brown’s ‘streak’ that would often manifest itself in brashness and overconfidence. But everyone remembers the smile. And the need for the football in his hands. Dunn believes it was the game that kept him from his flirtations with the darker side of the neighbourhood. “Oh yeah, he could have joined the gangs, no doubt. He battled. Tony had these two personalities. One was the ‘Yes, sir, yes coach’ side and the other was where he’d hang around the guys who were the hustlers and the gamblers and the dealers.
“But I ran a tough ship. And I had coaches who’d been in his shoes, who’d been on the street so he had that balance and showed him both sides. And I was very hard on him. But he… he trod that line. I’d look at him and think he might be about ready to take that wrong turn. But Tony just loved the game. I saw some of the issues he got into, stuff I’ve never told anyone. But that love of football and of competition pulled him through.”
Dunn became something of a father figure when Brown needed him most. When his football-playing father Eddie – voted the greatest player in Arena Football history – was thousands of miles away pursuing his career, it was Dunn and current Indianapolis Colts star Hilton’s father Tyrone who provided that male guidance. “Every party I went to ended in a shootout,” said Brown. “Football was my escape. When I came to play, Coach Dunn or Coach Tyrone would be like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And it wasn’t like I could tell them what was going on at home.”
What was happening ‘at home’ was that Brown had no home. For six months, aged 16 he’d sleep rough or on friends’ sofas after an argument with his mother’s new husband forced him out. Occasionally he’d fall asleep in an abandoned car if there was nowhere else to go. “He was a boy living a grown man’s life,” adds Dunn.
Determined to find a way out, a different place, Brown worked on his unquestionable athletic talent and began to get noticed by major colleges. Michigan State and Clemson showed interest. The University of Miami were impressed with his ball skills but thought he was too small, and he failed to qualify academically at both Florida State and at Alcorn State. After class, Brown would take recruiting visits from the likes of Bowling Green and West Virginia, arranging to meet on the streets of Liberty City because he had nowhere else to take them.
Finally, in 2006, he enrolled at North Carolina Tech Prep Christian Academy where he ran wild in the football sense. In just five games he scampered for 451 yards and 13 touchdowns and threw for 1,247 more and 11 scores. They ever retired his No.8 jersey. His performances piqued the interest of Florida International University, a Conference USA school just 15 miles from the streets he’d grown up on. But he never played a down for the Golden Panthers after a campus fight lead to the disqualification of his scholarship. His former high-school coach, Dunn, believes it was for the best. “If he’d have stayed in that area, or gone to The U, who knows what would have happened? The best thing that could have happened to Tony was to spread his wings.”
Brown returned home, with the FIU rejection weighing heavily on his mind. He was desperate to play football but running out of last chances. That was until a call from one of the men who’d recruited him out on the street a year previously. Zach Azzanni was receivers coach at Central Michigan University. He’d loved Brown’s combination of confidence and athletic ability and had a proposition for the youngster: fly to Mount Pleasant and walk on, not as a quarterback but as a receiver. When a scholarship opened up it would be his. Despite never having played the position, Brown jumped at the chance. He flew to CMU, leaving the sweltering south for the decidedly chilly mid-west.
He didn’t even own a coat. But he’d found a place.
MOUNT PLEASANT, MICHIGAN
The city of Mount Pleasant is home to around 26,000 people. It’s surrounded by lakes, forest and farmland. Despite being ‘only’ 1,500 miles away geographically, it was about as far from the streets of Liberty City as you could get. It’s affluent middle-class America, home to independent food stores, art galleries and an annual leaf collection programme for residents.
When Brown was living rough on the streets of Miami he’d urged himself to stay strong, that it was all part of God’s plan.
Now, in rural Michigan, there was a new plan.
Where there had been chaos, now there was a sense of approaching calm, even though he struggled in the early days with the transition. “They treated him a little like a street kid from Miami to begin with. But Tony was on a journey,” Dunn reveals. “And all good journeys face a little bit of adversity along the way.” Soon Brown began living with the Azzannis and leaning on another protégé of Dunn’s: CMU defensive line coach Paul Valero who’d also played at Norland.
“I knew he’d be handling Tony,” adds Dunn. “That’s one of the reasons why it worked out so well for him. He’d coached a lot of inner-city kids and he could relate. AB had an ally up there.” Brown’s biggest ally was his talent. As a freshman he worked initially on special teams where he returned both kicks and punts for touchdowns, showing the work ethic that Dunn had rarely seen in any of the 12 players he’d sent to the NFL. He quickly learnt the route tree and worked his way into the receiving rotation. By season’s end he was starting and on his way to winning MAC Freshman of the Year and, when he declared early for the draft, Brown was the Chippewa’s all-time receiving leader with 305 catches for 3,199 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Scouts made their way to Mount Pleasant to see him play despite lingering questions over his background, size and relative inexperience. But at the NFL Combine he measured 5ft 10ins and 186lbs and ran a 4.4sec forty, assuaging some of the doubts about his game and over questions about whether he could stand up to the pounding at the next level. “I heard people say they thought I was just a little guy, 5ft 8ins maybe,” he said at the time. “I’ve heard a lot of things but I can do it all. They’ll see. I just need to find the right place.”
For Brown, it was always about the search for the right place.
Brown remembers off by heart the names of the 21 receivers taken before him in the 2010 NFL Draft. To him they’re ‘motivation’. That he fell to the 195th overall pick is, in hindsight, a mystery, given his talent. But hindsight can be a beautiful thing. Now, every time he puts on his Steelers jersey he’s reminded of that day in 2010. “My number is 84. Eight times four is 32,” he says. “Thirty-two teams looked past me. Even Pittsburgh. So every time I go out there it adds just a little something.”
When his body feels like telling him to stop, he thinks back to the wait for that phone call that would change his life and it pushes him on to greater things. “I watched those three days unfold. I was thinking hard about where I should have gone and why I was falling. I told myself I’d never feel this way again. Everyone wanted to know why it was happening, what my agent was telling me. Then my phone starts to ring and it was Coach [Mike] Tomlin. At the same time on my brother’s phone was the Buffalo Bills who were telling him they wanted to draft me as well. But when coach said ‘Congratulations Antonio’ and started talking about Super Bowls and playing with Ben… that was big, no matter how far I’d dropped. I just had to go out and prove they’d all made a mistake.”
Brown got a chance at redemption early in camp and grabbed it with both hands. “We liked his potential straight away,” said Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. “You could see talent. That first season when he practiced, you’d see a ball in the air and he’d be coming down with it against our starting defense. It just seemed like he kept making plays.”
That ability quickly transferred to the field. With his first touch in the NFL regular season he took a reverse on the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans. Much like Tomlin had predicted on the phone, his season would end in the Super Bowl, albeit on the losing side. Although his numbers were sixth-round-like during that rookie season, he exploded in his second campaign with 69 catches for 1,108 yards.
He has since gone from strength to strength. He caught more passes between 2014 and 2016 than anyone in NFL history over a two-year span: 265. The man deemed too light, too divisive, lacking in work ethic – as one pre-draft scouting report famously put – has become the best route-runner in football. His Steeler quarterback one day end up in the Hall of Fame. There seems little doubt that Brown’s final footballing resting place will be Canton as well.
Buddy Dial, Roy Jefferson, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, Charles Johnson, Yancey Thigpen, Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes. The list of great wide receivers to have worn Steelers black and gold is distinguished. In Brown they may have their greatest yet. That a man who came so close to the wrong path has the chance to eclipse the performances of Swann or Ward, says much about his strength of character, will to win and sense of place.
“I think and hope that he understands how important a city like Pittsburgh is to his story,” concludes Dunn. “Theirs is a bond that few players and their adopted homes will ever have. You take Tony’s gifts and you look at what stands out in terms of what Pittsburgh is all about…. hard working, tough, proud people. That’s just a marriage made in heaven. I’m so proud of him. So proud. He finally has his place.”
This article originally appeared in Issue XXVI of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE