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Antonio Brown's great escape

Posted Oct 10, 2010

It’s called Liberty City, and if it sounds like a place where the American dream thrives, where opportunity abounds, well, that’s misleading. Liberty City, outside of Miami, actually is a place that’s the opposite of what its name implies.


To grow up in Liberty City is to understand what gunfire sounds like, and if you live there long enough, or maybe more accurately, stay alive there long enough, it’s impossible not to be touched by crime and violence. To get out of there in a way that involves neither a ride in the back of a police car nor a hearse is an accomplishment.


“Growing up, going to elementary school the teacher would ask what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I would say be a professional football player,” said Brown. “I worked hard and God blessed me with the ability to be in this position.”

But it wasn’t easy, because things in Liberty City are never easy. Brown saw things and lived with things kids just shouldn’t have to see. Friends getting robbed, friends getting killed, friends choosing to make their lives on the wrong side of the law.

“I have a couple of my friends who are now serving time in prison with long sentences, and they are my age,” said Brown, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on July 10. “I was once hanging out with those guys. God got me here, and I want to be here and stay focused and live every day blessed.”

Brown came to a true crossroads in life when he was just 16 years old. His father, Eddie Brown, a one-time standout in the Arena Football League, wasn’t around much. At the time, Brown was living with his mother, Adrianne Moss, but when she got married, he was told it was time for him to leave. As he recounts it today, Brown speaks of it in matter-of-fact tones as if being 16 and on the street is just a typical rite of passage.


“There was a change in the situation in the house,” explained Brown. “The situation was different with her new husband. I got put out. I had to fend for myself. She had to put me out to help me become a man.”

With no home, Brown bounced around. He stayed wherever he could for as long as those kind people would have him.


“I was staying with close friends of mine, sometimes coaches, anywhere that was a safe area where I could go to school and play football,” said Brown. “I had some good friends in the neighborhood who really cared and know what kind of person I am.


“My friend Lester Jean, who now plays at Florida Atlantic, his mom took me in like a mom. Another one took me in. I have a lot of people who took care of me. It was a great experience for me. It all worked out for the best.”

It was a great experience and not a tragic one only because Brown fought his way through it. He never turned to a life of crime to survive, instead pouring his energy into football, while doing enough academically to keep his dream alive.


“It was my escape, my time to get away,” said Brown. “It was the only thing I did to have fun. Me not being a part of my parents’ lives, I went to football and expressed my love and energy there.


“Any time I was taking off my helmet, I was dealing with real life – my friends getting killed and going to jail.”

Brown didn’t allow the experience to make him bitter and angry, and today he holds no grudge against those who weren’t there for him growing up and therefore made his life so difficult. Instead, it’s just the opposite. Today, Antonio Brown is a young man with a constant smile and a positive attitude.


He talks to his father now on a regular basis and aspires to be a better football player than he was.

“He is so proud of me as a son, the things I overcame and am able to do,” said Brown. “He tells me to keep striving, that things aren’t always going to be perfect but to just keep working hard and trying to build.”


He also has a good relationship with his mother, with whom he talks daily.

“Being on my own as a teenager taught me a lot of survival skills, to work hard and to really go for what I want,” said Brown. “I don’t blame my mother, I talk to her all the time. I love her. She regrets what she did, but I think it was the best for me. The past is the past. My dad and mom are still supportive. I’m past it. I got better from it and want to continue to build.

“I learned to be a man, to work hard, to not depend on other people but to get out and do what I needed to do to get what I needed to get.”

Brown knew if he wanted the NFL to be a reality, college football was a must. He needed to improve his grades, so he enrolled at a prep school to become eligible. During his one season there, Brown put up the kind of statistics that on paper look like a mis-print. Here is how it appeared on his bio that was released by the NFL when he was drafted by the Steelers:


“Spent a prep year in 2006 at North Carolina Tech … ran for 451 yards and 13 touchdowns and threw for 1,247 yards and 11 scores in just five games … also returned 11 punts and six kickoffs for touchdowns.” For the mathematically challenged, that’s 30 touchdowns scored in five games, plus the 11 touchdown passes.


When it came time for college, he found himself in a situation where he had to fend for himself as a walk-on at Central Michigan, but for someone who had to find somewhere to live as a 16-year-old it wasn’t all that daunting a task. Just one week into fall practice, he earned a scholarship. During his three seasons there, Brown scored touchdowns on plays of 90 yards in 2007; on plays of 78, 79 and 93 yards in 2008; and on plays of 55, 75, 70 and 82 yards in 2009.


With a coaching change at Central Michigan coming for 2010 and the realization he accomplished what he had set out to do, Brown declared himself draft eligible and in April, his childhood dream came true when the Steelers picked him in the sixth round.


“It was tough, but I learned a lot of things going through that,” said Brown. “It taught me to work for what I want. Nobody is going to give you anything. That’s why I work hard. Coming from where I came from, I had to work hard to get everything I needed. Nothing was ever given. I learned my work ethic from being in that situation. It built me as a person and player. 


“I have a lot of memories that drive and motivate me to continue to work hard and do what I am doing. Every day I am blessed to make it, based on where I came from. I went through a lot growing up, but it made me who I am today. I take the positives and negatives and get better as a player and person. I don’t want to go back to that rough area.”


When the Steelers opened the 2010 season at Heinz Field against the Atlanta Falcons, Brown found himself on the sidelines in a T-shirt, on the inactive list.

“It was humbling watching my teammates,” admitted Brown. “I was kind of in the background. It hurt me a little not being out there because I knew I could contribute and help out. But as long as we get victories, I am all for the team. As long as I am able to contribute when my number is called, that’s what’s important.”


A week later in Tennessee, Brown had his number called on the game’s opening kickoff, and he took the handoff from Mewelde Moore on a reverse and sprinted 89 yards for a touchdown.

“That was totally God’s doing,” said Brown. “The first play of the game, on my first touch, not even dressing the week before. I expect that kind of thing. Every day I go out there I am trying to work hard and get better. My teammates put me in great position with some great blocks and made my job easier and all I had to do was run.”

Just like he was escaping from Liberty City.

Originally published in Steelers Digest. To order a subscription, call 1-800-334-4005.

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