Steelers' wide receiver Antonio Brown was voted the team's MVP for the third time in his career. For those of you who haven't heard his story, the story of how he grew up in the rough area of Liberty City, we are sharing a story that originally appeared in Steelers Digest about Brown and how his love for football kept him on the right track in life.
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 receiver Antonio 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.
"A couple of my friends have gone to jail," said Brown. "I was once hanging out with those guys. God got me here, and I want to stay focused and live every day blessed."
Brown came to a true crossroads in life when he was just 16 years old, and his situation at home had him on his own, getting by any way he could.
"There was a change in the situation in the house," explained Brown. "I got put out. I had to fend for myself."
With no home, Brown bounced around. He stayed wherever he could for as long as those kind people would have him.
The best photos of WR Antonio Brown from the 2015 season.
"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.
"Friends 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. Any time I was taking off my helmet, I was dealing with real life – my friends getting killed and going to jail.
"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. 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 misprint. 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." That's 30 touchdowns scored in five games, plus the 11 touchdown passes. You know, AB being AB.
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 after his junior year and his childhood dream came true when the Steelers picked him in the sixth round in the 2010 NFL Draft.
"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."