September 4th, 2019. Twitter dot com. Professional football player, now for the Oakland Raiders, Antonio Brown, known as @AB84, sent out a tweet.
Brown's tweet was a modified version of the song "This Little Light of Mine," a gospel tune written as a song for children to sing proclaiming their light (the love of God) to the world. The theme of the song is presenting your light to others. In its original form, the light was meant to be a symbol for love, but the lyrics of the song have since been adapted by many to be a more vast form of simply sharing who you are -- your genuine self -- to the world.
If you've followed Brown's saga at all over the last year -- if you haven't I'd like to know what rock you live under and how the WiFi under there is good enough to load this page -- you know that Brown's light has been anything but little.
But it didn't always used to be that way.
It became that way.
Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, kick returner. Name any scoring position in the game and you’d likely be able to find Brown dominating in such a way at Miami Norland High School.
Brown was a two-time Class 6A Florida all-state selection, and also received the award for North Athlete of the Year at the 2005 Miami-Dade Gridiron Classic.
Brown was born with football in his blood. As the son of "Touchdown" Eddie Brown, a former Arena Football League player – some say the best Arena League player there ever was -- Brown could’ve had quite the football mentor in his early life. But his dad wasn’t around.
Instead, Brown lived with his mother growing up, but after his mother remarried, the relationship between Brown and his step father soured to the point where Brown had to leave the home.
“It was a little rough,” Brown said in an interview with Dan Lebatard in 2012. “My dad was away, my mom had another husband, and that relationship with me didn’t fine-tune very well. As a teenager, I had to live with teammates and kind of find a way for myself.”
Sixteen years old. No father, no mother, no home, no money.
“It taught me to never take nothing for granted, because I knew what that experience was like," Brown said. "It gave me an awareness of what it’s like to be alone.”
Brown recalls bouncing from house to house, wherever his head could find rest. He would stay with the families of teammates, but in Liberty City, family sizes and houses that held them were often to capacity. That kept Brown on the move. Sometimes those moves would include paying $20 to a cheap hotel just so he could get a room and sleep for two hours before they would wake him up and kick him out.
“A kid who can’t take care of himself, can’t take care of himself financially," Brown said. "[I was] just a kid who felt alone; a kid who felt abandoned. I knew that if I gave up on myself, after everyone gave up on me, that there was no hope.”
Despite every reason to, Brown didn’t give up – not completely. His football as well as his track accolades opened the door for him to get out of Miami.
Brown wasn’t a kid who got in trouble much (big trouble, at least, though he'll tell you he did a little gambling at school to find money to survive), but without guidance, his lack of progression in the classroom in high school nearly cost him his own story. He had colleges like Clemson and Michigan State looking at him to play wide receiver, but ultimately his grades and his background scared the big schools away. After his senior year, he applied to play football at Florida State, but was denied for academic reasons.
After failing to qualify to play at Florida State, Brown initially traveled to play for Alcorn State, a historically black institution in Mississippi. After arriving on campus, he found out there were complications with his grades there, as well. Brown eventually attended North Carolina Tech Prep. In just five games, while playing quarterback, Brown passed for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns, while rushing for 451 yards and 13 touchdowns.
After one season at North Carolina Tech Prep, Brown received a scholarship to play at FIU. However, Brown was expelled before the season even started.
Then one night in February 2007, before he officially joined the team, he was walking on campus with a friend, who got into a dispute with another student. When security arrived, another argument broke out, this time including Brown, who panicked and fled. When FIU found out, the school rescinded his scholarship.
Brown was devastated: "They said ... we're gonna say you were never here."
Back when Brown was in high school, a Bowling Green assistant coach named Zach Azzanni had heard of Brown tearing it up in the Miami recruiting pipeline. He decided he wanted to pay Brown a recruiting visit. As Azzanni tells it, when he went to interview Brown, he did so not in a high school athletic office or even in a home. He did it on the street corner while Brown was sitting on his bike.
Brown never ended up at Bowling Green, but Azzanni remembered him.
In 2007, Brown got a call from Azzanni, who was then the wide receivers coach at CMU. He invited Brown to fly to Michigan to try out for the team as a walk-on -- but there were no guarantees. In just a few short weeks, Brown not only made the successful transition from quarterback to wide receiver, he also earned himself a scholarship.
Brown played in 14 games during his first season at CMU. In doing so, he recorded 102 receptions, 1,003 yards and six touchdowns. His 102 catches not only led the conference, but he was also named Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year, as well as an All-Conference player as a returner.
But it turned out transitioning from quarterback to wide receiver was a lot easier than it was for Brown to transition into being a fully functioning student-athlete. Brown struggled in his early time at CMU. He had no idea what he was doing. No one had ever told him what it would be like to have the responsibilities of a scholarship athlete as well as a full-time student. Azzanni and his wife took notice of Browns' struggles and began to help Brown set up his life and his routine. They cared for him and guided Brown like he was family.
For the first time in his young adult life, Brown wasn’t alone. He wasn’t an outcast.
Over the next two seasons, Brown would light it up as a full-time starter for CMU. After three seasons, he had accumulated 305 catches, 3,199 receiving yards and 22 receiving touchdowns while also adding 531 yards on the ground with four rushing touchdowns.
For Brown, that was enough to bet on himself to make the jump to the NFL – a life he thought only possible in his dreams.
“Every day I go out there I get that feeling of tears of joy, knowing where I could be,” Brown said.
Brown entered the draft process ranked as the 37th receiver according to NFL Draft Scout, and was projected as a fifth or sixth round pick. Though low in the grand scheme of things, that was enough for Brown to get invited to the Combine. It was there that Brown really caught the attention of NFL personnel with a 4.48 40-yard dash. His 33.5-inch vertical jump and 8-foot-9 broad jump weren’t as impressive, but his 1.56 10-yard split confirmed he had some juice to him.
That juice was enough for the Pittsburgh Steelers to take a chance on him in the sixth round. Brown was pick No. 195 and was the 22nd out of 27 wide receivers drafted that year.
After the draft, Brown chose to wear No. 84 for the Steelers. Why?
"Eight times four is 32,” Brown said in an interview with NFL Network. “Thirty-two teams looked past me, even the Steelers. So every time I go out there it’s a little added motivation."
A shot at the league and even the team that drafted him. He hadn't even played a single game for them yet and he was already creating distance. A sign that, at his core, Brown still believed that the only one he could trust was himself.
It's May of 2019. On an OTA morning where football is in the air, the Oakland Raiders open their doors and welcome in their new receiver Antonio Brown. After a truly unprecedented run of nine seasons with the Steelers -- a run that gave way for many to call him the greatest wide receiver in the NFL, and the greatest in the world at what he does -- Brown was traded from Pittsburgh to Oakland where he signed a new 3-year, $50 million dollar deal, which included $30 million guaranteed.
By all accounts, Brown looks great in silver and black. Brown is getting along with his new teammates. He and his new quarterback Derek Carr are bonding on and off the field. And, as for gelling with Jon Gruden as a coach, even that appears to be going swimmingly.
"It's never a dull day with Coach," Brown said. "Always challenging, always high energy and always detailed and fundamental in regards to our assignment."
But those 31 days of May went by fast, and looking back on it now, those in Oakland probably wished it would have lasted forever. Because if it did June and July would never have happened.
Just before training camp began, Brown showed up to Napa, California with frostbite on both of his feet due to not wearing the proper footwear while undergoing cryotherapy in France. This caused the Raiders to put him on the non-football injury list.
Oakland reactivated Brown two days later and he began to go through walkthroughs. After an impressive practice, Brown left the field early and did not return to the facility. We would later learn this was the beginning of the dispute over his helmet. Though surely frustrated with the situation, Raiders general manager Mike Mayock and Gruden expressed their support for Brown during this time, as Brown tried to get his old helmet approved by the league. All the while Brown remained away from the team -- a singular distraction.
Brown returned for a short period of time just to leave quickly once again after losing his first grievance to wear his preferred helmet. This caused Mayock to fine Brown $40,000 dollars for leaving the team in an unexcused way. Mayock later publicly declared that it was time for Brown to be "all in or all out."
Brown would lose yet another grievance with the NFL, and then this.
After bending over backwards to make Brown happy, watching him parade around his new, likely lucrative, endorsement deal at the expense of the team surely rubbed Mayock and company the wrong way.
Mayock continued to fine Brown for his unexcused absences, and one day Brown took to social media to vent about it. Brown posted a picture of his fine letter on Instagram saying "when your own team want to hate..."
This caused all hell to break loose.
Fast forward to September 5th, 2019. Brown returned the Raiders facility for the first time since posting his second fine on social media. While on the practice field, it was reported that an altercation between he and Mayock occurred. Reports say nothing physical happened, but Brown allegedly told Mayock he would punch him in the face, had to be restrained from doing so (by Vontaze Burfict of all people), punted a ball away, and said "fine me for that" on his way out.
Later we learned that the root of all this anger from Brown was that he didn't trust Mayock and Gruden. He didn't believe they were genuine in their support of him during his time away from the team.
Now that all of Brown's guaranteed money can likely be taken away from him due to his unexcused absences, it's unsure whether Brown will even play for the Raiders, and if he does, many are asking: for how long?
Antonio Brown is another example -- a very prominent one -- of the truth in this business. Being that it is a business, you are not just drafting players. You are drafting people -- members of your franchise. You are drafting where they're from, what they've been through, their background, their experiences, their personalities. You're drafting all of that -- whether it's celebrating it or dealing with it -- just as much as you are drafting their talent.
If Antonio Brown retired today, would his career be worth the Hall of Fame? The answer is absolutely yes. What Brown did for the Steelers from 2013-2017 might never be done again in NFL history in terms of how much volume he was given and how much he produced with it. It was during those year that Antonio Brown also became AB. He became an icon, a personality, brand -- some would say a diva. He became valuable, and somehow he's also turned everyone against him. AB has now made his inability to be vulnerable the root cause of why he is now alone.
The bridges between AB and Pittsburgh have been burned, and the ones in Oakland have started to smoke. Even the bridges to million of his fans are starting to go up in flames. And he's holding the torch.
AB's act, to this point, is tiresome. It feels like it's been going on forever and it doesn't have much of a happy ending in sight. Wherever AB goes, so does drama. But so does a lot of football success, too. That's why we're here. But how much more will teams put up with?
The reason I highlighted where AB came from to such an extent isn't to make excuses for him, but it is to tell a more complete version of the story. Knowing where he's from and what he's been through, you can certainly understand the natural lack of trust. But AB also has a responsibility to himself. He has to be accountable.
Right now, AB isn't. And not only that, he's now alienated himself more than his roots did on their own.
The shenanigans, the spotlight, the success, the smile that can get away with anything, the city, the me against the world mentality.
That's how we got into the crazy mess. That's why we're reminded that there's a lot more that goes into drafting and dealing with players than just what's on the field. And that's also why sometimes you have to dig your own grave in who you take chances on.
How much are you willing to deal with?
As for that little light of mine Brown is shining? Well, it's more like a spotlight. And right now those in it wish they weren't.
But that's what you signed up for.