Imagine being away from home for the first time, just a teenager in a new state, surrounded by a bunch of people you don’t know. Now picture a few months into your time in your new state, a state where you are slow to trust those around you, not one, but two of your best friends are murdered less than a month apart.
That’s the real world nightmare Antonio Brown faced when he arrived in Durham in the winter of 2014. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Brown grew up in an area where, as he put it, people were trying to make a name for themselves by any means. Those means weren’t always positive. Sometimes a way out, or a way to become well known was sports. Other times, more times than not, it was through violence, earning a reputation on the streets one way or another.
“It’s not a lot of stuff for us to do, period,” Brown said. “Especially not positive. Most of the kids down there see ball or rapping as their only way of getting out. At my high school not even football is a way out, so people got caught up in that lifestyle of not trying to do anything positive.”
Now a senior defensive end at North Carolina Central, Brown used football to get him out of Jacksonville. That same year, 2014, there were 121 homicides in the city, and when two of them happened to be close friends of Brown’s, guys he said “were like brothers” he wanted to go back and mourn. However, his coaches at North Carolina Central wouldn’t allow it. They thought it was best he not return to that environment in his emotional stage. He held a grudge towards his coaches. Brown admits he thought about leaving anyway, in the middle of the night, going against the wishes of his coaches after just a few months on campus. Brown made a call to his mom, Sharon Teal, and asked for a plane ticket home. Teal told Brown no and that was the end of that.
“My mom said she wasn’t paying for my flight to get back down there so there wasn’t much I could do,” Brown said. “Then after talking to a couple of guys on the team they told me it was good for me to stay here.”
Brown wanted to pay his final respects to his friends, but who knows what would have happened if he returned to Jacksonville? Teal wanted him out of Florida anyway. As a senior at Nathan B. Daniels High School the only two schools to offer Brown were Florida A&M and N.C. Central. Teal made the choice an easy one for Brown. Looking back he understands why she didn’t want him to stay in the Sunshine State and why his coaches suggested he didn’t leave Durham. Naturally, that didn’t make his transition to the Bull City an easy one. A quiet guy by nature, the loss of two close friends only made Brown more isolated on campus. He shut down, only really talking to his roommate and rarely going out if it didn’t involve football or class. At first he didn’t accept the fact his friends were gone. For a while shortly after he would send Kik, a message app from Android, to their phones, waiting for replies that would never come.
It wasn’t until the season started that Brown finally started to come around. He admits it took him until the end of the 2014 season to finally feel comfortable in Durham. Brown credits teammates Reggie Hunter, Roderick Harris and Ja’Quan Smith, a fellow Floridian, for getting him out of his shell.
“Basically getting him out of his comfort zone,” Smith, a native of Miramar, said. “Where he grew up, it’s not that friendly type of place, it’s who you came up with and that’s it.”
Brown also credits defensive line coach Jon Bradley, calling Bradley the “male role model I had been missing.”
Bradley was one of the coaches who insisted Brown not return to Jacksonville back in the winter of 2014. Bradley arrived on campus the same time as Brown, as part of head coach Jerry Mack’s first staff. He and Brown could relate because they were “two guys trying to learn their way around campus” back then. Brown was still shy, but Bradley, more of a people person, tried to break the silence whenever he could, asking a bunch of open ended questions, forcing Brown to communicate.
“He was extremely quiet and on my part there were a lot of questions asked, just to get him to feel comfortable with me,” Bradley said. “That’s what it’s about at the end of the day, getting them to trust me as a position coach and somebody in their life who wants them to succeed.”
Success, on and off the field, has come at an alarming rate for Brown. He has started 24 games in three seasons, racking up 12.5 career sacks. Last season, his first full year as a starter, Brown became an All-Conference selection, leading the Eagles in tackles for loss with 14.5 to go along with eight sacks. On the biggest stage - The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl - he collected a season-high eight tackles. He is a preseason All-MEAC First Team selection and said his goal is to get 13 sacks this year. Still very quiet, those around Brown have noticed how much more of a leader he has become. He still might not be the first to speak up, but when sometime needs to be said, Brown has the attention of all his teammates.
“There was a time when Antonio was going to worry about Antonio,” Bradley said. “Now he takes the time to help mentor players on and off the field. If they are having problems he takes the time to explain to them how they should go about doing something.”
Brown is scheduled to graduate in December, and interned this summer at Northern Durham High School, helping out with the football team. When his playing days are over he wants to coach. It doesn’t really matter where, and returning to Jacksonville is an option.
“If I do go back home I want to change my high school and get them a winning culture,” Brown said. “Show the kids there that there is other stuff outside of Jacksonville, there can be more than that city.”
For now, though, Teal still urges him to stay away. Brown has an apartment alone in Durham and most of his free time is spent taking his dog to a local lake. When he does return home it’s usually for just a few days at a time. The longest time he’s spent in Jacksonville was a week earlier this summer. Even then he only left the house to visit a few friends. He didn’t want to get out too much with the possibility of trouble always around the corner. Besides, Durham is home now, his teammates an extended family. He’s noticed a change in his mindset since 2014, a change for the better.
“I’m not as aggressive as I used to be,” Brown said. “I’m more calm. It’s maturity and knowing that how I used to be in Jacksonville, I didn’t have to bring that here. I didn’t have to be defensive. Being around the team and being around Coach Bradley and joking with them helped me come out my shell.”
His short-term goal is to win his fourth MEAC title and return to the Celebration Bowl to take care of some unfinished business. If the Eagles make it to Atlanta again and win it all, that won’t even be the biggest day in December for Brown. That would be graduation day.
“I can’t wait to see the look on my mom’s face when I walk across that stage. Some guys in Jacksonville don’t make it to 18,” Brown said. “I thank God every night. I get on my knees and thank Him because I know where I could have been and what could have happened.”