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Antonio Brown’s ultimate motivator has always been fear

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Antonio Brown was recently voted No. 2 among the league’s best players by his peers on the NFL Network’s Top 100 list. Believe it or not, he may still be underrated and definitely is far from satisfied.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear.”

Fear can be a powerful motivator. Fear can also make cowards of us all.

It’s impossible to accurately describe or explain Antonio Brown’s greatness without discussing the impact fear has played in his career — the fear of failure.

Brown’s performance over the past five years is unprecedented in NFL history. His stats during this time period are second-to-none.

This has resulted in fans and pundits alike contemplating where Brown will rank in the hierarchy of Hall of Fame wide receivers when his career finally comes to an end.

It’s fun to speculate, but that’s all it is — pure speculation.

How long can Brown maintain his present, never-before-seen level of production? A lot of unknown variables will go into answering this question.

Will Brown’s legendary work ethic and commitment to physical conditioning allow him to remain relatively healthy, enabling him to withstand the wear and tear of a full schedule, plus hopefully multiple playoff runs even at an advanced age?

How many more seasons will Ben Roethlisberger continue to play before he decides it’s time to call it a career and stay home with the wife and kids? Brown and Ben undoubtably have a special connection and each has been vital to the other’s success. If they achieve their shared goal this season and win the Super Bowl, Big Ben might decide to ride off into the sunset while on top, just like his good buddy Jerome Bettis did back in the day.

One thing’s for sure, if Brown is going to continue his climb up the all time receptions and yardage lists he will have to develop a special rapport with another quarterback not named Ben Roethlisberger sometime before the end of his professional career.

That quarterback might turn out to be our own Mason Rudolph. That would be sweet, but only time will tell.

A truly great receiver can make an average quarterback look good or a good one look great. Steelers Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth are prime examples of this statement.

First, for any reader not old enough to have watched Terry Bradshaw play football, let me clarify. Terry Bradshaw was a great football player — one of the all-time greats. He had maybe the strongest throwing arm ever to come into the league. One tough son of a gun. A winner.

But he definitely wasn’t an accurate passer. Terry would throw the ball in the vicinity of Swann or Stallworth and they would go GET the ball. That’s why, when you watch old NFL Films highlight videos, they’re filled with miraculous catches by both players. Not only during the regular season but also on the sport’s biggest stage at the Super Bowl.

No player I ever watched high-pointed the football like Lynn Swann. He made catches that I don’t know whether any other receiver would even have got a hand on. Swann was the epitome of grace, leaping ability, and body control. But Swann never loved the game of football like Antonio Brown does. He had other interests and aspirations, so he walked away.

John Stallworth’s greatness was driven by the insatiable desire to prove he was as good or better than his teammate lined up across the field from him. He played with this unmatched competitiveness always smoldering just below the surface. Few people noticed that, back when the Oakland Raiders secondary would physically assault Swann in an attempt to throw him off his game, they basically steered clear of Stallworth with these rough-house tactics. They knew it would have the opposite effect on John. He possessed a laser like focus and he played his best football when he was angry.

Brown appears to have this focus as well. I believe it was on full display during last season’s playoff loss to Jacksonville.

During an era of football when players have never been more aware of their so-called “brand” and the business side of the game, how easy would it have been for Brown to sit out that playoff game?

It was well documented that Brown had worked his tail off doing everything he could to get back on the field with his teammates for the playoff game against not only the best defense in the league last season but the best cornerback tandem as well.

The networks showed him limping around the field during warm ups and it was clear he was nowhere near 100% in his recovery. He could have easily informed the team he wasn’t ready yet and opted to protect his image. What if he had tried to play through the injury and been shutdown by a superior defense?

The network’s talking heads would still be raving about how great Ramsey and Bouye are and they both would be bragging they had stopped him. This could have negatively affected his image and his brand. Would he still have been doing his Destroy Doubt tour this summer? Would he still have been ranked so highly on the top-100 player list? We’ll never know because he went out and played a marvelous game and left no doubt he’s the best player, not just receiver, in the game today.

Now his name is being mentioned in the same breath as Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in NFL history. They already have one thing in common — Rice was also driven by the fear of failure.

Rice commented during his Hall of Fame speech that he was always driven by fear, throughout his entire career. At first it was the fear of dropping the ball or being caught from behind. Later it was the fear of a younger player taking his position and, finally, during the latter part of his career, it was the fear of someone breaking his records one day and affecting his legacy.

That drove him to work harder and play longer than any player the game has ever seen.

I don't believe that’s simply a fear of failure. I believe it’s the fear of not living up to your own expectations. To be able to look back over one's career without regrets.

Antonio Brown is well on his way.