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Character (Ac)Counts: Steelers WR Antonio Brown

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in which adversity is shown to be a great developer of character...

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not quite sure why, but I've never done one of these articles on Antonio Brown. I suppose it is because I've more typically focused on players who are more active in the community than Brown seems to be. And perhaps my enthusiasm has been slightly tempered by his occasional over-exuberance on the field (read "he does some dumb stuff like somersaulting into the end zone or drawing taunting penalties.")

But just as the rest of the league has had to reluctantly accept the fact that a wide receiver doesn't have to be more than six feet tall to be the best in the business, I've come to embrace Brown not only as a phenomenally gifted receiver but as a man who has earned the right to a bit of excessive celebration. (I do hope he's over the taunting, though : )

From the very start, Brown impressed those who were paying attention with his work ethic. As one writer expressed after visiting Steelers training camp in 2010, "I wondered who that kid was who was out on the field a half hour longer than anyone else on the team." This would be the first glimmerings to show Brown wasn't going to accept the deck being stacked against an undersized wide receiver from a small school taken in the sixth round.

And if one had been paying even more attention, one would have seen indications as to why Brown believed strongly enough in himself to keep up the grueling pace he set. Here's what Teresa Varley of Steelers.com had to say in a 2010 article about Brown:

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.

As she says, those stats look like a misprint.

And while Brown was a walk-on at Central Michigan, he very shortly earned a scholarship with his stellar play. These sorts of experiences help you to believe in yourself.

But never think it was easy. As Dan Gigler notes in a December 2012 Post-Gazette article:

The Liberty City section of northwest Miami -- home to Brown and his younger brother, Desmond, a running back for Pitt -- is synonymous with poverty, crime, violence and drug traffic.

The median household income is just below $19,000. A third of the households are headed by single mothers. It has been the site of numerous race riots. In January, two police officers were murdered while serving a warrant. One stretch of 15th Avenue has been dubbed the "Street of Death" by Miami media.

As Brown told Varley:

I have a couple of my friends who are now serving time in prison with long sentences, and they are my age. 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 had a lot of experiences which would have done in a young man with less resolve. The story was widely circulated a few years ago, but it is worth remembering that he was ushered out of his home at age 16 when his new stepfather didn't want him around.

Amazingly, he does not seem bitter in the least about this. One of the impressive things about this young man is he has reached out to and repaired the relationship with the father who abandoned him and the mother who chose a new husband over her son. Brown is in frequent communication with both. As he told the Post-Gazette's Patricia Sheridan in a May 6 2014 article:

[Y]ou only get one mother. She loves me, and if I wouldn't have went through what I went through I wouldn't be here today and be as mature as I am. I would not have been able to endure with the blessings that have been given to me. And it's hard for a woman in a situation between a son and a [new] husband. I know a lot of women and friends in those situations, and I just hope they repair their relationships as my mom and I did and hold no baggage about it.

In the same article, the following response also impressed me a great deal. We're talking about a 16-year-old kid here:

How did you avoid staying out of trouble during the unsupervised years when you were going from friend's house to friend's house to sleep over?

You just gotta understand what's important. I knew that if I was to get in trouble, no one was going to be there to bail me out or come get me. You know what I'm saying? I knew as a kid that every decision I was going to be making I would have full responsibility.

One of the things Brown has taken responsibility for are his children. By the time he was drafted by the Steelers, he had two children, a daughter and a son, by two mothers. Although the mother of his eldest child, daughter Antonia, had to dun Brown for increased child support after he was drafted, he has since become very involved in his children's lives. Given that he came from a culture where fathers frequently exercise their ability to move on, and from a family where the model was just that, I admire him for deciding to be a part of his children's lives rather than merely send a check. He frequently brings Antonio Jr. to training camp, and you can see just how proud he is of his son.

And what about that community work? All Steelers (and I suspect all NFL players) have to participate in some community events. But Brown appears to have done more than the minimum. He has run charity basketball games for Big Brother Big Sister, and as you might suspect he has a soft spot for youth in similar situations to his. He began a foundation "to support disadvantaged youths through hands-on academic services to enhance their opportunity for continued educational success. This is a non-profit organization focused on providing youth with educational resources and assistance."

But perhaps what impresses me most about Brown is, he doesn't take a day or a moment off in his pursuit of excellence. He's obviously talented, although he missed the call for the height distribution. But he doesn't just talk about being great, like a certain former Steelers receiver who shall remain nameless. He does the work, day in and day out, which greatness requires.

He also doesn't mind imparting his "secret" to the newbies. I thought it telling that Martavis Bryant, in a recent video interview, talked about "chest up eyes up prayed up" and working hard every day. He took a page right out of Antonio's book, and it's paying off for both him and the Steelers, big-time. In other words, Brown has emerged as the sort of mentor and leader he had in Hines Ward, and that's saying something.

But before I finish, I feel compelled to note how frequent the Antonio Brown story is among teenaged athletes (or teenagers in general.) The Tribune-Review ran an article on December 24th titled "Ex-Steeler Russell tackles big problem for little ones." Here's a sample of the sobering article:

Andy Russell remembered he could not believe it at first. He was sure some of his former Steelers teammates would not believe it now.

"I think we're still all kind of shocked that there are kids living in tents in Pittsburgh's forests," Russell said. "It's completely shocking."

Russell is an advocate for the Homeless Children's Education Fund (HCEF), which aims to raise awareness - and funds - to provide schooling for homeless youth in Allegheny County. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit reports more than 1,800 school-aged children are without a home. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that total could increase by up to 50 percent if it accounted for children age 5 and younger.

"This should be a bigger story," Russell said. "We all want our kids to go to school. We know how important it is to have a good education."

I recommend the entire article. And while researching for this article, I found a Sports Illustrated article titled "Young, Gifted, and Homeless." Here's an excerpt:

As acceptance speeches go, it was a bravura performance. In May, Kevin Durant received the NBA's Most Valuable Player award. Standing before a room full of family, fans, Thunder teammates and team employees, Durant was all honesty, humility and emotion. The moment of soaring sentiment, though, came when he addressed and thanked his mother, Wanda Pratt. "Everybody told us we weren't supposed to be here," he said. "We moved from apartment to apartment by ourselves. One of the best memories I have is when we moved into our first apartment. No bed, no furniture, and we just all sat in the living room and hugged each other because we thought we made it. . . . You made us believe. You kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn't eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You're the real MVP."

The numbers the article quoted are staggering:

It's impossible to know precisely how many homeless athletes compete for middle schools and high schools, but even the most conservative extrapolation of data from the DOE and from individual school districts is startling: The total is above 80,000. When homeless students in youth sports-for instance, Chicago's Jaheim Benton, the recent Little League World Series star-and college sports are factored in, it surpasses 100,000...

[A]dvocates for the homeless say that the numbers are underreported. Many students don't realize they're homeless as defined by the DOE, according to Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Says Jonathan Brice, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the DOE's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, "I would expect to see the number [of homeless students] increase as we get better at finding these kids."

The author also put some names and faces on the statistics, such as this one:

Bobby Limon, 16, was beginning to look like the "after" picture in a weight-loss ad. Broad shoulders. Flattening stomach. Shrinking thighs. Had he stepped into a pair of his old jeans, with the 44-inch waist, they would have fallen to his feet. He could now slip into a 38. Which was ideal for a dieter but not for a star high school lineman with college aspirations.

Bobby had begun his junior year at Lehman High in Kyle, Texas, just south of Austin, as a 6' 2", 310-pound offensive guard. By the end of the season, in November 2012, he had dropped to 288. A month earlier Bobby and his family had been evicted from their modest house. His father, John, had fallen behind on the rent, and for some time it had been a challenge for him to secure enough food for his ravenous son. "My stomach would growl," Bobby says. "Sometimes during practice I would mess up on my plays because I was thinking about where I was going to sleep that night. Or where or if we were going to get food."

Obviously this makes it more difficult for an athlete to get into a college program. For one thing, families are, as Limon's was, often forced to move around in search of work, and this proves to be a big disadvantage:

Multiple college coaches interviewed by SI said that when a student abruptly transfers to a new high school, it can signal a problem, cooling their recruiting interest. So can disputes over eligibility. "It's hard to get ahold of [homeless athletes], because they typically don't have phones," says Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter. "You don't know where they're going to be living from month to month. The other thing is, you're nervous just about the character of them."

So if you have kids in school athletic programs, keep an eye out for that kid who seems to always be hungry (or hungrier than normal teenagers,) or whose clothes don't seem quite right, or who is cagey about where s/he lives. Who knows—you might be the person who helps out the next Antonio Brown.