The sun was setting behind Byrd Stadium as the rejuvenated running back stood at the 17-yard line, joking with one of the Maryland football teammates he had so sorely missed. He wore a smile on his face, right below the pencil-thin moustache that curled around his upper lip, and tugged at the white Terrapins jersey, sweaty from another spring practice. Surrounded by everything he almost lost – the turf, the weight room, the coaches, the friends, the spotlight — it was clear Wes Brown felt there was no place he would rather be.
Eight months ago, Brown was arrested along Baltimore Avenue just outside campus. Police wanted to question him as a person of interest in a non-fatal shooting, but he shoved a detective and fled on foot. He was charged with second-degree assault, among other things, and though the charges were later dropped, Maryland imposed a semester-long suspension that ended his sophomore season before it ever began.
The long road back to re-enrollment at Maryland and rejoining the Terrapins football team involved hundreds of hours of community service, speaking to youth football teams and telling his story. He was tortured by weekends at home, watching games on television. He knew he needed discipline, so he took a part-time job as a janitor, because it was something he never would want to do for the rest of his life. He worked at Good Counsel High School, his alma mater, where current students would approach him and say, “Oh you’re Wes Brown.”
“I ain’t nobody special,” he would respond. “So, don’t say it like that. I’m just as you are.”
The worst moments were seeing his fellow running backs second-guess themselves, like when a hole opened along the offensive line and no one took it. “It hurt so bad,” Brown said Saturday, in his first meeting with the media since his freshman season, when he rushed for 382 yards over eight games. So when he returned to school, benchmarks met and requirements satisfied, still wearing the “Hold the Rope” team bracelet that he never took off, Brown told his teammates, “I know I let you all down. I’m not here to do that again.”
The redshirt sophomore who appeared before the cameras following Maryland’s fourth spring practice was entirely different from the shy freshman he had been.
“Reality hit me so quick when everything got taken away,” he said. “All my life, this is what I worked for. When it was taken away, I was like, ‘What do I do?’ … I don’t regret anything, just because I became a better person. I became a better man.”
The new Brown was at ease answering questions about his regrets, and whether he too second-guessed himself, which sometimes he did. The new Brown was trim, having shed 13 pounds of excess gut fat gained after labrum surgery and an ankle injury that cut his first year short, and freed from burden after cutting people from his inner circle. The new Brown was confident, but not cocky, thanking Coach Randy Edsall, Athletics Director Kevin Anderson, running backs coach Andre Powell, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, and others, for helping “keep my nose clean.”
The new Brown liked the soft spring breeze blowing across the field, because feeling that on his arms meant he was back.
“Everything feels new,” he said. “I feel like a new Wes every day.”
The coaching staff has noticed it too. Even before Brown returned to school, the Terps talked about his maturation, but now he faces an uphill battle to crack the rotation. Maryland returns running backs Brandon Ross and Albert Reid, both rising juniors who played extensively when Brown was gone last fall.
Brown is currently listed as one of three backups on the depth chart, splitting second-team repetitions with Joe Riddle and Jacquille Veii. The lost weight has made him more agile, adding a speed element to the power game that brought success in 2012, but he still needs work learning plays and being disciplined in his assignments.
“I think the biggest thing with Wes is he’s just got to get his feet back underneath him,” Edsall said. “The time away made him grow as a young man and you can see that growth and maturation in him. Now it’s just a matter of him coming out here and continuing to keep working and get better.
“You can see the whole different person now that he was separated and now he’s back. That to me is what I like about what’s happened. He took a situation that he put himself into and learned from it. He’s gotten a lot better. He’s grown and now the thing that’s impressive is he’s being a leader and helping other guys and letting other guys understand just how much of a privilege being here as a student-athlete is.”
His first practice back, Brown felt sluggish. It had been so long since he last stepped onto the football field with the Terps. Every moment seemed a step behind. But everyone was telling him something different. They thought he was fast.
“I don’t know what you all see,” Brown told them.
They saw a changed man.