Debby Brown sat in the visiting bleachers at Lackey two years ago scared for her son's life.

A.J. Brown was a few months removed from playing in a 115-pound youth league. On this night, though, he was starting at tailback as a Northern freshman in the Patriots' first playoff game in 13 years.

But it wasn't the magnitude of the game that scared Debby Brown; it was Lackey's players, some who weighed more than twice that of her son.

"I was petrified," she said. "We had to come up with a plan in case he goes down to let me know he's all right. Otherwise, I was going to be running out on the field."

A.J. Brown hasn't grown much since that day, but his 5-foot-6, 160-pound body has become one of the most difficult to corral in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference. As a sophomore, Brown rushed for 1,023 yards last season for the 8-2 Patriots as he shared the bulk of the offense with quarterback Andrew Athens.

Athens graduated. And as for Brown? "It's time to give him the ball," Northern Coach A.J. Berberian said.

Debby Brown first gave her son the ball when she registered him for youth league football when he was 5 years old. He has never played another organized sport, so she long gave up on persuading him to play something a little less risky.

"But there were times I would ask him, 'Don't you want to play defense?' " she said. " 'Why do you have to be the one getting hit?' "

A.J. said, "I'm still alive, so she's all right."

Now, it's A.J. who is a little anxious. As he begins the latter half of his high school career, Brown is thinking about playing in college -- against bigger players and even bigger odds.

"It's hard because you can't tell them, 'Hey, recruit me,' " Brown said. "Talent gets you so much. Size gets you so much. But hard work gets you everything. I could be 6-1 but not be in the weight room."

Brown isn't fooling himself into thinking he'll be on Maryland's sideline one day. But he knows there is a spot for him somewhere.

"He wants to [play college ball], but he's realistic about his height," Berberian said. "Somebody out there is going to overlook his height . . . and give him a shot.

"He'll play college football, but at which level, I don't know."

And if he does, Debby Brown will watch her son with a much lighter heart.

"After the first game, I've gotten a little better," she said. "Now I know he can take those hits."

Even at 5 feet 6, 160 pounds, Northern's A.J. Brown has made an impact on the field. "Talent gets you so much. Size gets you so much. But hard work gets you everything," Brown said. "I could be 6-1 but not be in the weight room."