-- Before every University of Virginia football game, senior guard Elton Brown wraps both his hands in gauze and athletic tape and writes a personal message on each wrist. On one wrist, Brown writes, "I Love You Mom." On the other, he writes, "R.I.P. #29."
The messages are tributes to two of the people who have mattered most to Brown -- his mother, Robin Brown-Miller, and his late uncle, Gillett Ford Jr., a former Virginia Tech football player (he wore No. 29 for the Hokies). The messages also remind Brown how far he has come during the last five years.
As a junior at Heritage High School in Newport News in 1999, Brown and two other football players were convicted of beating Justin Reid, a classmate and tennis player, during a party on the night after Christmas. Brown was found guilty of malicious wounding, a charge that would have been a felony if he had been older than 17. He was kicked off Heritage High's football team and faced a one-year sentence at a prison work farm. Once among the nation's most recruited offensive linemen, Brown stopped hearing from most colleges after his conviction.
But Brown-Miller stood by her son, who attended three high schools during his junior and senior years because administrators didn't want a 300-pound bully walking down their halls or playing on their football teams. All the while, Brown anxiously awaited sentencing, not knowing whether he was headed for college or prison.
"You don't expect to be in a courtroom one minute and then four years later, playing college football and possibly headed for the NFL," Brown said. "I can just say that I've been truly blessed."
And Brown thanks his mother the most. She battled school administrators and prosecutors, proclaiming her son's innocence and fighting for his right to play football and attend school. She home-schooled him for several weeks when he didn't have anywhere to go, and she stayed in contact with college recruiters, imploring them for patience and to keep a scholarship open for her son.
"Everybody turned their back on me, and all I had was my family and the people that were close to me," Brown said. "I had to lean on her heavily. I mean, she supported me. There were times when it got kind of hard for her, but she never let me see her get down. . . . There were times I wanted to quit, and she wouldn't let me."
After his conviction, Brown transferred to Warwick High School in Newport News, but administrators told him he couldn't play football for a school in the same district. He went back to Heritage High and tried to play there again, but the school wouldn't let him back on the team even though he was academically eligible.
So Brown-Miller moved Elton and his younger brother, Scorpio, to nearby Hampton, where Elton enrolled in an alternative learning program at Hampton High. But administrators there wouldn't let Elton play football, either, because he wasn't a full-time student. His mother appealed to the school board, but by the time Elton was finally granted eligibility, the regular season was over. He played in one playoff game for the Crabbers.
"I think I was hurt more than Elton because he didn't know what was going on," Brown-Miller said. "He had been sheltered by his mother for so long. My pain came from watching adults act the way they did. They put that kid through so much. They treated him like he was a criminal. What does that do to a kid?"
Brown-Miller, 41, said she never doubted her son's innocence. She was a single mother until she married Lefty Miller when Elton was 18. When Elton was younger, Brown-Miller often worked as many as three jobs while attending classes at a community college. She had never allowed Elton or his brother to spend the night at friends' homes until the night of the fight. Elton had been invited to a birthday party and sleepover, where the fight broke out. Reid's jaw was broken, and Brown suddenly found himself in trouble.
"I asked him when it happened whether he was guilty or innocent," Brown-Miller said. "He said he didn't do it. I knew he didn't do it. When he was a little boy, he didn't want to play football because he didn't like the contact. He never fought in school."
But a juvenile court convicted Brown of malicious wounding, even though the victim said Brown didn't participate in the fight. Other witnesses testified Brown swung at Reid and missed. After months of delays, Brown finally faced a judge for his sentencing in July 2000. Before the judge delivered his verdict, Brown-Miller testified on behalf of her son and presented her "brag book," a scrapbook that included Elton's certificates for making the honor roll, perfect attendance and athletic awards.
"In court, they treated him like a football player, not an honor-roll student," Brown-Miller said. "They painted an Elton that I didn't know and no one else knew."
The judge gave Brown the benefit of the doubt, suspending a one-year sentence at the prison farm and ordering him to serve two years' probation and pay more than $3,000 in restitution for Reid's medical bills. With his nightmare finally over, Brown started worrying about his future. Maryland and North Carolina, his two favorite schools, had stopped recruiting him. His uncle wanted him to attend Virginia Tech, but Brown thought Blacksburg was too far from home. So he settled on Virginia, which had just replaced longtime coach George Welsh with former New York Jets coach Al Groh.
Groh said he didn't have much time to recruit Brown after he was hired but said his staff was aware of the player's problems during high school.
"We were aware of the circumstance," Groh said. "I talked to Elton about it, and I think after a while . . . you tend to have a sense of the genuineness of a person's answer, and his answers seemed to be very heartfelt and very genuine about his circumstances. You could tell that there was an integrity about Elton and about his behavior and about himself as a person that was enough for me to see."
Groh's decision to sign Brown has paid huge dividends for the sixth-ranked Cavaliers, who are undefeated entering Saturday night's game against seventh-ranked Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium. Brown, 6 feet 6, 338 pounds, has started 32 games during the past four seasons and last season won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, given annually to the ACC's best offensive lineman.
Brown could have left for the NFL after last season -- pro scouts told him he probably would have been selected no later than the third round in this past spring's draft -- but he decided to return to Virginia because his mother wanted him to stay in school. Brown said he is 23 credits shy of earning his degree in anthropology.
"I told him he needed his senior year back," his mother said. "He didn't get a senior year in high school. I told him to take back what the devil took from him."
Miller-Brown already has academic degrees in nursing, human resource administration and business administration, and she's working on a fourth degree in public administration. She made sure her sons stayed in school, too (Scorpio is a sophomore linebacker at Hampton University). When Elton was homesick during his freshman year, she drove two hours to Charlottesville nearly every day to spend time with him. Brown's spirits got worse when Ford, his uncle, was killed while changing a tire on Highway 81 near Blacksburg. Finally, after a few months with his teammates, Elton told Robin, "Mom, they're like family here now. You don't have to come anymore."
Brown still calls his mother before every game and asks her to pray for him.
"She inspires me," Brown said. "If I get down or things aren't going right for me, I think of my mother. She's going to work, raising two kids and going to school. She's been working her whole life. I don't know how she's done it."