The gesture was a brash one for a player making his first appearance since re-signing with the team that had cut him 10 weeks earlier. As he returned a kickoff 91 yards for the Washington Redskins' game-winning touchdown Sunday afternoon in Tempe, Ariz., Antonio Brown never broke stride as he blew kisses to Redskins fans in the crowd.
For Brown, the moment was a celebration of his survival over a childhood filled with pain and sorrow in the housing projects of Miami's Liberty City, and a message to those who remain there that dreams can come true. He had promised his family that, when he scored his first NFL touchdown, he would acknowledge them. And so he was blowing kisses for his teenage brother, Carlos Demitrius, whose murdered body he discovered mere steps from their apartment eight years ago, and for his sister Dushun, who was robbed and killed five months after that, leaving five children whom Brown supports.
The kisses were for Brown's four children as well, and for his mother, Dorothy Williams, who survived a life-threatening heart ailment, and for his father, Richard Brown, who was killed during a break-in at his home when Antonio was 12. The gesture was also in recognition of a handful of coaches and mentors who helped Brown alter his lifestyle after spending two years running in the streets rather than attending high school, and for Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen, who welcomed him to West Virginia University and watched him graduate with a degree in sociology four years later.
When Brown returned to the sideline Sunday after his touchdown, he embraced Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith, the only NFL coach to give him a shot, and the man who reluctantly cut Brown after the season opener, in which he fumbled a kickoff. For the 10 weeks between being released and re-signed by the Redskins, Brown was back in Liberty City, no longer in public housing but still in a rough neighborhood, looking after his mother and the eight children who share his four-bedroom, two-bathroom house, and working out daily in the backyard, just in case another NFL opportunity came along.
That Brown, 27, would capitalize on perhaps his last chance at a career in the NFL with a key return to sustain Washington's playoffs hopes, is the culmination of a long, hard journey and, he believes, is an indication of good things to come.
"I just want people to respect me and give me an opportunity," said Brown, who was named NFC special teams player of the week. "I don't want my story to be used as an excuse, or anyone feeling sorry for Antonio, because I'm all right, and I'm going to be all right. Just give me an opportunity to do whatever I can do, and it ain't no feeling sorry for me. I don't feel sorry for myself. I appreciate life. I love life, and I love what I've been through, because it molded me into who I am today."
Rough From the Start
One of five children, Brown grew up during the height of Miami's crack epidemic. Life on his block was punctuated by crime after crime. Brown credits his mother and sister Dushun for looking after him; his father was not living with the family when he was murdered at age 46.
Brown has 11 RIP tattoos that mention the names of dead friends and loved ones. He got the first when he was only 12.
"People look at Miami as South Beach, but they don't know what's on the other side of that bridge," said Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, who spent 12 years in a less-menacing area of Liberty City. "Back in the day when we was growing up, drug gangs were always going against each other, and you could just be in the streets and end up caught in something. The man's done did it all and done seen it all and been through it all, and to keep pushing like he did is truly amazing."
As a pre-teen, Brown was in and out of detention homes, and moved from school to school, said Alonzo Boykins, a father figure to Brown and his receivers coach in high school. Brown ended up at Jan Mann Opportunity School, a middle school for troubled youths, and befriended Chad Johnson, now a Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Early in his freshman year of high school, in 1994, Brown made the varsity as a cornerback but was expelled for fighting, and because of his record, he said authorities suggested sending him to a school for adults. He balked at that idea and instead took a path he now realizes would have taken him to an early death.
His first of four children was born at that time. Brown declined to reveal his children's names, but he has two boys and two girls, ranging from 2 to 11. In the fall of 1995, he was accepted at Douglas MacArthur, an opportunity high school for those who had been rejected by standard schools, but MacArthur was not in Liberty City and had no football program. Brown routinely missed the bus and soon stopped attending.
He also says he was in a car when a crime was committed in Palm Beach at the time. Brown was the only person in the car who escaped police; the others were arrested and spent several years in prison.
"I was basically on the streets for almost two years, not going to school, doing the things I shouldn't be doing, getting in and out of trouble," Brown said. "Just waking up where I lived there was trouble; I mean, I was in it, in the mix, full throttle, full throttle. I just did what I had to do to feed myself."
"He had to become the man of that house at a very young age, and he was the backbone of that family," said James "Puppy" Wright, another of Brown's assistant coaches in high school, and a primary reason that Brown ended up at West Virginia. "His mother didn't want him out in the street, but he told her he couldn't worry about school at that time, and he did what he had to do."
A Legend in South Florida
By the summer of 1996, Brown was unsure if he would ever play football again, but his reputation for winning neighborhood bets and performing athletic feats was spreading. Tolbert Bain, a standout defensive back at the University of Miami from 1985 to 1987 who was a respected high school coach in the area, kept hearing about this puny kid who could easily dunk a basketball and jump over parked cars. (Brown stands only about 5 feet 7 now, though the Redskins list him at 5-10.)
"Antonio's name was always ringing in the streets," Moss said. "Everybody knew who he was because of what he could do on the field. He's a legend in South Florida."
Bain was an assistant coach at Miami Central High, and some of the local drug dealers in Liberty City told him where they could find Brown. They wanted to see Brown use his talent -- some drug dealers even purchased him a car the year before to alleviate the need for him to ride the bus to Douglas MacArthur -- and knew Bain was looking for players who had some "thug" in them, as Brown put it.
What Bain saw left him speechless. Brown could start from a near standstill and leap to the top of a dumpster. Then, he took a running start and flew over the hood of Bain's Pathfinder, cleared the sport-utility vehicle and landed on the other side. "My jaw just dropped," Bain said. "He did it so effortlessly."
Bain invited Brown to join his team for an informal summer practice. Brown showed up in long baggy shorts, a Bob Marley T-shirt and dreadlocks. Despite his size, he said he wanted to play running back. No one knew what to expect, and head coach Roger Coffey was hesitant to put Brown in drills, particularly with Najeh Davenport, who went on to star for Miami and is now with the Green Bay Packers, already in his backfield.
Brown was about to sneak out of the gym when Bain intervened, urging Coffey to "put the little hoodlum in." Boykins sneaked him into a few routes with the receivers.
"I knew right there we had something special," Boykins said. "He's the best athlete I've coached to this day, and I've had some great ones. Santana Moss and Antonio played against each other in high school, and Santana couldn't do half the things Antonio could do."
Brown was interested in transferring to Miami Central if possible, and Bain approached some administrators he knew at MacArthur to initiate the process.
"When I first met him, he didn't trust anyone," Bain said. "He'd never really had any positive male role models in his life, but the boys in the neighborhood told him I was all right, and he could trust me, and he started to do that."
"Tolbert saved me, man," Brown said. "That's my main man. He went and got me off the streets. He literally went and got me off the streets and would wake me up and take me to MacArthur to meet with the principal to see what I had to do to get back in school."
Bain, Boykins and Wright would shuttle Brown to meetings, and he began taking summer classes and making up for missed assignments. Eventually, he was released from MacArthur and Central admitted him in 1996. "We put our necks out there by the mere fact that we took him knowing of his baggage as far as his juvenile record," Boykins said. "But that kid's attitude was always positive. He never got into any trouble at our school and he just had a drive to do better and better."
On the day Brown officially withdrew from MacArthur, Boykins promised his mother that if her son was ready to change his life, he would work with him as long as it took to graduate. Brown ended up as a star on the field -- with Coffey lifting his team rule against dreadlocks and fans nicknaming Brown "Deuce," and screaming for him at home games -- but neglected his classwork. He skipped school most days after football season ended.
By the time Brown returned to Central in the fall, however, he had changed.
'Murdered for . . . Shoes'
On July 4, 1997, Brown went looking for his younger brother Carlos, 14, fearing the worst at 3 a.m. He found him and a friend yards from their building, dead in the street, left there shoeless, but with their socks clean.
"I was still not totally turned around, then before my senior year I found my little brother," Brown said, tears forming in his eyes. "I hate to say it, but he was murdered for a pair of shoes, and I don't think nothing can get no worse than that. I actually found my brother -- not a step-brother, my brother -- who, when I got out of the bathwater, he got in that water, things like that. I think that was it right there when I saw that."
Coffey had a rule against family members hanging around the team, but Carlos had been a fixture at practices the season before. The entire team attended his funeral dressed in their jerseys, and Brown would later tell Moss that he wondered if that bullet was really meant for him as some kind of payback. He leaned on his mother during the tragedy, and had a large portrait of his brother tattooed over his heart.
"My mother helped me get through it because I look at her, and she's 5-3 and she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders," Brown said. "So I don't think about me in hard times; I just think about her and move on."
Brown's young cousin, Damon, was killed at a Burger King drive-thru that same year, and his mother, whom Brown said is shy and declined to comment for this story, was suffering from heart problems. She would require a second procedure to repair an artery.
Yet another blow came at Christmas, when Brown's sister was killed. She was 33 and left five children, ranging now from ages 9 to 21. They now live in Miami with Brown, his mother, and three of his children.
Brown had an outstanding senior season and was drawing interest from top football colleges, but most did not believe he could be academically eligible. He proved them wrong. During the 1997-98 school year, he managed to complete the equivalent of three years of school by taking additional classes during the day, at night and on Saturdays. He graduated on schedule in 1998.
"My senior year I just got so focused on school," Brown said. "I really appreciated the chance to learn. I saw the changes it was having on me, and I liked it."
Brown longed to play for Miami, and Moss, who was playing for the Hurricanes, pushed the coaches to offer him a scholarship. Florida colleges were interested, according to his high school coaches, but shied away because of his past.
All the while, Wright was working behind the scenes at West Virginia, where he had played from 1990 to 1995.
Wright called Nehlen to make a case for Brown, and all but begged him to sign him. "I said, 'Coach, you need to get on this kid,' " Wright said. " 'He's come from nothing and he's a great kid and he'll do whatever you want him to do. You don't even need to watch him on film, just take my word.' "
Wright was also in regular contact with John "Doc" Holliday, who had been a recruiter in South Florida for West Virginia since 1982, letting him know when Brown completed any of his core requirements. Holliday pushed Nehlen as well.
"Antonio had graduated high school with barely a 2.0 [grade-point average]," Boykins said, "and Doc Holliday gave me a commitment that he was going to graduate [college], and they would give him all the tutoring he can possibly get to be a success."
West Virginia had no football scholarships left by the time Brown became eligible, but he had begun running track his senior year, and competed at an all-state level against some of the best athletes in the country. West Virginia offered him a track scholarship for his freshman year, with the expectation he would receive a football scholarship if things worked out.
"When we signed him, we knew we would have a little bit of a project on our hands, but it turned out to be a very easy project because he wanted to do it," Nehlen said. "He was just amazing to me. The tutors all told me he was the best kid they ever had. He never missed a tutoring session, never missed his classes. He really wanted an education coming from where he came from, and he was just infectious to be around. He was an exciting little guy and he smiled all the time and we all loved to be around him."
Brown started as a freshman.
For Brown, the change of locale, and his first experience in a rural setting allowed him to envision greater things. "I got a chance to get away at West Virginia and find myself as a person and look outside myself and see how I want to see myself later on in life," Brown said. "I saw it, and I painted a little picture for myself."
During Brown's freshman year, the West Virginia coaches sent Boykins a picture of a board they kept of their top 25 student athletes, to let them know how his pupil was faring. "Antonio was No. 7," Boykins said. "I'll always keep that picture."
Brown was an explosive return specialist, excelled on reverses and in the passing game. He led the team in receptions and receiving yards his junior season, and finished second to Moss in the 60-meter dash at the Big East track and field championships.
But Nehlen retired before Brown's senior season, and the new coach, Rich Rodriguez, barely used him (including during a game at the Orange Bowl, which left a contingent of South Florida high school coaches vowing never to send players to West Virginia again, Boykins said). Brown spent long nights on the phone with his high school mentors, who pleaded with him to stay in school, and he persevered despite the lack of playing time.
Brown finished with just 31 receptions, crushing any hopes of being selected in the 2002 NFL draft, or earning any kind of significant signing bonus.
Speed and Special Teams
His professional career began in Canada that summer. Brown signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but returned home after six games, feeling he needed a bigger challenge. The University of Miami invited him to work out for scouts and in March 2003, the Buffalo Bills offered Brown a tryout.
It was there that he met Smith, then the Bills' special teams coach. Three staff members timed Brown's 40-yard dash, and all three showed world-class results in the 4.20-second range. "I said if we're not going to sign this guy, then let's not ever time anyone else who ever comes in here, because if we're timing for speed, it ain't getting no better than this," Smith said. The Bills signed Brown on March 25, he had a strong preseason and played in all 16 games for Buffalo. But head coach Gregg Williams (now Washington's assistant head coach-defense) was fired, and he brought Smith with him to Redskins Park in 2004. Buffalo's new regime cut Brown during 2004 training camp, and when Redskins return specialist Chad Morton suffered a season-ending knee injury, Washington signed Brown in November.
He was inactive much of last season, but played in the final three games, and the staff had high expectations for 2005. Brown made plenty of plays in the offseason practices, and was vying for a spot in the bottom of the wide receiver rotation, then began dropping balls late in the preseason and his return yardage slipped. He fumbled a kickoff in the first game of the season against Chicago, and when the Redskins needed to make room for a kicker on their roster that week, Brown was let go.
The Redskins re-signed Brown around Thanksgiving, needing a returner with James Thrash and Ladell Betts injured.
Brown was solid in his first two games, working back into football shape after a long layoff. Then came his kickoff return Sunday.
Living Day to Day
With no guaranteed salaries in the NFL, Brown prepares each day for life after football. There is no excess in his life; no fancy car, no luxury home, no showy jewelry.
"If you saw him, you would have no idea he plays in the NFL," Wright said. "There's nothing flashy about him. Half the time, to be honest with you, he'll catch the bus to come see me when he's down here."
Brown lived most of his rookie season in 2003 in a one-room apartment with no furniture or television, Smith said. He rented some items only after Smith and team services employees nearly forced him to. "I know he didn't have much money, so we got him a chair and a bed and stuff like that," Smith said. "And that's how I started to learn his story."
Brown just moved to another part of Liberty City last year ("It ain't all that much better, trust me," Wright said), and bought a house. "This is my first time ever having a yard and some grass with a carport and bedroom you can actually have for your own things," Brown said. "It's all coming, it's all coming. The blessings are coming."
He arrived in Washington last month with a backpack and purchased only a few sweatsuits and a pair of shoes. He is staying with defensive lineman Cedric Killings, a high school teammate, at his townhouse near Redskins Park in Ashburn, and rides to and from practice with teammates. Most of his checks are sent directly to Miami, and he told Smith he was still living on his training camp money when he got re-signed. Brown earned about $400,000 during 2003 and 2004, before taxes, and could make another $156,000 this season, but with so many mouths to feed, he is careful with money.
Brown spends the offseason speaking to students at MacArthur, Jan Mann and Central High School, and helping out his old coaches. He hopes to work with disadvantaged youngsters when his playing days are over.
"I know I can inspire all the kids because the people back home that know me, they see that same dude who in 1992 was in high-speed chases with 100 police cars behind me, and that's the same dude now you see playing football on TV. It's like a total change," Brown said.
"Life is what it is and somebody has to go through it, and it only makes you a better person. I think it has made me a better person; a better father to the four kids of my own, and to my sister's kids. There's no time for feeling sorry. You have to move on. I respect my story, but the story isn't over. I think it's just beginning, because I've got light years ahead of me, and I appreciate what I've been through."