Brown a role model for other area athletes


Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
It's hard to believe it was almost five years ago I was standing in Gainesville High School's gym after the juggernaut Hurricanes' boys basketball team had just finished dusting off another helpless opponent. Waiting for the team to leave the locker room after a postgame meeting, I was talking to then-football coach Rick Swain about Vernell Brown.
At the time a senior guard, Brown was not only in the middle of a season where the Hurricanes would eventually win their second straight FHSAA state championship, he also was trying to squeeze in as many football recruiting visits as he possibly could.
"He's going to get up to North Carolina for a trip," Swain said. "They love him. Right now, it looks like could end up there."
Swain went on to mention a couple of other smaller schools, leaving one big one out. But I had to know. After all, when there is an orange and blue elephant in the room, how can you ignore it?
"I'm working on it, other people are working on it, but it just doesn't look like it's going to happen," Swain said. "He's good enough to play at Florida. I know it. You know it. He knows it. Anyone whose played with or against him knows it. They (pointing in the direction of UF's campus) just don't."
A few minutes later, Brown came by. He seemed legitimately excited the Tar Heels were expressing so much interest and tried to feign his hurt when the Gators were brought up.
"I want to go to the best place for me and that may or may not be Florida," Brown said in recruitspeak, his eyes delivering a different message than his mouth. "I'll be happy wherever I end up."
Not long after that, the head ball coach himself, Steve Spurrier, began to take more notice.
Spurrier didn't just love having great athletes on his team, he particularly loved great athletes who spent their childhoods wanting to be Gators. He'd also had success with local kids whose fathers played for UF, like Willie Jackson, Terry Jackson and Travis McGriff.
Yes, Brown was only 5-foot-8, and yes, he probably weighed 170 pounds in full pads after Thanksgiving dinner. But he had intangibles many 6-3, 230-pound five-star standouts didn't.
He could play receiver and cornerback and return kicks and punts. He was a natural leader with natural football instincts. No one was going to spend more hours trying to make himself better.
Against the wishes of many of his assistants, Spurrier decided to give the too-small hometown kid the chance he always wanted.
Soon after, Brown called UNC and the others and basically said "thanks for believing in me, but I have to follow my dream."
That dream saw him go through some tumultuous times and play for three coaches, the last of whom, Urban Meyer, speaks of Brown with reverence usually reserved for a person's own son or daughter.
I'll always remember that night when the future "face of the Gators" who wanted nothing more than to be a face on the Gators had a hard time hiding his feelings. I'll also never forget his Joker-sized smile while he was sitting in a chair on a makeshift podium in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium after his final college game, Monday's Outback Bowl.
His story is an inspiration - Eastside's Tim Shankle has told teammate Micguel Johnson (also considered "too small") to use Brown as a role model - and who knows, might be one whose chapters start and have a midpoint in Gainesville before concluding in the NFL.
Sounds like a best seller. John Patton is The Sun's high school sports editor. You can reach him by calling 374-5074 or by e-mail at pattonj@gvillesun.com.

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