The MAN BEHIND the face of Florida football

Vernell Brown chases down his 13-month-old daughter Kendall in front of her daycare center in east Gainesville Thursday, January 5, 2006.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 11:09 p.m.
Vernell plays pingpong with Northeast Community Center director Clarence Kelly. Growing up, Vernell spent many afternoons at the center competing against Kelly.
Vernell speaks to kids in the Building Blocks for Succcess program at Duval Elementary School. He has volunteered at the school for six years.
Vernell trains at Percy Beard Track on the University of Florida campus. Vernell, who ended his Florida football career with the 2005 season, is currently in training for the NFL Draft.
Vernell and his fiancee, Emiliana Russell, tend to their daughter, 13-month-old Kendall. The couple met three years ago as students in a leadership development class at the University of Florida.
Vernell greets a passing motorist while strolling with his daughter, Kendall, in the Duval neighborhood. The motorist was congratulating Vernell on his last game, during which he scored his first and only touchdown as a Gator.
Vernell enjoys a spaghetti dinner cooked by his mother Valarie, pictured at left holding Vernell's 10-month-old nephew, Vince Jr. Center is Vernell's father, Vernell Sr. and at far right is Vernell's fiancee, Emiliana Russell.
  • Gallery of images shows Vernell Brown at work and play. Pages 6D-7D.
  • He's a father, a son, a fiance, a volunteer, a football player. But there's more to Vernell Brown. Story, Page 7D.
    As Vernell Brown drives around east Gainesville, barely a block passes without him pointing out some relative's house. He's at least a fourth-generation Gainesville resident, and nearly all his extended family lives here - including nine of his father's 11 siblings and too many cousins to count.
    But today, relatives are but a few of those who greet Vernell with waves and smiles. Vernell, UF cornerback, punt returner and team captain, is also the hometown hero.
    After Florida's bowl victory over Iowa earlier this month - a game in which Vernell raced 60 yards with an interception, scoring his first and last touchdown as a Gator just 58 days after he broke his leg against Vanderbilt - a beaming Urban Meyer again proclaimed him the face of Florida football, the type of young man he would most like to represent the Gators. It's a designation he first bestowed on Vernell in the 2005 preseason.
    In the wake of his successes, Vernell's name is on the lips of nearly everyone in this part of town. Children call his name from a playground. One driver stops in the middle of the street and opens his door to shake hands with Vernell and offer his congratulations. Everywhere he goes, there are hugs, handshakes and requests for autographs.
    He's the pride and joy of a part of town that has had its share of problems.
    Crime and drugs were visible while Vernell was growing up, he recalls. Some of his childhood acquaintances are now on drugs, in prison or dead, he says. Just this summer, there was a drug bust a few houses down from where his parents live, and Vernell locks the front door even when he steps out momentarily to retrieve something from his car.
    Growing up, Vernell says he was never tempted to get mixed up with drugs.
    "My upbringing was kinda centered around sports," he says. "I knew you couldn't be successful in sports and be on drugs. I kinda never had any interest in it."
    Vernell is a young man who holds doors and pulls out chairs for others and bows his head in silent prayer before every meal. He credits his manners to his parents' teachings: his father, Vernell Sr., is a sergeant for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, his mother, Valarie, is a senior secretary for the UF College of Dentistry. Vernell is also close to his 16-year-old brother, Vince, who plays football and recently transferred from Gainesville High School to Eastside High.
    "That's how I learned how to do everything I know how to do," Vernell says of his father's influence. "He plays the biggest role in the person I am today."
    He's a dad Vernell is now applying those lessons as he takes his own turn at fatherhood.
    Gator fans accustomed to seeing Vernell the cornerback, who breaks up passes and tackles opponents, would double-take at Vernell the dad, who changes diapers, wipes runny noses and crawls around on the floor with his 13-month-old daughter, Kendall, and 10-month-old nephew, Vince Jr.
    "I always wanted a little girl," he says. "That's exactly what I got."
    Vernell drops Kendall off at day care each morning, and now that football season is over, he picks her up each afternoon.
    "This is the highlight of my day right here," he says as he approaches the day-care center. "The highlight of my day, when I pick her up and she comes running."
    Vernell stoops to Kendall's level as she toddles toward him.
    "C'mon, big girl," he says, scooping her into his arms.
    Later, playing at Vernell's parents' home, Kendall walks around backwards, "backpedaling," as Vernell calls it with a grin.
    "She's learning how to play corner!" the proud papa exclaims.
    Kendall's mother and Vernell's fiancee, Emiliana Russell, shakes her head.
    The two met in a leadership development course at UF nearly three years ago. Though Emiliana, originally from Fort Lauderdale, says she noticed Vernell staring at her on the first day of class, they sat next to each other for two months without saying more than hello. Finally, Emiliana's roommate began inviting Vernell over to study for the class.
    "We would act like we were having some serious study sessions," Emiliana says, "when really I just thought he was cute."
    Though the couple now has an apartment together and Emiliana, who graduated from UF in August 2004 and works as a case manager for Partnership for Strong Families, has an engagement ring on her finger, they have not yet set a date for the wedding.
    Vernell has discussed marriage and family with the Rev. Clifford Patrick, who since 1994 has been the minister of Bartley Temple United Methodist, the church Vernell attends.
    "He's a young man who really seems to have a lot of faith," Patrick says, "not only in God but in himself."
    He's a role model As a line of students files out of a classroom at Duval Elementary in northeast Gainesville, each pair of eyes scans the crisply dressed young man with the Gator tie waiting in the hallway.
    "I liked your touchdown," one boy looks up and says.
    Vernell is back for his monthly visit to Duval. He grew up just a few blocks from here and volunteers at the school with Building Blocks for Success, a mentoring program for fifth-graders.
    "The kids need that role model," says Barbara Henry, who coordinates the program. "He has always had academics first and foremost." Vernell graduated from UF last spring with a degree in family, youth and community sciences and began work toward his master's in the same field. Though he aspires to play professional football, Vernell would like to one day become a youth counselor.
    "I take interest in being able to help people in some aspect of their life," he says.
    Before entering the classroom, Vernell greets and hugs the Rev. Patrick. It is Patrick who got Vernell involved with mentoring at Duval six years ago, though the decision to continue volunteering has been Vernell's.
    Today, when "Mr. Brown" walks to the front of the classroom, all eyes are on him once more. The children, who meet during lunchtime on the first Thursday of every month, stop eating and turn around in their chairs to hear Vernell discuss the importance of cooperation.
    At the end of the session, the group recites a pledge. Beneath the chorus of young voices, a deep voice is audible at the back of the classroom, and Vernell's lips move in time with the kids'.
    "Today I pledge to be the best possible me. No matter how good I am, I can become better.... Today I pledge to believe in me."
    Big heart, small package On Vernell's official recruiting visit to UF five years ago, then-coach Steve Spurrier had one stipulation for the Gainesville High School quarterback: He must weigh 140 pounds. But when Vernell got on the scale in the south endzone of the Swamp, it registered 137.
    Spurrier signed him anyway, saying they would add the extra pounds.
    "He's always been small," says Vernell's mom, Valarie, who recalls putting sand in his shoes and making him drink water so he would meet the weight requirement for Pop Warner football as a child. "He's always had this big heart."
    Vernell has long faced doubts from others about whether he could succeed in sports. Though he played point guard for the back-to-back state champion GHS basketball team, he was determined to follow in the footsteps of his father, who played quarterback, receiver and defensive back for the Gators in the 1980s.
    "I never doubted this young man," says Vernell Sr., who coached his son in Pop Warner. "He never doubted himself. We just laugh at the people who do."
    Vernell redshirted his freshman year at UF and saw only intermittent action under coach Ron Zook. In fact, prior to the 2005 season, Vernell was probably best remembered by Gator fans as the wide receiver who came off the bench in the final minute of the 2003 Outback Bowl, not to catch a pass but to throw one. His pass, intended for quarterback Rex Grossman, was intercepted, snuffing out Florida's chance to tie the game against Michigan.
    But when Urban Meyer took over, he declared Vernell the "face of Florida football" before his senior season had even begun.
    Meyer says it's Vernell's "drive to prove people wrong and to be successful" that sets him apart from other outstanding players he has coached.
    "He's always been an underdog," Meyer says.
    Vernell, now 165 pounds, encountered another obstacle in the Nov. 5 game against Vanderbilt, when he broke his lower left leg on a punt return. After the play, instead of waiting to be carried off the field, Vernell leaped to his feet and hopped off.
    "I knew something was seriously wrong," he says. He had been taught as a child, however, to always get off the field on your own if you can.
    "I can't lay on the field," he says. "It's more of a pride thing."
    Vernell's first thought was whether or not he would be able to finish the game, but the pain was so great that initially he wouldn't let anyone touch him. In the X-ray room at the stadium, the doctor told Vernell to expect a six- to eight-week recovery and that the best-case scenario would be a return for the bowl game, which immediately became Vernell's goal. He returned to the sidelines on crutches to watch the Gators' double-overtime victory over Vanderbilt, and less than two months later, he played his final game as a Gator, though he still has some pain from a high ankle sprain that accompanied the break.
    In addition to his drive to succeed, Meyer also admires the balance that Vernell has in his life.
    "Early when I met him, I found out that he was a father," Meyer says. He recalls a team dinner that Vernell brought Kendall to. "I found out that he was completely devoted to that child."
    Meyer still talks to Vernell every day or so.
    "I'll be hopefully close with Vernell Brown for the next 25 years," Meyer says, "or longer."
    On the field, Meyer too was initially concerned about Vernell's size. But Vernell compensated with his work ethic and by buying into the system of cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater, Meyer says.
    Vernell hopes to once again prove the skeptics wrong when he enters April's National Football League Draft. He and friend and former teammate Jarvis Herring are training with UF strength and track coaches, running three days a week and lifting weights four to six days a week. Vernell is currently deciding between two agents and says he has been projected as a mid-round draft pick to a priority free agent.
    Though Meyer believes Vernell has a gift that he should share with young people as a coach or a teacher, he also sees a promising future for him in the NFL.
    "I think there's no question," Meyer says of Vernell's ability to overcome the size barrier in the NFL. "He just has to get that chance. My concern is not if he can play, it's if he'll get that chance."
    The familiar concerns about his size don't faze Vernell - they never have.
    "It's motivation," he says. "I really don't know how I'd respond if somebody told me I could do something."
    The other sides of Vernell Brown He's a father, a son, a fiance, a volunteer, a football player. But there's more to Vernell Brown. Here are a few of his lesser-known talents:
    Pingpong king In addition to training for the NFL draft, Brown is also trying to prove himself in another sport: pingpong.
    Growing up, he spent many afternoons at "the blue center," the now-beige Northeast Community Center on NE 8th Avenue. Recreation employee Clarence Kelly is the resident pingpong champion there, and Brown is working hard to unseat him.
    "In order to be a legend, you've got to beat legends," Brown says.
    He estimates he's beaten Kelly just three or four of the hundreds of times they've played.
    Brown carries his pingpong paddle and a few balls in the pocket of his car's front passenger seat and often returns to the center with his daughter, parking her stroller facing the table so she can watch him take on the master. On a recent afternoon, Brown loses three straight games, but not before plenty of taunting whoops and hollers from both parties.
    When Brown leaves pushing Kendall's stroller, he's still stewing over the losses, and says he will be until he plays Kelly again - likely the next day.
    "I've got a real competitive side," he says.
    Barber Brown Brown painstakingly fades the top of his brother's hair into the sides, licking his lips in concentration.
    "I can cut just as good if not better than a lot of barbers," he says.
    Brown has been cutting hair since he was in sixth or seventh grade, when his father, Vernell Sr., taught him the basics. The rest he learned from watching professional barbers.
    He practiced on neighborhood guys, charging $5 to $7 per haircut, and says that often he would make $100 to $150 on a single Friday or Saturday. When he went to college, he passed his skill - and his business - on to his younger brother, Vince.
    Brown, who would bring his clippers to the hotel room Friday nights before Gator football games to cut his teammates' hair, hopes to one day attend barber school to get a license in the craft.
    Pawn power Brown has frequented University Pawn & Jewelry on SW 16th Avenue, owned by family friend Kipp Hayes, since it opened five years ago. He started coming to the shop in an agreement between Hayes and Brown's father to keep him out of trouble. The two would hang out and talk football, and over time Brown picked up the trade.
    "He learned the pawn business like the back of your hand," Hayes says. "He's sharp."
    Hayes credits Brown with helping his business grow by bringing UF students in to the shop. Brown, who has a key and knows the building's alarm code, sometimes runs the shop alone.
    "He's like family," Hayes says. "We been pretty tight."
    With the pawning skills he's acquired, Brown says he could open his own pawn shop.
    "I kinda feel like I'm a hustler," Brown says. "All pawnin' is is a legal hustle."
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