Diminutive cats from small-time universities with huge hearts and bigger dreams have carved out fairytale NFL legacies and been the living athletic examples of the phrase, “anything’s possible.”
When the Pittsburgh Steelers spent a low-risk, sixth-round pick on a speedy, undersized wide receiver named Antonio Brown back in 2010, it’s safe to say that no one actually expected him to have his first 1,000 yard season by 2011 (1,108) as Ben Roethlisberger’s secondary target to Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh’s aerial attack.
If that wasn’t success enough for an unheralded baller from Central Michigan, after Wallace took his talents to South Beach, Brown became the Steelers No. 1 wide receiver and he’s been hurdling his NFL peers with each dynamic performance.
The answer for best rapper ever remains a standoff between Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas. These days the NFL has its own battle going on at wide receiver. With Megatron slowed by a janky ankle, NFL heads are debating whether Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant or Brown is the NFL’s most potent aerial weapon.
Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson calls Brown a "modern day version of Jerry Rice" since he doesn’t have the greatest measurables but makes the game look easy at times because of his innate understanding of it. It’s true that both receivers came from unheralded programs. Brown attended Central Michigan and Rice was a mid first-round pick from Mississippi Valley State
This season Brown’s 719 receiving yards is second in the NFL to Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (767), who might want in on that “best in the game” convo. Time will decide Brown’s all-time standing. We certainly can’t begin comparing him to any of the all-time greats after a few platinum seasons. Brown does, however, hold the edge over Rice in versatility. Brown was originally drafted as a special teams threat and he can toss the rock too. The Monday night stage is where many a low-profile stud has burst through the TV screen and into the hearts of national football fans. Brown has been flying below the radar for most of his career, but his performance on Monday Night Football was indeed his coming out party as one of the NFL’s VIP pass-grabbers. And he put it down sexier than Adrienne Bailon on The Real in helping the Steelers improve to 4-3 in a nasty and congested AFC North Division.
The Steelers -- offensively balanced as always -- had crucial performances from Roethlisberger (265 yards passing, 1 TD) and back Le'Veon Bell (145 yards total), but it was Brown who supplied the most memorable highlights.
Brown was targeted 13 times by Roethlisberger and caught nine passes for 90 yards. While he didn’t take one to the house, he made some twisting grabs and threw a TD pass on a trick play to Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore, giving Pittsburgh its first lead of the game.
With the Steelers down 13-10, Roethlisberger lined up behind the center at the Texans' own 3-yard line with 1:10 left in the second quarter. Brown galloped over from the left side and took the handoff from Roethlisberger to set up an apparent sweep.
Instead, Brown reversed direction, kept the ball, managed to elude former college teammate J.J. Watt (possibly the NFL’s premier defensive player) and hit Moore in the end zone for six.
There must be something in the water at Central Michigan. To produce two players who are possibly the best in the game at their positions is pretty ill. Players from small time schools seem to play with a desperation and reckless abandon that some higher-profile players fail to exhibit. Being versatile and open to change is another quality of small school football bandits that rose above the cats from Michigan and Florida and Ohio State and Florida State to become not just a casual participant, but a major player and face of pro sport’s biggest TV ratings killer.
Seven years ago, few people in the football world outside of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., knew about Brown or J.J.Watt, better known in the hood as "The Riot." Before Watt became the best defensive player on the planet, he was a tight end and Brown’s pass-catching teammate on the Central Michigan University football team.
In fact, the two players combined for more than 1,000 yards -- Brown caught 98 passes for 980 yards and Watt added eight receptions for 77 yards.
"I just remember he was one of the best I've ever seen in my life," Watt said of Brown (via ESPN.com).
Watt left CMU after his freshman season looking for more playing time. He ended up at Wisconsin, where he was switched to defense and the rest is NFL sack-master history.
"I started out on the scout team at defensive line," Watt said. "I think partially because they needed a body there and partially just to see what happens and obviously it all ended up working out in the end so I'm fortunate."
Watt’s NFL stock shot through the roof and he became a Top 10 NFL face during his 20.5 sack season in 2012 when he obliterated the league and became one of the sport’s most feared defenders. Now it’s Antonio’s turn to eat with the big boys and share his meals in the Royal Baller’s suite. He’s on his way to his third Pro Bowl in five seasons and with one of the most common last names in America, Pittsburgh’s top shotta has managed to distinguish himself. No longer does anyone ask Mike Tomlin, “What can Brown do for you?” The proof is in the pudding—which is also brown by the way.
Watching son cutback and dash and dupe defenders with a snake’s elusiveness and a cheetah’s wheels is a thing of beauty. When he gets the rock in space, there’s no doubt fans are watching one of the NFL’s must-see performers. Every TD and knee-buckling run is another inspirational jam for the underdog and a blessing to the Steelers.
“From the day I got here he wasn’t a household name other than special teams, and you’ve just seen the guy ascend and put himself up there with the great receivers in the game right now," said Todd Haley, who took over as the Steelers' offensive coordinator in 2012. "He continues to get better, and that’s the exciting thing."