As Marlon Brown limped back to the Georgia locker room, the shock subsided and reality hit him as hard as the Ole Miss defender's helmet had hit his left kneecap.
The team's trainer had just told him that his anterior cruciate ligament was shredded. His college career was over. His NFL aspirations were in jeopardy. Why him? Why now?
Brown remembers entering the empty locker room, its lights dimmed. While the senior wide receiver was at the hospital, his Bulldogs teammates had departed Sanford Stadium, off to celebrate a blowout victory. Alone, Brown sat at his locker one last time, tears streaming down his face.
"When it happened, I probably cried for about 10 minutes. But I never thought about giving up. Never that," Brown said this week. "I decided I wasn't going to feel sad for myself and give myself excuses. I was just going to work extra hard to get where I wanted to go."
Ten months later, Brown has surprised everyone, besides maybe himself and his closest supporters, by overcoming the major knee injury to not only make the Ravens as a rookie free agent, but also make an immediate impact in the team's season-opening 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos.
The path to the NFL was not as direct as he first envisioned, but Brown has made it nonetheless. Now that he is here, the Ravens are relying on him to take on a larger role after starting wide receiver Jacoby Jones injured his knee in Denver. Brown could start opposite of Torrey Smith on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, and his quarterback feels he is ready for the opportunity.
"You can tell nothing is too big for him, and he's ready to go in there and make plays," Joe Flacco said. "He's obviously going to have to clean up some things and learn on the fly a little bit, but you've got to like that. He's a good player, and I think he's going to have a good future for us."
The next A.J. Green?
When the Memphis native arrived in Athens, Ga., as a five-star recruit, the consensus among fans, media and the coaches that fiercely recruited him was that future greatness was inevitable. Brown was 6-feet-5 and ran well for a player his size, which led some to compare him to Georgia's star wide receiver A.J. Green before he even set foot on campus.
Brown played in Green's shadow for two seasons before Green left for the NFL and became a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Minor injuries like a tweaked hamstring and a strained groin slowed Brown. In his junior year, he had 15 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns. Finally healthy as a senior, Brown began to click with quarterback Aaron Murray.
"The thing that probably kept him from flourishing was that he had nagging injuries here and there," Georgia wide receivers coach Tony Ball said. "We've always felt like if he could stay healthy and get the reps to get better, he could become an outstanding player. We saw flashes of it throughout his career."
But in the third quarter of the win over Ole Miss last November, Brown, who had three catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, was injured by a low tackle by safety Trae Elston. Lost for the season, Brown finished with 27 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns as a senior.
Dane Brugler, an NFL draft analyst for CBS Sports, said that Brown, who had experience as both an inside and outside receiver, was inconsistent during his Georgia career and dropped some balls because of concentration lapses. But Brugler felt Brown had the physical tools to play in the NFL.
"He wasn't nearly the type of dynamic talent that A.J. Green was, but he had that lean body type," Brugler said. "He was a gliding athlete. He had the ability to make the highlight-reel catch, whether it was winning a jump ball or making a play on the sideline."
Matt Miller, the lead NFL draft writer for Bleacher Report, said that despite preexisting concerns about his durability, he projected Brown to be a mid-round draft prospect before his ACL injury.
"He had such amazing size and ball awareness that it felt like you could draft him in the fourth round and let him develop as a route-runner. If he ever did develop into more of a technician, he had the size and strength to be dangerous," Miller said. "Speed questions may have crept up, but for teams needing a big receiver, he would have had value."
After he went undrafted, Brown headed to Houston in May. He was under the impression that the Texans planned to sign him on the spot, but they just wanted to work him out. If his knee checked out, they would sign him before training camp when his knee was further along. Emotionally hurt, Brown said he participated in one light practice then told the Texans he was leaving.
Within the hour, Brown's agent was on the phone to tell him the Ravens were interested in signing him. During the draft process, the Ravens had "recruited him like crazy," coach John Harbaugh said.
"Let's go," responded Brown, who was in Baltimore a few days later, standing on the sideline during the Ravens' organized team activities and rehabilitating his knee behind the scenes.
"I definitely feel wanted here," the 22-year-old Brown said. "Even though I had my injury, they still wanted me to come here."
Brown first participated in drills early in training camp, and after missing a few days to rest the knee in the middle of camp, he started to emerge from obscurity by catching eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the team's final two preseason games.
"He's naturally gifted. He has that hunger," Smith said. "He didn't have the luxury of being eased in. They had to find out (quickly) if he could play or not. He went out there and was fighting, and that's a credit to him. The first day he came out there, you could see his burst and his natural skills. I thought, 'Man, if he didn't get injured, he wouldn't be in Baltimore right now.'"
Brown started the opener against the Broncos, and after Jones went down, he ended up playing 67 snaps. He caught four passes for 65 yards and scored on a 13-yard reception, beating Broncos cornerback Kayvon Webster on a corner route in the end zone.
There was a flag on the play, though, so Brown didn't immediately celebrate. He was walking off the field when veteran receiver Brandon Stokley ran up and congratulated him on his first NFL touchdown. The penalty was on the defense. Back in the locker room, his phone buzzed with well wishes.
"It was like a real dream come true," Brown said of his NFL debut. "But to be honest, I was just trying to focus on my task because I didn't want to mess up in front of everyone. That was my mindset."
Harbaugh said this week that he is looking forward to seeing how Brown develops. "We're kind of excited about it," the coach said. But with Jones sidelined and a few other new faces being worked into the offense, the Ravens need him to develop faster than what was expected just a few weeks ago, when Brown first set foot on their practice fields.
That he would find himself in this opportunity seemed unlikely on that painful evening in November. But Brown said he always believed he would work his way into the NFL somehow.
"I could imagine it, because I had a vision for myself and a work ethic to get me where I wanted to be," he said. "So me being here right now and doing the things that I'm doing, I'm not surprised by it because I had a vision and I worked for it. And now I'm here."
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