Joel Brown is no stranger to crowds.
As a member of the Woodlawn track and field program between 1996 and 1999, Brown regularly drew scores of onlookers eager for a glimpse of the six-time state champion in the hurdles.
When he was at Ohio State, he competed in the NCAA and national championships and earned a spot in the U.S. Olympic trials last year.
But when Brown traveled to Cuxhaven, Germany, for a meet less than a month ago, he was stunned to see what he estimated to be about 20,000 people sitting in the stands.
"People actually like track and field overseas," Brown said. "We have some track and field fans here in the U.S., but it's something else over there. ...
"It's definitely a great feeling to be able to walk into a stadium and see all these kids running up to you to get your autograph. I can walk the streets in the U.S.A. and people will never know who I am."
That could soon change as Brown is set to take part in perhaps the most significant meet of his career.
The 25-year-old will be one of four Americans competing in the 110-meter hurdles in the 10th International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships scheduled to run from today through Aug. 14 in Helsinki, Finland.
Brown, who qualified for the championships by placing fourth in the hurdles at the U.S. outdoor championships in California on June 24, will face, among others, four-time defending world champion Allen Johnson of the United States, 2004 Olympic champion Xiang Liu of China and top-ranked Ladji Doucoure of France.
Brown turned in the seventh-fastest time in the world when he placed second in 13.22 seconds in the Oslo (Norway) Golden League meet a week ago, defeating Johnson, among others, and won two other hurdles events in Europe last month.
The journey has been the culmination of hard work and positive thinking.
"I know that coming from Woodlawn to Ohio State, I [learned that I] could run with the college kids," Brown recalled during a brief visit to Woodlawn two weeks ago before returning to Columbus, Ohio, to resume training under coach Karen Dennis.
"As I went through the ranks at Ohio State, I saw that these guys aren't too far from where I am now. So I can run with these guys, too."
Much like the way he clears the hurdles that stand between him and the finish line, Brown has overcome a series of obstacles.
After a celebrated high school career that included being named the 1998 All-Metro Performer of the Year in outdoor track and setting Class 3A state records in the 110 and 300 hurdles, Brown struggled in making the transition from Woodlawn to Ohio State (and from 39-inch hurdles on the high school level to 42-inch models in college) during his freshman year. He also had to deal with nagging injuries, which hadn't been the case in high school.
Brown rebounded, collecting back-to-back Big Ten titles in the 110 hurdles in 2003 and 2004 and winning the NCAA Mideast regional crown in 2004.
But with a little more than a week left before the 2004 NCAA championships, Brown's father, John Dorsey, died of prostate cancer.
Jonathan Streat, one of Brown's best friends at Woodlawn, said the death devastated Brown.
"I remember him calling the day his father died," Streat recalled. "He was real upset. That was the most upset I've ever seen him."
Brown went on to finish third in the NCAA championships and missed the final at the U.S. Olympic trials by one spot. "I try not to think about it, but [the death] affected me," Brown recalled. "I'm sure it did."
This year has been nothing but golden for him. After taking the 60-meter hurdles in the U.S. indoor championships in February, he won the 110-meter event at the Penn Relays for the second consecutive year.
Although he finished fourth in the outdoor championships, he was awarded the last of three U.S. spots because Johnson, as the defending champion, had earned a bye.
That Brown is at this point in his career is not surprising to his coach. Dennis, the U.S. women's coach at the Athens Olympics, has been working with Brown for the last three years on his speed and starts.
"Joel's still very young," said Dennis. "I think if you look at the hurdlers that are beating him right now, they're in their 30s."
Only two of the eight hurdlers with faster times than Brown are younger. "Joel is 10, 12 years their junior right now. He's still got a lot of years to improve and to grow stronger and to get more experienced."
Brown admits he isn't the prototypical hurdler. While many of his competitors are 6 feet or taller, Brown is 5 feet 10.
"I'm sure they don't overlook me," Brown saaid with a smile. "But at the same time, I don't have that presence that would cause someone to say, 'Aw shucks, he's right there,' But that's fine. Maybe, hopefully one day, that will happen. I just want to go out there and perform my best."
Brown's days of anonymity may be over - at least at Woodlawn. Athletic director Michael Sye and track coach Mark Pryor said the hurdler, who returns several times a year to visit and talk with students, is quickly becoming a popular figure.
For Sye, Brown is the project who has succeeded. It was Sye who spotted Brown on the Warriors baseball team and persuaded the freshman to turn his attention to the track.
"He had that tenacity and that drive to want to be better," said Sye, a state indoor and outdoor champion in the hurdles at Woodlawn who ran at the University of Delaware. "He was a sponge: everything I would throw out, he would just soak it up. He just became better over time."
For Pryor, Brown is the embodiment of the reason why he coaches at the high school level.
"It's your payday," he said. "We don't get paid much, but when you see somebody like that, it makes it all worthwhile and it keeps us going."