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Seeking starting job with Ravens, Marlon Brown draws inspiration from personal loss

Ravens wide receiver Marlon Brown (14) of the Baltimore Ravens is tackled by strong safety Marcus Gilchrist of the San Diego Chargers in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 30, 2014 in Baltimore.
Ravens wide receiver Marlon Brown (14) of the Baltimore Ravens is tackled by strong safety Marcus Gilchrist of the San Diego Chargers in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 30, 2014 in Baltimore. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

Marlon Brown was moping.

He'd just played a lousy game, unworthy of his standard as a high school basketball (and football) star in Memphis. And he entered his grandmother's house in a full-on pout.

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Calvary Malone sized up the boy she'd raised from adolescence and didn't like what she saw. "What are you acting like that for?" she asked in a scolding tone. "You should really be in the gym right now. Get out my face. Go to the gym."

Harsh words. But Brown, now preparing for his third season as a wide receiver with the Ravens, grinned recently as he recalled them.

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He plans to raise his standard of play in 2015, to "make that leap" in his words.

And if he pulls it off, he'll do so drawing inspiration from two people he loved and lost — his grandmother, who died in February, and his college girlfriend, Abby Fishburn, who was killed in a car accident two years ago.

When Brown was in fifth grade, his mother moved to Chicago for work. She gave him the option of going with her or staying in Memphis with Malone, his father's mother.

Malone had forged a comfortable life as a longtime employee of Memphis-based Federal Express, but that didn't mean she made life comfortable for her youngest grandchild.

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"My grandmother was mean," Brown recalled with a laugh as he reflected on his childhood outlook. "She always made me do all this stuff, and she'd get mad at me. She was never praising me. But I knew at the end of the day, she was telling me, 'You can do better than this.'"

She was no easier on his friends.

"She was just trying to be perfect," he said. "And now I'm the same way. I hate making mistakes."

It's easy to compare Brown's 2014 statistics to those from his rookie year and label him a disappointment. But opportunity, or lack thereof, played a significant part. Quarterback Joe Flacco targeted him 82 times in 2013. Last year, with Steve Smith in the fold, Flacco threw to Brown just 31 times. Given that context, his decline from 49 catches to 24 seems less troubling.

"I feel like every time I was in a game, and every time the ball came my way, I made a play," he said. "Last year, it was like some games, you might get four or five balls coming your way. Some games, you might just get one, might get none. At the end of the day, you just have to seize the opportunity."

With Torrey Smith now in San Francisco, coach John Harbaugh expects Brown to take a significant step forward in his third season. Harbaugh said so in a March conference call with Ravens season-ticket holders and reiterated his thoughts during the team's June minicamp, where he was impressed with Brown's efforts..

"I would say the work … and the opportunity, it's a matter of both those things," Harbaugh said. "It's also a matter of his talent and ability. He's just a really gifted player. Like I said, I have high hopes for him. I really want to see him break out. He and I had a conversation about that just today. It's time for him to step up and become what he's capable of [being]. He's very determined to do that."

Wide receivers coach Bobby Engram also senses an impending breakout.

"You really saw Marlon come on strong the last half of last season, and we see the same thing in OTAs and minicamp," he said. "He's made a lot of plays, and he understands multiple positions. He's a worker and he's a technician who's learning how to continue to hone his craft."

In hopes of setting up a big year, Brown spent his offseason in Atlanta, working out four days a week with fellow pros. He'd jog before breakfast, perform drills in the Georgia sun from noon to 2 p.m. and finish each day with a massage and stretch. He said he also watched more film than ever before.

He tried not to dwell on the idea of 2015 as a make-or-break year but to live by a message Fishburn — whom he dated while playing at the University of Georgia — always emphasized.

If you follow Brown on Twitter, you'll note he repeatedly writes, "Thankful for another day." He does it to remind himself of Fishburn's admonition that every 24 hours offers a clean slate.

"She always used to tell me, 'You've got to be thankful for every day,'" he recalled. "I always had that idea, but not as firm as I do now. I had never had anybody close to me pass away."

Fishburn was killed in a head-on collision with a commuter bus on May 1, 2013, just a few days after Brown signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent. She was about to complete her first year as a middle school science teacher in Florida.

In a Twitter message at the time, Brown described the Florida State graduate as one of the sweetest, most genuine people he'd known. He has remained in touch with her sisters, Ashley and Alison, who recently sent him a birthday gift.

As much as Fishburn meant to Brown, no one was closer to him than his grandmother.

Malone often came to Baltimore for a few weeks at a time, attending Ravens games, cleaning house and cooking salmon dinners for her grandson and a few fortunate teammates. Brown caught grief from Steve Smith and Torrey Smith if he failed to bring them plates of grandma's fare.

She stayed longer than usual last December. Brown noticed her breathing heavily when they walked together in the mall, and she insistently lectured him about his finances. He now believes she knew the end was near.

Shortly after the Ravens' season ended against the New England Patriots, Malone spent a few days in a Memphis hospital, where Brown visited her for the last time. The next week, he texted her, "I love you." She responded unusually quickly, "I love you more."

Malone died the next day at age 73. "It was 1:19 p.m., I'll never forget the time," Brown said.

Since that day, he has concluded most of his public messages with the acronym G.R.I.P. for "Grandma, Rest In Peace."

To explain the key lesson he took from her, he goes back to his senior year at Georgia, which ended abruptly with a knee injury against Ole Miss. He went straight from the stadium to a local hospital that day, and by the time he returned to the locker room to collect his belongings, he was alone with his grandmother. His football future seemed very much in doubt.

"That was the first day I cried," he said. "It was just me and her, and I cried in the locker room, cried in the car. But then we got home and she was like, 'Yo, it's midnight. The day is over. It's time to stop crying.'"

Malone's message of tough love echoed Fishburn's feelings about seizing every day.

Brown said strangely, Fishburn bonded with his grandmother more easily than any of his other girlfriends. They'd gang up on him and hold him to similarly high standards. Now, their names are tattooed next to one another on his arm.

"I feel like my job is to play as hard as I can for them," Brown said. "I know my grandma is up there watching down. Her and Abby are having a party together watching me play. At the end of the day, all I'm trying to do is make them happy."

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