Marquise Brown was not merely small. He was painfully thin, a Lilliputian in a land of mammoths.
A few years ago, those notions would have prompted guffaws from even the staunchest supporters of the then-130-pound stick figure. The first round of the NFL draft is inevitably stocked with athletes who've been the biggest and most acclaimed since they were 10 years old. That was not Marquise Brown.
Which helps explain the tears that streamed down his face Thursday night after the Ravens drafted him No. 25 overall. He had made the fantasy real.
“I told myself, ‘I’m not going to cry,’ ” Brown said Friday, wearing a sharply tailored blue suit for his introductory news conference at the Ravens’ headquarters in Owings Mills. “I don’t know how I let it happen, but it was a testament to everything I’ve been through. It was a lot of hard work, and I know this is just the beginning.”
Brown, 21, is an unusually important pick for the Ravens. If he's as thrilling as many project, he could reverse the franchise's tortured history with wide receivers and provide a vital lifeline in the development of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. He could also go down as an early jewel on the resume of first-year general manager Eric DeCosta.
“You’re my first pick as a GM, so you and I are going to be joined at the hip,” DeCosta told him Thursday night when he phoned to tell Brown he was about to become a Raven. “We’re in this together.”
DeCosta promised to take big swings as he sought a game-breaking receiver, and he made good on his word by selecting Brown. The former Oklahoma star ranked among the fastest, most productive playmakers in college football last year, but at 5 feet 9 and 166 pounds, he would redefine the accepted physical parameters for a star receiver in the NFL. Even his cousin, Antonio Brown — no giant at 5-10 and 181 pounds — is noticeably bulkier.
Brown’s statistics at Oklahoma portray the dilemma. According to Pro Football Focus, he got open more than any top receiver in college football over the past two seasons and forced more missed tackles in 2018 than all but one of his fellow receiver prospects in this year’s draft. But he made just three contested catches last season, least among the highly rated receivers. Skeptics ask how such a player will perform in the NFL, where defensive backs are larger and harder to escape.
Of course, Brown has heard concerns about his stature since pee-wee football. He’s always been small.
His mother, Shannon James, endured a harrowing pregnancy as high blood pressure and kidney troubles forced her into months of hospitalized bedrest. When Brown was born two weeks early, he weighed just 5 pounds, 6 ounces but was mercifully healthy.
“He was a miracle baby,” said James, who was with her son Friday.
The family’s struggles had only begun; James continued to battle kidney failure as she raised her son and his older sister, Shanice Brown, in a single-parent household. She spent years on dialysis, and her illness prevented her from working consistently. But with help from her parents, the family stuck together.
Those years helped toughen Brown for his own trials to come, when he’d walk 30 minutes each way to his job operating the “Full Throttle” roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, just so he could cover basic expenses while catching passes for a California junior college.
“Everything was basically like training,” James said.
Brown has hyperbolic Fox Sports announcer Gus Johnson to thank for his nickname, which carries a pleasant irony given the difficulty of his ascent. It's not a comment on his ego or his outsized dreams but a play on the name of his hometown in South Florida. Johnson blurted it out as he watched Brown catch a pass in front of a Kansas State defender, spin away and streak toward the end zone.
Brown has embraced the moniker, hoping people from his city will be lifted by the possibilities he represents. Hollywood, Fla., tucked between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, carries little of the glitz associated with its California counterpart.
Brown adored football from the time he donned his first Dan Marino jersey at age 2, and his rare speed was plenty evident at Chaminade-Madonna College Prep in Hollywood. But he was just so small. He also, by his own admission, lagged in preparations for the ACT, so recruiters did not know if he’d be academically eligible at the start of his college career. At one point, he announced his commitment to Utah State, but because of the academic questions, that opportunity evaporated.
As Brown’s classmates began their college careers in the fall of 2015, he remained home, running through self-devised cone drills and searching for someone to give him a chance.
Ted Iacenda, the head coach at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita Calif., wasn’t sure what to expect when he watched footage of Brown on the recommendation of another recruit.
“It was like, ‘OK, he’s little, but he’s got a burst,’ ” he recalled. “I did not think I was watching a first-round draft pick when I was watching his film.”
Seeing Brown in person, however, was a revelation. The slight receiver had been on campus for two months, lifting weights and hitting the books, before he took the field.
“It was about April when we rolled the balls out for practice, and that’s when you have the ‘aha’ moment,” said Iacenda, who teared up when Brown invited him to the NFL draft. “I remember very vividly, the ball went up in the air, and he ran by three people like they were standing still. These were not slow kids. He makes fast kids look slow.”
After catching 50 passes for 754 yards as the Cougars’ star deep threat, Brown no longer had to beg for big-time college opportunities. Oklahoma, USC and West Virginia came calling for the four-star recruit.
He had to prove himself all over again when he joined the star-studded Sooners, led by impending Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. Brown didn’t arrive with blue-chip pedigree, and he still struggled to hit 150 pounds on a well-fed day.
Mayfield later joked to reporters that upon meeting Brown, he thought his teammate needed to “eat a double cheeseburger or two.”
But Oklahoma’s outside receivers coach, Dennis Simmons, had recruited Brown and felt confident he had the personality to thrive.
“I knew what we were getting,” he said. “I mean, how many kids do you know nowadays who will walk to work and then from work back to school? That right there said a lot about his character to me. Football practice is hard within itself and then to leave from there, walk to work and then keep up with your classes, all while you’re out on your own — I knew there was something different about him.”
On the field, Brown raised eyebrows during a goal-line drill at his first practice. As Simmons recalled: “There was a defensive back who had inside leverage on him, and Marquise ran a slant route and basically crossed his face on his second step, which should never happen. Everybody looked at each other like, ‘We knew this kid was fast, but damn!’ ”
Brown led Oklahoma with 1,095 receiving yards on 57 catches in his one season with Mayfield. He was even better after Kyler Murray, another burgeoning Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick, took over at quarterback. He caught 75 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns this past season, setting himself up to leave school a year early and become the top receiver taken in the 2019 draft.
Murray was struck not just by Brown’s initial burst off the line but by his uncanny ability to continue widening his separation from a pursuing defender.
He told Bleacher Report he might beat his top receiver in a 40-yard dash (which Brown did not run at the NFL scouting combine because of a Lisfranc injury to his foot that will likely keep him out until training camp). “After that, forget it,” Murray said. “He’s running away from everyone.”
Brown is not a one-trick vertical threat. With help from his famous cousin — delivered during invitation-only sessions outside Antonio Brown’s Florida mansion — he’s added subtleties to his craft. He’s just as great a threat to catch a short pass and break loose as he is to streak past a cornerback on the outside.
Analysts such as Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network have suggested Brown is exactly the type of receiver Jackson needs to open up his passing game.
“It changes everything,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Beyond Brown’s game tape, DeCosta was charmed by the receiver’s competitive spirit when they met in the general manager’s office the week before the draft. DeCosta is also a scrapper who had to work his way into the NFL from an unusual, small-college angle. And in those face-to-face moments, the implications of Brown’s life story hit home with him.
“I do this test with the players that come into my office,” DeCosta recalled. “It’s just a game, and most of the guys sit down when they do it, and he stood up. He asked me if he could stand up, and that kind of resonated with me, because I would do the same thing, because you get really into it. He just didn’t feel comfortable sitting. So he stood up.”