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Soft-spoken John Brown makes loud plays on the practice field for Ravens

Week after week, the man of modest stature and even more modest demeanor has made an outsized impression on the fields at the Ravens' training facility.

The name itself screams ordinary. But when John Brown goes tearing over the grass, fighting a defensive back for a pass from Joe Flacco, he seems to grow beyond his listed 5 feet, 11 inches.

Of the many new additions to the Ravens offense, none has opened more eyes than Brown during training camp.

“He has been better than we expected,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we’ve had high hopes for him, but [he’s] better than advertised — probably even better than what the tape showed, I would say. He’s been a complete receiver for us.”

If Brown carries his form into the regular season, he could give the Ravens an element they’ve long coveted — an every-down deep threat.

“J.B. is electric, man,” fellow receiver Willie Snead IV said. “He’s done a lot of things great since we stepped on the field here. I’m just really, really happy for him that he’s actually healthy, and he’s making plays like that.”

The soft-spoken Floridian offered a simple explanation for his stellar play Sunday as he waited for a cup of soft-serve ice cream after practice.

“I’m fully healthy, and they’re taking care of me,” Brown said. “People don’t even know the situation. They think I’m prone to injury. But I’m just at a place where I’m happy. They’re taking care of me, and they understand me.”

Like so many of his new teammates on the 2018 Ravens, Brown yearns to forget the past two seasons. In 2015, his second year with the Arizona Cardinals, he played like a rising star, catching 65 passes at an impressive average of 15.4 yards.

But a progression of health woes — from a cyst on his spine to a sickle-cell trait caught by a midseason blood test in 2016 — diminished his production and soured his experience in Arizona.

In 2016 and 2017 combined, Brown caught fewer passes, gained fewer yards and scored fewer touchdowns than he had during his 2015 breakout.

His spirits sank low enough that he contemplated quitting the game that had captivated him since childhood, when he dreamed of pulling his family out of the rough neighborhood where they lived in Homestead, Fla.

“I didn’t even know if I wanted to play anymore,” he said. “God does stuff for a reason, and at that time, I guess he had a better place for me. I think I’m in that place now.”

This would not be the first time Brown has overcome daunting obstacles to write a new chapter in his life.

In a recent piece for the Players' Tribune, he described waking from what he thought was a nightmare to the real sound of his mother's sobs. Brown was 20 years old, and an officer had just informed the family that his older brother and best friend, James Walker, had been shot twice in the chest and once in the head.

When Brown was a short, slow kid who annoyed teachers with his seemingly unrealistic talk of becoming an NFL star, his brother believed in him.

They won spending money playing together in neighborhood pick-up games and later went head-to-head for rival high schools. Throughout, Walker remained his younger brother's cheerleader in chief.

At the time Walker was shot, Brown's career seemed in limbo. He had initially accepted a scholarship to Division II Mars Hill University in North Carolina and then transferred to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, but he wasn't getting on the field because the team had already reached its limit for out-of-state players.

As Walker clung to life for almost 10 months, John earned one last shot at Division II Pittsburg State, also in Kansas. The day after he accepted the offer in April 2011, his brother died.

Brown's NFL dream seemed remote at that point. No Pittsburg State player had been drafted since 1993.

But he donned his brother's No. 5, ran untouched to the end zone the first time he fielded a punt and never looked back on the way to a record-setting career for the Gorillas.

“I was just trying to see where it could take me,” he said. “I was at the point where I had lost my brother, and I was just trying to get away, trying to do what I do best.”

What he found in Kansas was a second family and a culture of success.

The Cardinals picked Brown in the third round in 2014 and everything seemed golden after his first two seasons, both of which ended in the playoffs.

Brown studied tape of receivers such as Marvin Harrison and Antonio Brown, who wowed the league with craft rather than overwhelming size or speed.

It’s fitting, because in describing Brown, Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg could have been talking about either of those All-Pro talents.

“He will get in and out with the best of them, in and out of a break, I’m talking about,” Mornhinweg said. “A lot of speed guys have trouble getting in and out, because they’re so fast. But he gets in and out — bam — really well.”

Former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians regarded Brown as an unearthed gem.

“He trusted me,” Brown said.

But then he began experiencing mysterious leg pain during the 2016 season.

The Cardinals presumed he simply had a sore hamstring, but doctors found nothing. So Brown took a blood test, which revealed the sickle-cell trait, a genetic disorder that can lead to muscle breakdown after intense exercise.

Brown came to believe that the dry heat in Arizona exacerbated his condition.

Over the next two years, as one health problem seemed to replace another, Brown’s relationship with the Cardinals frayed.

“We just couldn’t figure it out,” he said.

He leaned on his siblings, a few close friends and his mother as he wondered if he was already done at age 27. Cassandra Brown had always been her son’s model for maintaining quiet determination through difficult times.

“She just told me to stay focused,” Brown said, recalling his talks with her. “She knew I didn’t want to be there. And she said there would be a time for me to get out. I was putting in all the hard training to take care of my body, but stress can cause injuries, and I was just somewhere in my life where I was ready for a new start.”

Brown knew one thing for certain: If he was going to move forward, he needed a change of scenery. The Ravens, with their desperate need for dynamic receivers and what sounded like a sensible plan for managing his health, seemed the best fit.

Brown signed a one-year, $5 million contract in the offseason, betting on his talent rather than grasping for the security of a longer deal.

He looks around him and sees many players in similar boats.

“Everybody feels like they got a point to prove,” he said. “So you know, everybody’s hungry.”

As he fits into the Ravens’ revamped receiving corps along with veteran authority figure Michael Crabtree and the outgoing Snead, Brown said he’ll be happy to continue his silent-but-deadly act.

“I don’t say much,” he said. “I just make the plays.”

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