Long before he adopted the name of his hometown as a nom de guerre, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was another of the kids that South Florida seems to produce by the thousands: fast, football-obsessed and hungry for a better life.
The Ravens rookie grinned earlier this week as he let his mind drift back to youth-league days when he was already the smallest, swiftest player on the field, imitating the video-game cuts and spins of Southern California-era Reggie Bush.
“The culture down there, just how big football is, it’s how I was raised,” Brown said softly, just four days before his anticipated NFL debut against the Miami Dolphins. “It really made me who I am today. In South Florida, in our community, there’s only a few routes you can go down. We play football to stay out of trouble, and it becomes our way out.”
A rookie’s first NFL game always feels momentous, especially when he’s worked his way back from an injury (Lisfranc surgery to the foot in Brown’s case) that deprived him of a normal run-up to training camp. But Brown will take the field about 10 miles from the neighborhood where he grew up in Hollywood, Fla. He pulled on his first Dolphins jersey, Dan Marino’s No. 13, when he was hardly old enough to walk.
“His first game, he’s debuting at home as well,” said Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who came of age on the same fields around Broward County. “So, we just have to see how he approaches it and see what he’ll do. I’ve seen what he can do, so he just has to let everyone else see.”
Brown expects numerous friends and family members to be in the stands cheering for him Sunday, but said he won’t dwell on the scene because it’s nothing new.
He ended his college career in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the same building where he’ll begin his NFL run with the Ravens. That chapter didn’t go so well as his Oklahoma Sooners fell to Alabama in the Orange Bowl while Brown watched from the sideline because of his foot injury.
Brown is a “full-go” for Sunday’s season opener, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. But he lined up as a receiver in just one preseason game and played zero snaps with Jackson. So it’s not clear how quickly he’ll be thrown into offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s game plans.
“It’s good to have him in the fold, and we’re probably just going to play that by ear a little bit and see how it goes,” Roman said. “But he’s been responding well since he’s been out here. … You don’t get the sense at all that it’s going to be too big for him.”
The Ravens will rely on three wide receivers — Brown, Miles Boykin and Jaleel Scott — who’ve never caught an NFL pass. Willie Snead IV, a relative graybeard in his fifth NFL season, said they’re all in for a treat Sunday.
“I remember that feeling of just making it, being on the field and knowing, ‘I’m in the NFL,’ ” Snead said, reflecting on his 2015 debut against the Arizona Cardinals. “I remember I got my first catch, and I was just like, ‘Oh crap, I’m taking off.’ ”
Brown and company would do well to imitate Snead’s curtain-raiser; he went 63 yards.
“It felt great,” he recalled.
For most of his life, Brown did not seem destined to return to his home state as an NFL first-round pick. As he reminded a social-media poster recently, he was no one’s four-star recruit at Chaminade-Madonna College Prep. His slight stature, 140 pounds at the time, made him easy to overlook. He had to become a once-in-a-generation playmaker at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., to draw attention from Division I recruiters.
“I had no stars in high school could have settled for less but chose to go to junior college and prove that I deserve to play at the highest level!” he wrote in that Twitter post.
He’s a long way from such anonymity, having starred at Oklahoma as the top deep threat for two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. The Ravens picked him 25th overall in April, hoping he’d become the dynamic downfield receiver they’ve lacked since a young Torrey Smith helped them win Super Bowl XLVII.
Brown moved tentatively when he first took the field in training camp, but every so often, he’d accelerate away from a pack of defenders, offering a tantalizing glimpse of what might lie ahead. At this point, he said he’s comfortable with any move he might have to make, even sharp lateral cuts. After a grueling offseason rehabilitating at Gold Feet Global in Fort Lauderdale and at the Ravens’ facility, he’s less focused on physical development than on digesting Roman’s offense.
He also acknowledged he’s still building familiarity with Jackson, especially on the deep connections that require impeccable timing. He went through the same process with Mayfield after he broke into the lineup at Oklahoma.
“It’s pretty much the deep balls where you’ve got to get your timing,” he said. “It’s the sense of when to let it go for him, what angles I’m taking on routes and how I like to do things. Once we know what each other is thinking, it makes it easy.”
The Ravens hope the rookie’s speed will give them an extra dimension right away, even if we don’t see Brown’s full arsenal for several weeks.
“We’ll have to be vigilant in what we ask him to do, things that he can do well,” Harbaugh said. “But it’ll be a challenge for them, too, to cover him. He’s really fast. He has great hands.”
Between his speed, his “Hollywood” nickname and his diminutive stature, Brown could join Jackson as a next-generation star in Baltimore. Young fans flocked to him after training-camp practices, and he ate up their attention, though he’s a soft-spoken figure in the locker room and during interviews.
It’s not hard to understand his affinity for children after you hear what football meant to him all those years ago in South Florida.
He could only dream that the game would let him provide for his mother, Shannon James, who fought through years of kidney ailments to care for him and his older sister. This summer, after he signed with the Ravens, he bought her a sparkling new home, a moment he’s preserved with a pinned video on Twitter.
That’s the weight of football in South Florida.
“Kids played the game with so much passion,” Brown said. “It gave us hope.”
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