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From the day he was pretty much considered a throw-in to the Florida recruiting class of 2001, Brown has heard all the critics, some very vocal and others who hide in anonymity on the message boards. Steve Spurrier was Florida's coach when he signed. Spurrier took his cue to add Vernell to the signing class from Coach Jim Niblack, the now-retired Gainesville High coaching legend. Niblack is the ultimate football gypsy. His stops include the World Football League (version I and II), Florida, Kentucky, the NFL (Buffalo), the USFL (Orlando), NFL-Europe, Canadian Football League and even Arena League.
"I told him [Spurrier] 'if Vernell Brown can't play, I'll pay you back for his scholarship' and I mean it," said Niblack four years ago.
That was all Spurrier needed to offer the scholarship which made Brown the latest in the Brown family legacy at UF. His dad, Vernell Sr., played for the Gators under Coach Charley Pell, as did his uncle Johnell and his cousin, Val Brown
Brown began at wide receiver under Spurrier, but Spurrier left Florida after the 2001 season. The next three years under Coach Ron Zook, Brown spent shuffling back and forth from offense to defense. He was tried at wide receiver, then at safety, back to wide receiver and then at corner. He was always praised for his work ethic and athleticism, but for every comment about his praise, his critics came back with "yeah, but he's only 5-8" and of course, he's never been allowed to forget the pass play from hell.
He's heard all the critics and while he won't dwell on the negatives, some of the critique was personal enough that it stung. But instead of hanging his head, he rallied within himself, using the criticism as motivation.
"I've learned a lot since I've been here and I've turned into a better man but also a better football player," he said. "I just take it all in stride. I go out there every day and go to work."
After four years of shuffling around and hearing all the doubts, Vernell Brown got the lease on life that he's always needed on the January day when Urban Meyer arrived permanently in Gainesville as the head ball coach. The first thing that Meyer did was wash the slates clean for everyone. Players were expected to make turnarounds in their lives and give their full allegiance to the new coaching staff and the football program. It was Vernell Brown's chance to shine.
"I think a lot of guys had things that happened that put them in the dog house with the coaching staff," said Brown. "It benefited a lot of guys who had trouble in the past. They had a fresh, clean slate and they got a coach who you want to play for."
There was no trouble in Vernell's past but he had a clean slate just the same, and Meyer was definitely a coach he wanted to play for. His first chance to prove himself came in mat drills where he proved once and for all that while there isn't a single scholarship player smaller, there isn't one that's tougher. Players who went through those February mornings under the direction of Mickey Marotti called the sessions brutal. The tougher the drills, however, the more that Brown excelled.
What brought out the best in Brown was Meyer's insistence that there is always a winner and always a loser.
"Everything we do around here is about winning even if you're just walking to the bathroom," said Brown at Florida's media day on Friday. "It's all about winning and competing."
The competitor that is Vernell Brown cannot be underestimated. Challenged like he's never been challenged before, he responded with an effort like never before, earning the praise of Marotti and Meyer. Then came spring practice and it was more of the same. Brown started at corner, heard all the critics, and he just wouldn't go away. One corner after another tried to unseat Brown from the starting position opposite Brown, but he fended off the challenges.
Vernell Brown shadows Jemalle Cornelius
In the summer, as Meyer made the tour of the state's Gator clubs, he kept saying that Brown was penciled in at number one but he had questions about the position. While Meyer was on the road, Brown was back in Gainesville being a leader in the weight room and going toe to toe with four of the nation's best wide receivers every day on the practice field.
When fall practice began this past Monday, Brown took to the field with a new determination, literally abusing one wide receiver after another in one drill after another. As Chris Leak, Josh Portis and Cornelius Ingram have learned this week there are better places to throw the ball than to the wide receiver that Brown is blanketing. And, as Dallas Baker, Chad Jackson, Jemalle Cornelius and Bubba Caldwell have learned, there are easier ways to make a living than trying to get open against Vernell Brown.
"Part of it is because he's got Chuck Heater coaching him," said Greg Mattison, Florida's co-defensive coordinator. "Chuck Heater is the best secondary coach in the nation, bar none, and Vernell is like a sponge back there. Whatever the coaches tell him to do he absorbs it and puts it into play."
Brown acknowledges that Heater is a definite step up from the coaching he got in the secondary from Mike Woodford and Dan Disch in the past three years.
"It's a lot different now," he said. "That [coaching] is a major part of the success I'm having right now. We have great coaches and the style of defense is an aggressive style. That's the way the DBs come out and play it but also the defensive linemen and the linebackers."
Thursday, Meyer announced once and for all that the starting corner opposite Dee Webb is Vernell Brown. The position wasn't given to Brown and it's not his by default. He earned it with his hard work. Friday, Meyer got to announce that Brown had been selected by his teammates as a captain for the 2005 season.
"Corner was one of the main spots that we were concerned about," said Meyer. "Vernell Brown was elected captain. The one thing that coaches think they know, they don't know. The players know. That's why I love to let the players vote on the captains. The way we vote is that we put it on paper and the players sign their names, so if I saw an unusual vote, I could go to him and say 'Why did you vote for this guy?' I didn't have to because I saw it go the way I would hope. I saw Vernell Brown and he is unquestionably the starting corner at the University of Florida. He's a great young man and he can really play corner."
Mattison says he'll go to war with Vernell Brown on his side anytime, anywhere and on any day.
"I love Vernell Brown," he said. "He can play for me anyday. No, he's not the ideal size you want for a corner but look at all the things he brings. College football is about guys like Vernell Brown. He should be a poster child for college football. He does everything perfect when it comes to character and he just keeps getting better on the football field."
Doing things the right way is the only way Brown knows how to do it. He graduated in four years and has made All-SEC Academic Honor Roll twice. He has impeccable character. On the football field, he's been a leader and now he's got a starting position to go with those leadership skills.
"This is my first time that I know I'm going to pay a major role on the team so it's very exciting after all I've been through during my career," he said.
Because he's earned the starting role, his stature with his teammates has grown, too.
"He's always been called 'short stuff' and all that stuff but he's kind of locked into the starting cornerback position," said center Mike Degory, another of the five captains selected by the team. "He's captain of our team. He's one of those guys we look to for leadership. Even I do. When he speaks, we listen. I know I do."
Knowing that he has the backing of his teammates and the coaching staff has given Brown a new boost of confidence. He always knew deep down that he was capable of playing well. He was a standout quarterback and defensive back at Gainesville High and he was the starting point guard on two straight state championship basketball teams. He was always the small guy on the basketball court, but game after game he would earn respect by making great defensive plays or ramming in a thunder jam thanks to his 40-inch vertical jump.
"One thing I've always strived for throughout my life is being respected," he said. "I try to live right where I can get respect that way and I try to play right so I can get respect that way. I'm a man that's all about respect."
And now he is a man with a college degree, a starting position on a football team that has been picked as high as third in the nation and he is a team captain. He is ready to lead as always by example, but vocally as well. More than anything, he is ready to do his part to help the team win. Like everyone else on the team, he is ready to put those five-loss seasons of the past three years in the past.
"I think Coach Meyer helped everybody get that winning attitude," he said. "You don't lose at anything. You take it personal if you lose. It's not all right to lose at anything around here and I think that's the way it should be."
Vernell Brown is the way it should be. He's a winner and he's got a heart to prove it.
"You won't find a kid with a bigger heart," said Mattison. "That's what makes him special and that's why he's a winner."
(Photos copyright by Glenn Danforth/Imagine Studios)