Brown Just Wants To Play One More Game

The night before national signing day, 2001, Steve Spurrier talked with Gainesville legend Jim Niblack, the ultimate football gypsy who has coached everything from a state championship at Gainesville High School to the offensive line of the Buffalo Bills. Spurrier had a scholarship he could give but he needed to be convinced that the undersized local kid could play so he sought out Niblack, an astute judge of talent who's known to be brutally honest.

Niblack knew the kid well and was plenty friendly with the whole family since years ago he coached the dad and his brother at GHS. Niblack was convinced this pint-sized quarterback could play college football at the Division I level. Spurrier respected Niblack's judgment but there was the size issue complicated by where to play him? There was no question he was a superb athlete who had played quarterback, wide receiver, running back, safety and corner at GHS but where would he project in college? He played the point in basketball and was a two-time all-state selection for the best high school team in the state of Florida. So there was no question that he was a tremendous athlete just the nagging issue of size and where to play him. Spurrier needed to be convinced.

At the moment when it seemed the conversation might reach an impasse, Niblack volunteered, "You give him a scholarship and if he can't play football for you, you look me up in four years and I'll write you a check for the whole damn scholarship."

And with that, Vernell Brown got his scholarship to the University of Florida. It wasn't a popular choice among Florida fans who mostly went ballistic on Gator Country message boards. About the only redeeming quality that Gator fans could find was that Vernell's dad, Vernell Sr., uncle Johnell and cousin Val Brown all played for the Gators under Charley Pell. Another cousin, Mike Peterson, played for Spurrier.

Vernell was 5-8 and 149 pounds in those days. The 19 pounds he has added to his frame in the almost five years since he became a Gator are stretched with sinewy toughness over a body so wiry and muscular that it's hard to imagine if there's a single fat cell. Adding the weight has been almost as difficult as winning over the hearts of Gator fans who only recently warmed up to him.

Winning over the fans was never one of his goals although he will tell you that it's kind of nice to be hearing some positives for a change. He felt he had won over a skeptical Florida coaching staff while playing with the scout team during his true freshman year, but Spurrier called it quits after Florida hammered Maryland in the Orange Bowl that year and in came Ron Zook. With Zook it was never a case that he disliked Vernell --- he loved him, actually --- but there was a problem finding a place to play him. During the three years of the Zook era, Vernell spent his time shuffling between wide receiver and cornerback.

It was at wide receiver during his redshirt freshman year that he was part of one of the most infamous plays in Florida football history in the Outback Bowl against Michigan, a play that only solidified in the minds of his detractors why he shouldn't be playing football at the Division I level.

With the game on the line in the final minute against Michigan, the Gators elected to run a trick play that called for Vernell taking the ball on a reverse and throwing to quarterback Rex Grossman. Michigan wasn't the least bit fooled and blew the play up almost before it got started. Vernell's pass under pressure was intercepted, snuffing out Florida's chances of a victory and bringing on a cascade of ill will. The heat he took for that pass was unmerciful and undeserved. It was a bad call, a dumb call even, and certainly one that should have never been made. Watch the replay and you'll see it was doomed from the start yet a large contingent of Florida fans refused to let go of that play for a full two years.

He shuffled between corner and wide receiver in his sophomore year before settling in as a backup corner as a junior. In the secondary he went through coaches Mike Woodford and Dan Disch. It was a rocky road on the football field, but Brown never let all the turmoil and uncertainty distract him from maintaining a good enough GPA to make the All-SEC honor roll. He did what few Division I college football players ever do, which is to graduate on time in four years.

His career at Florida probably would have ended with that play in the Outback Bowl in 2003 as its defining moment except that Urban Meyer arrived on the Florida scene to replace Zook after the 2004 season. Meyer wiped the slate clean on everyone and sent a message that heart, determination and effort --- signature traits for Vernell Brown --- would take precedence over things like size and potential.

That's not to say that Meyer was 100 percent sold on an undersized corner in a league famous for big wide receivers with blazing speed, but the new coach was willing to be convinced. Brown began convincing Meyer during mat drills. While others on the team puked their guts out in trash cans at 6 a.m., the little guy breezed through each drill, the tougher the better. Then came spring practice and on a daily basis, Vernell Brown was the one making the plays in the secondary. He followed that up by becoming a real team leader in the summer and then proved once again in August two-a-days that he belonged.

"From day one I felt like I can play," said Vernell. "The things that I did in the spring and preseason were some of the same things I was doing before but I wasn't given the opportunity."

All he ever wanted was a chance to prove himself on the field. All he ever needed was a coach to believe in him.

"That's something I haven't had here since my freshman year and it definitely felt good to have a coach behind me who believed in me," he said.

Meyer believed in him and cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater delivered the coaching that he never got from Mike Woodford or Dan Disch.

"Heater's one of those guys who feels like the best player should play," said Brown. "That's all you can ask for as a player is that the coach will be totally honest with you. I wasn't given anything but I was given an opportunity to play."

And play he did up until that moment against Vanderbilt when he sprained an ankle and broke a bone in his leg on a punt return. That injury probably cost him any shot at All-SEC honors. Watch the game film and you won't find another corner in the league who was as consistent or as tough to catch the ball on as Vernell Brown.

The injury forced him off the field as a player but couldn't stop him as a contributor to the team. When Florida faced arch-rival Florida State in the season finale, it was Brown's constant encouragement and coaching on the sideline that helped true freshman Avery Atkins turn his first starting assignment into a game to remember for a lifetime. FSU kept trying to pick on the freshman but Atkins picked off a pass, knocked down two others and forced at least three bad throws with his tight coverage. Atkins is the first to admit he couldn't have done it without number 16 coaching him up on the sideline.

Since the FSU game, Brown's goal has been to do whatever is necessary to rehab the broken leg to get back in uniform just one more time. He loves being a Florida Gator and the chance to put on that uniform one more time, even if it's just for one or two plays, drives him night and day.

"It's the last time I'll ever get to wear that orange and blue uniform so getting back on the field is important and it's one of those things I'm striving to do right now," he said.

Brown's determination to play again has Meyer motivated.

"I want him on the field," says the coach about the young man that he has affectionately called "the real face of Florida football."

Meyer wants Brown on the field because the little guy is indeed what Florida football should really be about. Whether it's on the field or off the field, Vernell Brown is about all the right things. He has his degree and he has a future that will be carved with success. He's a leader who has shown by example that a determined, willing heart more than makes up for a ton of physical shortcomings. He's shown that patience and determination can win over even the detractors who spent four years lamenting that he ever got the scholarship to Florida in the first place.

It's ironic that the last time he will ever see the field as a Gator will be in the same place and in the same bowl game where one play fueled two more years of dissent by his many critics. He'll take the field against Iowa in the Outback Bowl focused in on doing anything he can to help the Gators because he wants a victory to be his final memory as a Gator player. The memory of that one bad play against Michigan four years ago won't even cross his mind.

"Really man, all that stuff is in the past and I just kinda put it out of my mind," he said. "I tend not to reflect on the past. I look at what's ahead and try to capitalize on that."

There are no givens for the future. He's described by many as the perfect Arena League player since he has excellent speed and the ability to play on both sides of the ball but instead of setting his sights on a promising career on that venue he sees a bigger stage on his horizon.

"Arena hasn't even been a thought of mine," he said. "The NFL has definitely been a thought and I think I will fare out pretty well in the NFL. Of course, you will have doubters but it's all about proving those doubters wrong. I think I'll definitely get a shot in the NFL and it's up to me to take advantage of the opportunity."

He isn't the prototypical size for an NFL corner but the NFL is just one more hurdle he will have to leap. He heard the same song only with different verses five years ago when he got his ticket punched for Florida all because Jim Niblack believed in him enough that Steve Spurrier was convinced. Convincing the NFL people might be more difficult than that, but Vernell Brown has spent a lifetime proving that if you'll just give him a chance, he'll get the job done.

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