Andrew Brown’s journey to the NFL practice squad

Bengal fans begin to fill the stadium for the first preseason game of 2018. As game time approaches, the cheers get louder and adrenaline begins to rush throughout the stadium. After endless hours of preparation, the team charges out of the locker room onto the field. A few of them are rookies, experiencing the out-of-body feeling for the first time. The audience meets them with a roar of appreciation and eagerness to get this 2018 season started.

In the fourth quarter, the Bengal’s defense lined up for a snap. To fans, this pre-season game was insignificant to their year. But to rookie Andrew Brown, fifth round pick, he would remember it forever. It was his first appearance in the NFL, and the beginning of a lot of change.

“Hut! Hut! Hut!” The throaty grunt was followed by 26 players dogpiling into a mass of people, legs and helmets poking out here and there. After the aggressive shoving and colorful language calmed down, the players begin to pick themselves up and the mass begins to slowly disperse. But one player took a little longer to rise. Andrew Brown gripped his hamstring with a winced face. He had been playing football long enough to know that something was wrong. Coaches and trainers guided Brown to the sideline and then the training room where they informed him of news he did not want to hear.

Brown had torn his hamstring in his first NFL game appearance. At this moment, Brown’s outlook on football took a 360° turn from when he began the sport.

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When Andrew was just 10 years old, his mother, Sonia Carter, died after a long fight with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and two bouts of breast cancer. “The death of my mom at such a young age molded me into the man I am today. I was able to deal with adversity, rise above it and become something of it.”

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After the death of his mom, football was his escape during his developmental years. He found his second family there, the coaches that had his best interests in mind. He made a majority of his childhood memories through it. “As a child, I was obsessed with the game of football. I wanted to play it every chance I had.” He explained how he spent countless afternoons on the field. Not because anyone forced him to, but because he loved the game. It just so happened that he was pretty good at it as well.

Brown’s high school years are heralded with accolades and unbelievable statistics. In his senior season he recorded 93 tackles, 30 for a loss, 18 sacks and forced nine fumbles. This continued domination led to Brown becoming a two-time USA Today All-American, ESPN’s No. 1 defensive tackle recruit, 2013 Gatorade High School Football Player of the Year and many more.

“I remember receiving each award in high school. Even the smaller ones, I wanted to remember that experience.” In July 2014, Brown received one of the highest awards a high school football player could be awarded. He had the opportunity to walk the red carpet at the ESPY Awards as Gatorade Player of the Year. He stopped to snap pictures with NBA star Kevin Durant and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Three years later, Brown recalls the exact feeling, “Just the look in my dad’s eyes, to see how proud he was of me. That definitely touched me and made me want to go back as a result of my accomplishments.”

IMG_6451.PNGThis was a highlight in Brown’s football memories. He remembers the satisfaction and joy that this sport had brought him and that led him to this moment. During his trip to L.A., Brown was able to get to know number one draft pick, Karl Towns. “It was an experience that I’ll never forget. I became best friends with Karl from that experience. I still talk to him from time to time.”

Meeting Durant, Winston and Towns is not his sole memory from that night. But rather his steadfast desire to earn his way back to the red carpet. At this point in his life, football began to take on a bigger meaning. He saw how his efforts could impact his future. Brown could only imagine what his next four years at UVa would hold, but he hoped that his love for the sport, his talent and his support system would guide him to the next level.

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Brown began at the University of Virginia in 2014, where he held the Defensive End position. When talking with Brown in his Senior year of college, the future of his football career was up in the air. He knew that, but he reacted with the maturity that he had learned throughout his life. “I believe that everything happens for a reason. I put a lot of faith in God to decide where I will end up.”

Brown had showcased his talents throughout his junior season and had emerged for his senior season with a resounding boom. Despite many injuries, the 6’4” senior, regarded as one of the most heralded recruits in UVa history, has lived up to the expectation. “This year’s more of an aggressive approach because it is my final year and I have to show the NFL scouts that I can play the run versus just a third down player. I’ve played the run better than I’ve ever done in my career.”

NFL talk crept in when explaining how friendships have an impact on staying with the sport. Brown still found time to talk with those that got him to this point. This included a childhood friend, Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama defensive end. The two five-star recruits formed a mutual support for one another and a love for the game. “I still talk to Da’Shaun a lot. We just sit down and talk about our problems and what our motives are. We’ve come to a collective agreement that were here for one goal and one goal only and that’s to make it to the NFL and make our families proud of us.” At this point, Brown viewed football as his potential career after college. That automatically put a more serious tone on his outlook of practice and games.

When asked if there was an individual who motivated him to finish off his final season at UVa dominantly, Brown answered, “If I could narrow it down to one, it would be my mom over top of anything. That’s my number one motivating factor to get through everything.” Brown also turns to his faith. “Growing up my grandmother kept me in the church a lot. Ever since the days when my mom would pinch me to keep me awake.” The tougher days had helped him appreciate the uncertainty of his future in the NFL at the time.

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A lot can change in one year. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Andrew Brown in the fifth round of the NFL draft. He had dreamt of this day for quite a while. “I had just gotten out of the shower and saw that a Cincinnati area code was calling. I looked over at the TV and saw Cincinnati was up to pick next.”

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There were tougher days ahead. His outlook on football would change drastically. Throughout middle school, high school and college, football was Brown’s source of family, friends and enjoyment. After his hamstring injury in his first preseason game, Brown was placed on the practice squad. He took on a different tone when discussing football in the NFL. The emotion behind the sport had been removed, it was more methodical. “My outlook has changed not by viewing football as more of a job but more of a business and that emotions cannot be mixed in with it.”

He told one reporter that his mindset was “to show everybody that the five-star Andrew Brown never went anywhere, I’ve always been here.” His statements are a little more guarded and defensive. The days of “I believe that everything happens for a reason” are replaced with “never feel complacent. Because someone out there is always working to take your job.”

Brown spent two months letting his hamstring injury heal, and worked his way back to practice. Brown was then reminded how quickly things can change in the NFL. On November 15th, Brown broke his hand during practice. Reporter’s called this a “season-ending injury.” The Bengals shelved Brown and placed him on the injured reserve list.

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The life of a IR and practice squad player in the NFL is riddled with emotional ups and downs of fighting for a spot on the active roster. NFL teams can place up to ten players on their practice squad. They can earn a minimum of $6,900 per week during the season, and can be cut at any point. If a practice squad player is cut, there is a 24-hour dead period where another team can claim them for their active roster. If he does not receive an offer from anyone else, he heads home.

When you think of an NFL player, you think of those playing on Sunday or at least standing on the sidelines. There are ten other players who are either watching from the stands or on the television from their couch. During the week, practice squad players are the first to enter the locker room. They spend countless additional hours studying playbooks and film in order to know that week’s opponent. Practice squad players have to be prepared to fill in for active players during practice. This may be the only chance they have to play with the active roster for the week.

Andrew Brown knows that any day could be his last. This period of limbo has tested him to a level he could not have expected. “There’s a lot of ups and downs right now. I’m working harder than I ever have and I know how close I am to seeing my dream.”

From pouring his feelings into football after the death of his mother, to his journey to the red carpet and now fighting to keep his career alive – Brown has been forced to re-conceptualize what the sport means to him.

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