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September 10, 2013

Giving back

Antonio Brown's calling was always coaching; it just took him a little more time to realize it.

It started innocently enough for Brown, 34, who just completed his first season as the head coach at Miami Jackson. The former West Virginia wide receiver was in the midst of coaching his son to consecutive championship game appearances at the park, when others started paying attention.

After finishing up a three-year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins, Brown made his way back to his native Miami. There he was asked if he could help coach his son's little league team, and it was an invitation that he showed no hesitation accepting.

"I just jumped right in," he said.

That's when high schools would start taking notice that not only was Brown back in the Miami area but his experience both in college and in the NFL, coupled with his recent success in the coaching ranks made the young and vibrant mind an attractive option as an assistant coach.

Through his connections, several of the local high schools were interested in Brown, but he would eventually settle into an opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at Miami Jackson. For Brown it also served as an opportunity to give back to the youth in his community and serve as a mentor to students that had been through the challenges of growing up in the inner-city.

He often relates to what his college recruiter, Doc Holliday, would talk to him about when he was a student at Miami Central, and his message to his players is to focus on the big picture and what they will do after high school.

"My dreams and aspirations for them is to get their college degree," he said. "You're going to have to lead them into this world for the next 25-years."

Brown has always chosen a different path.

From rising above his hardships as a youth to becoming the second member of his family to earn a high school degree to his eventual decision to leave Miami and become his family's first college graduate, the former West Virginia wide receiver has always blazed his own trail in life.

Brown has been through his own long-list of heartache, losing his father when he was 12-years old to a home-invasion and a brother and two sisters, allowing him to use his experiences to serve as a calming influence for his players.

A three-sport star at Miami Central, West Virginia was the school that would stick with him throughout the process as others doubted his ability to not only graduate but achieve a qualifying test score in order to attend college. But as he has done time and time again, Brown defied the odds and the experience helped mold him into the well-rounded man he's become today.

"West Virginia was the best thing that happened to me," he said.

The first time Brown left Dade County was to visit West Virginia, but he had always decided that he wanted to get away for a fresh start for college. And thanks to the persistence of lead recruiter Holliday, Brown was one of the 20 plus Florida players on the roster from 1998-2001.

Once he arrived on campus, Brown would play as a true freshman catching passes and finishing the season as the primary punt return. Morgantown was a new experience for him, as he had to adjust to not only the new climate, but the thrills of a packed college football stadium.

"I love the fans. I have never seen an atmosphere like that and I just fell in love with it. Just the experience of dealing with others and learning that everybody was not bad. They put me in public speaking classes and that's something I never would have experienced in Dade County," he said.

A four-year letterman at West Virginia, Brown would finish his Mountaineers career as in the top ten in both receptions (155) and receiving yards (1,905) but his accomplishments in the classroom is what stuck out to him the most as he would earn a degree in sociology.

"To bring that back to my community I'm like a black rose that grew from concrete," he said.

There are several memories that stand out to Brown, including the Notre Dame game during his junior year that allowed the country to see what he could do, while he also reflects on some of his difficulties including an up and down senior season.

"It didn't turn out the way I expected it, I ran into a raw deal. But I understand the business part. I look at it differently now and understand it's a business. I have no ill-will and I love West Virginia because it gave me a college degree and a start in my new life," he said.

That college preparation has led him to where he is currently sitting today.

Once the head coaching job opened up at Jackson last season, Brown knew it was his opportunity to take the next step in his coaching career. And after going through the interview process, he watched as the other candidates fell to the wayside and the 34-year old was picked as the next head coach at Jackson.

Brown led the Generals to an 11-5 record last season, including one-step away from the Class 5A state finals before falling to Immokalee 29-21. The trip to states would have been the first for Jackson in well over 20-years and only gives Brown optimism moving forward.

"We're headed in the right direction, everything was a breath of fresh air," he said. "Coaching is my gift, it's my calling. That's my safety valve. One-hundred twenty yards long, 55-yards across I don't know what I would do without it."

One of his standout performers, 2015 four-star wide receiver prospect Jovon Durante committed to the Mountaineers earlier this summer over offers from several major programs.

Brown hasn't been back to West Virginia since 2002, but he is expecting that to change in the near future as he has been talking with some of his former teammates including current Mountaineers running back coach JaJuan Seider about a return.

"Maybe for homecoming. JaJuan is pulling and tugging on me to get back up there. Sometimes things don't go the way you expect, but the town and the city did not do anything to Antonio Brown," he said. "I would love to get back up there."

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