On Mar. 16, 2009, the Brown family sits in a quiet room void of strangers. Present are Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Brown, Arthur Brown, Jr., Brian Butler, and other family and friends.
The nation's No. 1 recruit, Bryce Brown, set Mar. 16 as the day he announced his college decision. The choice was made after a religious fast of approximately two weeks, and the family sat quietly in the room, praying for the blessing on the decision that was about to be announced.
Brown had been a commitment to Miami for several months, where his brother Arthur was a linebacker. Miami made some coaching changes and Brown felt it was best for him to look around at his options, though he stayed committed to the Canes throughout the process.
Brown had taken visits to Oregon, Tennessee, LSU, and Miami. He surprised many by showing up at Tennessee for a second visit the weekend before his announcement, and that led many to believe Tennessee would be his choice.
Brown's press conference was led by longtime family friend and trainer, Brian Butler. Butler had come under some media criticism for his website, PotentialPlayers.com charging for access to updates and stats.
Many referred to Butler as a "handler" or "agent", especially after an interview with the New York Times where he mentioned the CFL as a possibility for Brown jokingly.
On Feb. 5, 2009 Bryce appeared on my radio show, VSPN, and dismissed the CFL rumors. He also confirmed on that interview that he planned on visiting Tennessee and could see himself playing for the Vols.
Despite that interview, where Brown was clearly a humble, well spoken kid who was just trying to make the right decision for himself, many didn't get the message. Brown announced for Tennessee at his press conference, sending the Vol nation into a frenzy.
Skip Bayless of ESPN's First Take, a 57 year old man, called Bryce an "ego-maniac" when asked about his commitment. He went onto group Bryce with Lane Kiffin in saying "these are two guys that I'd have a hard time trusting."
Matt Shodell, the Rivals managing editor for Canesport.com, wrote a scathing column about Bryce as well. "The Canes didn't want to be made a laughingstock by a superstar recruit with an oversized ego," said Shodell.
"Brown could even have done something unheard of: Announce on Signing Day like pretty much every other recruit out there. Instead he singled himself out for special attention. That was a warning sign to Cane coaches—Randy Shannon has always said one of the toughest things he has to do each year is getting five-star recruits to play with a one-star mentality."
The assault on Bryce Brown was on. A young man who realized late in the game that he needed to rethink his decision and weigh all his options for the most important decisions of his life, was being called names and chastised by grown men who were supposed to be professionals.
Could Bryce have signed on Signing Day? Sure. But he wanted to be certain. He took his visits, and even an extra one on his own dime. He prayed, he fasted, and he made his decision.
Bryce never asked for extra attention, and as a matter of fact, stopped interviewing for awhile two separate times.
At 6', 220 lbs, Brown brought his powerful but fast running style to Knoxville in June. He took a mini term and was scheduled to have approximately 12 credit hours before any other freshman stepped in a classroom. He started working out daily with teammates, focusing on coming in and helping his team early and often.
Since coming to Knoxville, Bryce has won over his teammates and coaches with a strong work ethic. There's no doubt the young man knows he can play football, but he isn't the "ego maniac" many tried to paint him as. He works hard, he plays hard.
So far, Bryce has shown flashes of what everyone thought he was. Lane Kiffin has referenced him as someone who "looks like he's been in the NFL a couple of years."
The impact Brown has had on the program is already a big one. The coaches use him as an example to other big time recruits, showing them the best want to come play at Tennessee, and they should too. He brought the Vols the national attention that comes with signing the No. 1 overall player.
As we near the season, Brown is more sure now than he ever was about his college choice. The Vols are loaded at running back and he's going to have to share a lot of touches, but that isn't deterring him.
"My reasoning for coming here, I've seen every bit of it," Brown said. "These last couple weeks, I don't know anything outside Tennessee football."
Brown knows the Vol nation is chomping at the bit to see him on the field, his response? "I'm ready to play! Ready to get this thing going."
I've done four interviews with Bryce on my show, and every one of them he's been polite, humble, well spoken and eager to answer any and all questions honestly. He tells you what he thinks and how he feels without hesitation.
He's quick to defend his mentor, Brian Butler, as a longtime friend of the family who merely stepped in to help the family with Bryce's recruitment, since his high school coach who would normally do that wasn't willing to.
He's a family man. He loves his brother, he looks up to him for leadership. He loves and respects his parents for all they've done for him and the support they offered through a difficult process.
I once heard Bryce tell someone, "This is the biggest decision of your life, it's the only time in your life you deserve to be selfish. Whatever you do, make the right decision for you, no matter what anyone thinks about it. It will be hard when people start coming at you, but if you take your time and do what's right for you, nothing else will matter."
Unless you are a coach or teammate, sometimes the view we have of these guys is one from a distance. It's easy to get caught up in passing judgement without really knowing a kid.
Sure, anyone can look at film and see that Bryce is a great runner, has great hands and could be a big time impact player at the next level. But, you can't look at the film and see that he's one of the hardest workers there is. He doesn't take his talent for granted, he works hard for what he does and will keep doing so.
The Vol nation is in for a treat. We wish constantly for kids who do the right things, work hard and produce on the field like Peyton Manning, Eric Berry, and Al Wilson, and Bryce is no different.
The next time you hear talking heads like Skip Bayless or read angry staff writers like Matt Shodell's work, try and remember the Bryce Brown story. Go listen to the kid for yourself, make your own judgement. Most of these guys have agendas, and if a kid doesn't fit it, they are going to unleash on them the best they can.
Tennessee fans should be thrilled with having Bryce Brown. My guess is, this "ego maniac" who only wants attention for himself will never come close to resembling that label now that all the cameras are on him.
When he doesn't, I hope the guys who crucified him are willing to man up and admit their error. The Vol faithful should look forward to Brown scoring lots of touchdowns, and afterwards placing the ball on the ground like any real "ego maniac" would.
News note: Yesterday, Bryce suffered a hip injury in practice. He has had an ongoing nagging injury to his hip, but has always played through it. He is waiting on an MRI, but the doctors say he's going to be fine, he's just stiff. He may not scrimmage on Saturday, but wants to.
I wouldn't look for him to miss any time in the season, but may have surgery in the offseason if the coaches and trainers feel he needs to.