Antonio Brown sits shirtless and barefoot, chilling in a leather arm chair. He looks relaxed, even as everything happening around him seems hectic. It's July, and we're inside his room at the InterContinental Kansas City At The Plaza hotel. Brown stares at the warm exuberance of his three sons in front of him. Autonomy and Ali twirl around in the curtains before breaking out their toy sports cars. Then they jet into the adjacent hotel room to visit their mom and Brown's girlfriend, Chelsie Kyriss. Meanwhile, Apollo, the youngest that just turned one, excitedly crawls around the floor.
"This is light," Brown's friend and videographer Theo Smith says of the kids' enthusiasm.
The noise and movement don't appear to faze Brown. There's a serenity about him in this brief moment, and that's not just because of how comfortable he looks. He's wearing olive green Stone Island joggers, and he has toe spacers on his feet, discussing two of his biggest passions: football and mentorship. Brown knows he has the attention of the next generation of athletes, and he wants to motivate them.
"I enjoy that part—being the OG to the jits, especially coming from the bottom," he says.
Young athletes listen to AB because they want to be AB. They want to learn how someone from Liberty City—a poverty-stricken, predominantly African-American neighborhood in Miami—made it out of the mud. How he went from a walk-on at Central Michigan to the best receiver in the game; from a sixth-round pick who could barely get on the field to the cover star of Madden 19. How he went from overlooked to the OG. The "jits"—as AB, in his Liberty City slang, calls them—study his film on their iPads and mimic his fashion drip on social media.
Legacy, AB says, is something he has been actively thinking about of late. At 30, he wants to be remembered as one of the greatest wide receivers of all time. But there's more to it than that: He also wants to be known as a person who could express himself. Someone who, like LeBron James, could use his vast platform—Brown has 2.70 million Instagram followers and 1.26 million on Twitter—to articulate what he is going through.
Brown feels an obligation to teach, even as he continues to learn how to handle all that comes with being AB.
He's struggling to find teachers for that.
"I just feel like I'm in a position where a lot of people don't understand," he says.
Brown has always wanted us to understand. Who he is. What he is about.
He hasn't always been successful at this. He's played with raw emotions his entire career, but raw emotions don't necessarily translate well into lucid thoughts. Maybe that's why reporters—many of them old and white who don't know anything about the struggles of a black man from inner-city Miami—haven't been able to catch the complicated layers.
What gets lost in translation is the depth of Brown's underdog tale—what he has had to do to accomplish what he has, and at what expense. That Brown doesn't like talking about the past only makes the picture even more opaque. To reflect, one has to take the time to stop. And Brown doesn't slow down.
"I'm looking forward," Brown says. "The windshield is always bigger than the rearview."
Growing up, he had an estranged relationship with his father, "Touchdown" Eddie Brown, arguably the greatest player in Arena Football League history. (The two have since reconciled.) AB lived with his mother and stepfather, until they kicked him out of the house. Brown told ESPN’s Dan Le Batard in 2012 it was due to his relationship with his stepfather, which forced him to sleep couch-to-couch at 16 years old.
The football field—as is the case for many black kids in South Florida—was his outlet. As a dual-threat quarterback, he learned how to chase greatness. He learned discipline. He learned his maniacal work ethic.
"I remember him being at [Miami] Norland [Senior High School], and he would take punishment as extra work," says Vikings All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who grew up two blocks away from Brown and is one of his many mentees in the NFL. "It was really weird to me, but it was great. At the end of practice, the whole team would be on their way home. Antonio would probably be late to practice or something. They would have him do up-downs or duck walks, but he would do them with a smile. I'm like, 'What's up with you?' He's like, 'It's just extra work. That's all it is.' He always had that mentality to the point where all work is good work."
Brown would play football in the streets with kids from his neighborhood against other neighborhoods, an informal league of sorts. Rhodes says Brown wasn't that fast at all growing up. But he made up for it with effort and determination.
"It's almost like seeing a lion when it's just got that look," Smith says. "I done been around a lot of athletes. When you see this guy work and see how focused he be to complete the goal, he just looks different. The difference with him is I think he's willing to sacrifice anything. From top to bottom, he's willing to do whatever it takes just to be great at whatever he sets his mind to."
Brown didn't earn a major Division I offer. So he signed with Alcorn State, only to find out later he was academically ineligible. Unable to play football at the collegiate level, Brown enrolled in a postgrad prep school, North Carolina Tech, for a season. He then earned a full ride at Florida International University, but after getting into an on-campus dispute with an FIU security guard, his scholarship was pulled.
He never stopped chasing, though, even through his missteps. In 2007, Brown walked on at Central Michigan, transitioning to wide receiver. There, he finished as the school's all-time leader in receptions, second in touchdown receptions and third in receiving yards.
And the rest is history: Drafted 195th overall in 2010 by the Steelers, Brown willed his way into the mix on special teams and as a utility receiver. In his second season, he proved he was more than a return specialist, becoming the first player in NFL history to record both 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 total return yards. And he did it at a time when towering wide receivers like Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones were dominating. At just 5'10" and 181 pounds, Brown helped redefine what a No. 1 wide receiver looked like. He now has the most receptions and receiving yards of any receiver since 2010. Before he turned 30, he had accumulated more receptions and receiving yards than Jerry Rice—the NFL's all-time leader in both categories—had at the same age.
What helped Brown reach such historic marks was his unfailing belief that he could do better.
"That's my motivation, and that motivation has never ended," Brown says. "Obviously now at the top, where do you go from the top? It's about always getting better. If you don't, you're getting worse. It's a lot of people wanting to be in your spot when you get to the top. It's not a lot of helpers. It's a lot of takers and people that want to be in your position. Being at the top comes with a lot of discipline, a lot of focus and a lot of work."
Brown's friends have also wondered what he's still chasing. Last season, when Rhodes sought advice from Brown on his contract situation, he asked him how he stayed motivated.
"This is the God's honest truth, and this is how you know he's on another level," Rhodes says. "He said, 'You know how you have Calvin [Johnson], and then the rest of the receivers? I want it to be Antonio; then the rest of the receivers.'"
Maybe it was the realization that he was turning 30—an age notoriously viewed as the moment NFL players decline, if they're lucky enough to make it that far—and that life after football will soon appear through his windshield. Maybe it's the thought of his kids growing older, and how often he's had to sacrifice precious moments to chase greatness. Maybe he's still holding onto something unaddressed from his rough past.
Whatever the reasons were, he started to assess his value system this past offseason. He realized he had been neglecting a number of areas of his life to maximize his potential. Many NFL athletes live work-oriented lives. Some spend more time with their teammates than their loved ones in any given calendar year. Few sacrifice more than Brown, who has been described as the hardest working player in the league. He puts upward of 18 hours a day toward his job and his body. That doesn't even include the magazine cover spreads, commercials, promo shoots and other time-consuming obligations as an NFL superstar. (Brown has one of the most recognizable faces in football. He was also the first player to grace the cover of Madden without his helmet.)
"His motor is always going," Rhodes says. "That's why he's going to be one of the best ever. You can quote me on that one. I done seen some people work. I know I work a lot. Nobody works like him. There's a couple people that came up to me and asked, 'Do this man actually breathe? I don't think he breathes.'"
In April, Brown elected to skip the majority of Pittsburgh's voluntary workouts for the first time in his career (he threatened to skip in 2015 but ended up showing up). He slowed down to find out what's important. He wanted to spend more time with his family in South Florida and train with local kids over NFL players. He considered the time a "blessing."
A media frenzy ensued.
Brown returned to the facility during mandatory minicamp in June with plenty on his mind that he had to clarify—namely the speculation that he didn't attend OTAs because of Ben Roethlisberger's absence, his comments on Le'Veon Bell's contract dispute that he felt were misinterpreted, and his Instagram post where he shared some of the doubt he faced from coach Mike Tomlin and former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians at the start of his career.
But during a media scrum, Brown seemed more concerned with the existential.
"There is constantly pressure," he told reporters. "Am I really free? What am I really playing this game for? To acquire records for who? When I'm done playing, no one will remember what my stats were in 2016 or 2015. Those are things I have to clear my mind of, getting away from the game. There are a lot of issues this game presents that you guys aren't really covering. I'm just left to deal with the madness from my household which guys make up and create. And no one really cares."
Once the three-day minicamp ended, Brown went back to South Florida during the league's six-week break before training camp. He worked out alone, with more local kids, with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and rapper Jim Jones.
He also spent more time with his family.
He's with them now on a bus. It's the middle of July again, and Antonio Brown just woke from a nap to the sight of corn fields. He takes a moment to floss his teeth—this is the third time he has flossed today—and touch up his hair with moisturizer. His trainer, Smith, former Steelers teammate Josh Harris and former FIU defensive back Sekou Spence are also getting ready, energized by Drake's "Scorpion" album blaring.
When the bus pulls up to a field, Brown hops out and approaches 12 high school football players to share words of encouragement. In most cases, 12 football players don't constitute a team, but here in Hughesville, Missouri, a town with a population of 183, it does. The eight-man Northwest High School football team lost 102-0 last year. This is the latest leg of his multi-city "Destroy Doubt" Nike tour of schools—most of them inner-city high schools—where Brown gives the kids some motivation. He talks about how losses have provided opportunities for him to grow and why he wears No. 84—eight times four equals 32, representing how every NFL team overlooked the four-time First-Team All-Pro.
The event's MC asks Brown how he has overcome the doubters and haters. "You've got to stay singularly focused," Brown replies. "No matter what no one else says about you, you've gotta wake up every day, look yourself in the face and say what's important to you. You can't let outsiders determine your inner and what you believe. You've gotta stay focused. Don't let no one bring you down."
It's just a sample of the advice Brown has told athletes he mentors. During the 2016 offseason, Brown told Rhodes to hire a personal chef to provide the nutrients his body needs. That year, Rhodes was named to his first Pro Bowl. The following offseason, Brown encouraged Rhodes to get over his fear of needles and receive acupuncture to help with his recovery. That season, Rhodes was named a First-Team All-Pro for the first time.
"I love that man, and I appreciate Toni for showing me the ropes," Rhodes says. "Being around him, he showed a lot of us the ropes. A lot of dudes from Miami. You see these dudes in Miami with these chefs, the masseuse and acupuncture working on their bodies? That's all from being around him.
"He be like, 'Ay, you gotta take care of your body. You gotta do this. You gotta do that. Man, stop being hardheaded, you gotta do this.' That's him, telling you to eat healthy and how these foods will do this to you. C'mon, man. He's an OG. He's always willing to help us, and that's what I love about him. He's put a lot of people on game."
That Brown has taken time to help others, in some ways, means he is not as singularly—and solely—focused on himself. He has been expressive behind the scenes. But what previously he would've bottled up has, this summer, been said publicly. He has emotionally lashed out at his critics on social media, and in some cases he's gone a bit over the top. When longtime Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette tweeted during training camp, "Antonio Brown limps off practice after some early individual work," Brown responded, "Bro seriously have some respect you making shit up clown." Later, Brown poked fun at the report in a 12-second video capture by Smith. After practice, Smith asks, "Lemme see you limp." Brown proceeds to do a lethargic rendition of the Bennie Biggle Wiggle, a dance created in South Florida that Brown showcased on a national stage when he scored his first career touchdown reception in 2011.
A month later, The Undefeated published a feature titled "Antonio Brown is an Instagram All-Pro. But is that the full picture?"—in which the writer reached out to Brown's ex-girlfriend and past associates who were critical of him. He tweeted at the writer, "wait to [sic] I see you bro we gone see what your jaw like." Brown later deleted the tweet and apologized in a statement.
Then, last week, Ryan Scarpino, a former Steelers public relations assistant from 2010 to 2017, tweeted: "AB needs to thank his lucky stars, because he was drafted by a team that had Ben. And Ben got AB paid. You know darn well he wouldn't put up those numbers for other teams." Brown responded, "Trade me let's find out." He didn't mean that in a literal sense—he would later describe his response as a "stupid remark online"—but he felt disrespected. (He also deleted the tweet.)
"Imagine a guy dedicating almost 24 hours to his craft, putting his damn life into it, and seeing somebody saying it's not because of that but because of the team that drafted you," Smith says. "It wasn't no luck. It was all hard work. I wish he didn't write that tweet, but I understand where it came from. It was almost a slap in the face, telling him anything he did was luck."
"People are just gonna say things," he continues. "That's the only way that they can get even with these guys, because they're some of the best athletes in the world." Smith thinks that journalists, bloggers, commentators, Twitter users—anyone with a platform—partly just try to poke at athletes like Brown to see how much of a reaction they can get out of them. "That's the only way they can get on the same playing field as them," Smith says. "The thing that bothers me so much is how it's like going to the zoo and you keep poking at the lion; then you get mad when the lion fights back or bites you. I wonder what do these guys expect him to do—just keep letting someone questioning their character and their worth; then be shocked when they lash out at them?"
It's the price of fame Brown didn't account for, the sacrifice of privacy for prominence. There is always a story, a tweet or a Google alert. At times, the criticism weighs on him, too heavy for him to remain silent. "When you come into the league, you don't think about that," Brown says. "You think about all the other things that are important, like playing and getting an opportunity to take care of your family. You don't think about the other games and the other things that go on with being in the NFL."
He used to deftly convert doubt into motivation. Now, as the OG, Brown has undertaken a different endeavor, far more difficult: feeling what comes his way and trying to find the words to share it.
"People can say anything they want about your name, and they don't want you to even react or say anything back," Brown told me back in July. "That's the reality of players in the game. I can't even defend myself for what somebody say. The NFL and the world we're in right now, I think the world expects you to bottle everything up and keep it on the inside. You've got to be able to talk to people and express yourself, because that's how you're able to get it out of you. You don't hold on to stuff, and you're able to be happy."
In this way, Brown has taken his cue from other superstars like James and Serena Williams by choosing to express himself even at the risk of coming across as awkward or abrasive or being taken out of context. But he's still new at this. He needs more reps in this field as he figures out the right way to articulate his emotions without being in a defensive state of mind.
"I don't want to be a distraction for my organization or the NFL or anything," he says. "When people say stuff about you that you know is false and people keep telling you [about it], at some point you've got to defend yourself and express yourself in the right way."
After Monday night's victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brown cheeses at the cameras while taking questions in the locker room. He wears the birthday present he bought himself: a custom 100-carat diamond chain with his logo on the pendant and his girlfriend and children's names written along the side. At a full kilogram of gold, it is reportedly worth $200,000.
Reporters inform Brown that Roethlisberger started his presser by apologizing to him "for showing a little bit too much emotion." Roethlisberger and Brown weren't on the same page on an incomplete pass during a critical third down late in the game. Roethlisberger slammed his helmet on the sideline afterward.
"Ben is a competitor," Brown tells reporters. "He loves me. There's no apology. Nobody playing this game is perfect. I do mess up things. We all mess up. It's a part of being human."
Then, he publicly shares how he feels about Roethlisberger.
"He always makes me feel good communicating and talking with me," Brown says. "It's like when your wife tells you you're looking strong getting the groceries. It makes you want to get more groceries."