'Smoke' Rising: How John Brown Went from Cardinals Bust to Ravens Breakout Star

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistOctober 25, 2018

BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 21: Wide Receiver John Brown #13 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates after a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints at M&T Bank Stadium on October 21, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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OWINGS MILLS, Maryland — If you saw John Brown standing in line for tickets at the movie theater, or rolling strikes at the bowling alley, or shopping at Walmart for snacks for his daughter, you probably wouldn't give him a second look.

If you struck up a conversation and he introduced himself as "John Brown," bells probably still wouldn't go off.

It's OK. He's used to it. It's been happening all his life.

It even happened to him a few weeks ago at his team's home stadium.

Brown was missing his parking pass when he showed up at the players' lot of the Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium on the rainy morning of a game against the Broncos. He had mistakenly given it to a friend and kept the friend's parking pass.

Surely, though, security would wave the team's top receiver right through.

Brown recalls the scene.

Security guard: "You can't come in this lot. It's for players."

Brown: "I'm a player. I got the wrong pass."

Security guard: "You're not a player. You don't look like a player. You're just a fan."

Brown: "No, I'm not a fan. Really."

Security guard: "Sorry."

Brown pulled over to call coach John Harbaugh. "What should I do? He won't let me in."

Harbaugh: "Let me talk to the security guard."

Brown: "Here, talk to Coach Harbaugh."

Security guard: "I'm not talking to him. It's probably not even Harbaugh."

After a 15-minute delay, Harbaugh had to send a team security representative to get Brown in.

Brown can do things on a football field most of us can only dream about, but the security guard looked at him and saw the same thing you'd probably see in that line for movie tickets.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 30: John Brown #13 of the Baltimore Ravens makes a catch for a 33 yard touchdown in the first quarter during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on September 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ju
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The same thing so many doubters have seen over the years when they judged him too slow, too small, too sad or too run-down to do anything special.

He saw John Brown, an ordinary-looking man with an ordinary-sounding name.

He didn't realize that it wasn't really John Brown. It was the player everyone in the Ravens' locker room calls "Smoke."

Smoke is the player who caught seven of seven balls thrown his way and had 134 yards this past Sunday against the Saints, including an over-the-shoulder, 14-yard touchdown reception with 24 seconds remaining in the game.

Smoke is the player who ranks among the NFL leaders this year in receiving yards (558), average yards per catch (19.9), receptions of 20 yards or more (nine) and touchdown catches (four), and who is probably helping someone win your fantasy league after going undrafted.

As Smoke celebrated that touchdown Sunday against the Saints, it was very apparent that the security guard, and most of the rest of us, have been deceived by appearance.

We didn't see the will of Smoke Brown.


Smoke knows how it feels to not be good enough.

As a junior at Homestead High in suburban Miami, he was tested in the 40-yard dash. He ran a 4.9, which would have been impressive had he been a lineman.

"All my friends used to pick at me about my speed," he says. "They'd say things like, 'Oh, he crawlin'.'"

They also called him Joe Dirt and Slowpoke.

But mostly he answered to Smokey. The nickname came from his grandmother's boyfriend, who, when he saw him for the first time shortly after his birth, said he was so dark he should be called Smokey. In time, Smokey would get shortened to Smoke.

Smoke wasn't a big kid. And he isn't a big man. He's listed at 5'11", but he measured 5'10" at the 2014 scouting combine. He weighs 179 pounds, probably after going back for seconds.

What's special about Smoke—his greatest asset—is the way he works.

His determination always has been a stronger force than his shortcomings.

A year after running that 4.9, the determination showed up as he made All-Dade County as a senior. But working hard only matters to a recruiter if size and speed catch his eyes.

Even his high school coach, Bobby McCray, didn't think Smoke's passion could carry the day against better competition.

"When college teams came in, the head coach used to speak about my lack of size," Smoke says. "I was too slow. I wasn't strong enough. Things like that. He used to tell me, to my face. You supposed to be my coach. D-1 was a dream of mine. I was like, you could have told those people how hard I worked

"By [McCray] telling them that, it made them back out. That motivated me even more."

Smoke knew he had to get out of his neighborhood, Miami Gardens, which was known for houses that weren't homes, bad intentions and blood in the streets.

Football was a way out. Ten of his classmates at Homestead went to Division I universities to play football, but only one college—Division II Mars Hill University in North Carolina—offered Smoke a scholarship.

Then at Mars Hill, something happened. Something hard to explain.

He started running like his mother, Cassandra Brown, who had made it to state as a high school sprinter.

Smoke was tested again in the 40-yard dash during the spring of his freshman year, and he ran a 4.3 this time.

It wasn't because he was doing anything different, either.

"I came back from college, and my friends hadn't seen me in a while. When we raced, I burned everybody," he says. "They were kind of shocked."

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 30: John Brown #13 of the Baltimore Ravens runs upfield after a catch as Terrell Edmunds #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers pursues in the first half during the game at Heinz Field on September 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The speed translated to production at Mars Hill. Smoke had 1,472 all-purpose yards as a freshman. Unfortunately, his studies weren't as productive, and he left after one year because of academic issues. He enrolled at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas the next year, but he didn't make the football team there because only 12 out-of-state players were allowed and he wasn't considered among the top dozen.

Smoke wasn't going to give up on football easily, though. He had loved the game since before he was even old enough to play it, back when he'd watch his half-brother James Walker practicing every day. J-Walk was a year older, and Smoke would carry his helmet and shoulder pads and ask questions about how it felt to play this fascinating game. J-Walk showed him the way.

On the night of July 3, 2010, Smoke was staying with his mother, half-brother and three other siblings in the two-bedroom house Cassandra rented. The family had taken the mattresses off the bed frames, because being low to the ground might save someone from a stray bullet coming through the window. Smoke, then 20, was trying to get some shuteye on a mattress on the living room floor.

J-Walk said he was going out. Cassandra didn't want him to go.

She had a bad feeling.

He didn't want to hear it.

She pleaded.

They argued.

She cried.

He promised there would be no trouble, and he disappeared into the night.

And then, at about 4 a.m., three shots from a .22 changed everything.

J-Walk, mindful of the promise he made his mother, had stayed in the passenger's seat of his friend's car when his friends got into an altercation with another group of acquaintances. But eventually, one of the angry men came to the car and unloaded, shooting J-Walk twice in the head and once in the chest.

"I remember it like yesterday," Smoke says. "The front door was wide open and I felt this wind—cold wind—blowing under the covers to my feet. When I rolled over and looked up, I saw my mom. She was outside crying and screaming. It was like a movie."

In the waiting room at Homestead Hospital, neighbors congregated.

One of J-Walk's friends showed up with a bullet wound in his leg from an AK-47.

Confusion, chaos, questions without answers.

Minutes turned to hours. Hours turned to days. Days to weeks. Weeks to months.

Much of it is a blur in his memory. J-Walk being pronounced dead—then coming back to life. A helicopter taking him to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. J-Walk's whole body grotesquely swollen. A wrap around his head. A beeping heart monitor. J-Walk moving his eyes and trying to speak, but making no sound. Tears in J-Walk's eyes when Smoke held his hand and talked football. J-Walk's weight dropping from 215 to 95. One side of his head "going flat."

Nine months of this. Nine grueling months.

It ended on the 28th day of April the next year—a day after Smoke signed to play football at Pittsburg State. He picked up his phone and saw maybe 40 missed calls and many more texts.

J-Walk had been his brother, his role model and his best friend. And he was gone.

Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

"I thought about giving up on everything," Smoke says. "I wasn't going to go back to school. I was just going to call it quits."

After about two weeks, he thought about a vow he had made to his half-brother. That he would make it in the NFL and would take care of their mother. He kept thinking about it.

In his first game at Pittsburg State, he scored on a punt return, and when he made it to the end zone, he pointed to the sky.

Smoke was a three-time Associated Press Little All-American (the award for Division III players) at Pittsburg State and played on a national championship team.


A small guy from a small school wasn't expected to be a big hit when the Cardinals chose him in the third round of the 2014 draft. Even his quarterback, Carson Palmer, was skeptical.

Then, at the beginning of OTAs that year, Palmer was bench pressing in the Cardinals weight room that overlooks the practice field as some of the rookies ran drills. Palmer and fellow quarterback Drew Stanton stood there for a minute to watch Smoke run a route for the first time. It was a seven route from the slot—15 yards upfield, and then break to the sideline.

"He ran full speed and turned and went full speed the other direction without losing speed," Palmer remembers. "It's almost like a race car; he almost gains speed when he's making those turns. Oh man, you just don't see that. It's not something you can teach or coach. That's when I knew there was something special about this kid from Pittsburg State."

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

In training camp that year, Smoke kept making plays. Eventually, the Cardinals assigned perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson to cover him. "He was unstoppable, uncoverable, even with Peterson on him," says safety Tony Jefferson, Smoke's teammate with the Cardinals then and the Ravens now. "He was killing our defense. We couldn't stop him."

After one practice, Palmer was sitting at his locker, cutting off tape. Peterson, whom Palmer considers one of the four or five fastest players in the league, sat down next to him, breathing hard and sweating. He had been beaten by Smoke.

"Man," he said to Palmer. "That No. 12, he's the fastest guy on the field."

That season, Smoke caught four game-winning touchdowns, a record for NFL rookies. Palmer called him by far the most mature rookie he'd ever been around.

In his second year, Smoke had 65 catches for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns. He benefited from having Bruce Arians design and call plays, from having Palmer put the ball in just the right spot, and from having fellow wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald draw coverage his way.

Palmer asked for Smoke's locker to be next to his, and he hosted him in his California home in the offseason to get in extra work. Today, Smoke calls Palmer "one of those big brothers."

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 20:  John Brown #12 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates his touchdown catch with teammate quarterback Carson Palmer #3 in the third quater against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2015 in Phila
Elsa/Getty Images

Fitzgerald taught him how to forget a bad drop, a bad practice or a bad game. And by watching him, Smoke learned to practice the way you play.

Between his drive, his ability and the people around him, Smoke seemed ready to become one of the best receivers in the league heading into his third season. Fantasy boards treated him like royalty. Opposing defensive coordinators rethought their strategies against the Cardinals. More and more microphones and cameras crowded around his locker.

"I was really amped up for that season," Smoke says. "I just knew it was going to be something special for me."

Then in a training camp practice, Smoke ran an in-route, caught the ball and got tangled up with Peterson. He was diagnosed with a concussion and missed about a month. When he came back, he still wasn't right. He fatigued quickly. He couldn't get off a jam. And he was running about as fast as a motorized shopping cart.

Smoke had known since he was a child that he had the sickle cell trait, which can cause recovery issues for athletes. Doctors initially thought this is what he was experiencing.

He kept feeling worse. His whole body ached and tingled. He couldn't walk right, let alone run. He got to the point where he couldn't bench press a bar with a 45-pound plate on each side. His lips turned purple.

"He kept going to get these MRIs and see these specialists," Palmer says. "One would say, 'This is the problem.' Then, 'Well no, it's this.' Now, 'It's something else.' I remember talking with him before the game in Atlanta. And I could see it on his face. He was so tired of it. If you know something is wrong with you but don't know what it is, it's an empty, scary feeling.

"On top of that, he would run deep post after deep post after deep post. Finally one would go to him, and he's not feeling right, so he drops it. Then he gets ripped up and down by the coach. He was easy for the coaches to pick on, the punching bag. It was a lot."

At the end of the season, he had an X-ray taken of his back, and doctors discovered a cyst on his spine, which he was told could have been the result of stress or overwork. The cyst would have to be drained.

"Be still," the doctor told Smoke. As the long needle slowly drew the fluid into a syringe, Smoke felt the pain leaving his body. That same day, everything was back to normal.

Smoke's body was in a good place when camp began in 2017. But his mind was not. "By that time, my mind was out of Arizona," he says. "I didn't want to be there no more. I wasn't happy. I knew I needed a fresh start. I wanted to find a new home.

"Coach Arians is real old school. He wanted his guys to be tough and hardcore. I'm like, 'Hey, Coach, my body's different from others.' I couldn't handle it."

He also believed the Arizona heat was doing him no favors. But team trainers had a plan to keep him fresh. "It was supposed to be: If he runs one deep ball, take him out," Smoke says. "Next week, he can run two. Then take him out. They followed that the first two days of camp. Then I ran three deep balls in a row and tore my quad. At that point, I was fed up."

That year, Smoke had the worst production of his career. "I was on the edge with it," he says. "After the season, I thought about being done with football. I was so tired, I didn't know what I wanted to do."

So Smoke went to a place where he could find clarity: home. He spent time with family, especially his daughter, Cai Brown, who was then 5 years old.

Cai is a football fan. She kept asking Daddy what new team he would be playing on. He didn't know if he would be playing on any team.


While he pondered his future, Smoke also thought about a new car. A blue Range Rover would be cool, he thought. But he couldn't find one in blue. So he settled on a purple-and-black one.

When free agency opened more than month after he bought that Range Rover, the Bills and Raiders came after him. The Bills offered $15 million over three years. If he didn't like that, they'd give him a one-year deal. They wanted to make it work.

Then the Ravens came along, offering a one-year contract for $5 million. Smoke's old Cardinals teammate, Jefferson, sold the Ravens' culture hard. The thought of catching passes from Joe Flacco, a Super Bowl MVP, was more appealing to Smoke than the thought of catching passes from a yet-to-be determined quarterback in Buffalo. And a one-year deal is just what he wanted—a gamble on himself.

"Then I realized—the purple-and-black car—it probably was a sign from God," Smoke says.

He believes he is where he is supposed to be. "I could just say I'm happy," he says. "I'm loving this situation, the team, the coaches. That's all I want."

Smoke shows his contentment and gratitude every day. His work ethic still is his greatest strength.

Smoke usually is the first Raven on the field for practice. Before the first whistle, he catches 200 balls from the jugs machine. Then he goes through a routine with wide receivers assistant Matt Weiss in which Weiss throws him an array of about 150 passes. After practice, Weiss throws him another 50 to 60 passes.

His greatest strength also can be his downfall. Wide receivers coach Bobby Engram often has to rein in Smoke.

"He wears me out, wears out the coaches, wears out the jugs machine," Engram says. "During practice, we have a half hour when we are going through specific techniques with a corner. He wants to do it full speed. Nope. We just want to walk through it and talk through it. You can do too much at times. I tell him his rest and recovery is just as important as the work he puts in."

The right balance is important to Smoke—more important than it is to most players. He apparently has found it with the Ravens.

Out of Fitzgerald's shadow, he is a No. 1 wide receiver for the first time in his NFL life. He's 15th in the league in receiving yards, third in yards per reception and tied for 11th in touchdowns.

And he's playing fast. "This is the fastest I've moved in my career," he says. "I feel fresh. In Arizona, I don't feel like I was able to hit top speed because I was being overworked in practice."

How fast is he? At the 2014 scouting combine, he ran a 4.34. The eyes say he's even faster.

Jefferson says Smoke is the fastest player he's been around. Flacco realized how fast Smoke was in OTAs, when he was certain he overthrew him on a post route. Then Smoke made up the ground and brought in the football.

And it isn't just that he runs fast. It's the way he runs fast.

"The biggest thing is he gets up to his top-end speed so quickly," Flacco says. "He gets on top of people in the first 20 yards really quickly, and then keeps going from there."

Flacco compares him to former Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, but with another level to his speed than even Smith. "Torrey might not have the separation when I threw the ball, but by the time the ball got to him, he had separated. Smoke is a little different in that he gets that separation early, and then keeps it."

Engram adds that Smoke has rare quickness to go along with speed, which makes him a tremendous route-runner. So there really isn't anything Ravens coaches can't ask of him. And he's not limiting his own expectations, either.

"My plan is to be like Antonio Brown, be a No. 1 receiver like him," Smoke says. "I can run any route on a route tree. I can stop on a dime. I can get deep. But I'm going to go short a lot more, because I'm sure I'm going to get doubled a lot like I have been lately."

He says this matter of factly. He says it in a way Antonio Brown never would, never could.

"I think he's capable of being one of the top guys in the league in terms of yards, catches and touchdowns," Engram says.

"His best is yet to come."

Flacco believes if the 28-year-old can stay strong for 16 games, he can accomplish things he's never come close to. "He's capable of blowing the roof off this thing and taking off," he says.

Palmer, who retired after last season, sees it similarly. "I know he's not the prototypical Julio Jones—6'4"," he says. "But he has all the tools. That third year, with everything around him, I expected him to catch 65 to 75 balls for 1,200 yards and seven to nine touchdowns. He's a Pro Bowl talent, without a doubt."

The high school coach, the college recruiters, the coach at Coffeyville and even the security guard had no idea. One person, however, knew long ago that this could be a reality.

"I know you going to make it to the NFL," J-Walk once told Smoke. "You can do it."

Smoke still hears those words, in his half-brother's voice, all the time. Those words made him keep playing when he thought about quitting after J-Walk's death. They inspired him to push through his ordeal in Arizona. And they push him to beat cornerbacks every week.

When he beats those cornerbacks, he does it with one of J-Walk's dreads tied to his mouthpiece, a pendant around his neck with J-Walk's face on it and three tattoos on his body that honor his half-brother.

It's a simmering and steady fire within that is causing these sparks to fly.

"We would talk all the time about being great and being one of the best," Palmer says. "He truly believes he can be that, and he's trying to prove it right now. All the things he's had to deal with would ruin a lot of guys. His resiliency has been spectacular."

Quitting would have been the easy thing. And if he were just John Brown, he might have done it.

But for Smoke Brown, quitting was the impossible thing.

          

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.

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