As Giants running back Andre Brown stood by the team buses outside of Bank of America Stadium well after midnight on Sept. 21, celebrating with family and friends after his 113-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance against Carolina in his first NFL start, Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk approached him.
Fresh off their postgame set for the NFL Network, the three Hall of Famers wanted to congratulate Brown.
"Great game," Irvin said. "Way to show up." Sanders asked if he could get a picture with Brown. Irvin grabbed Brown's cell phone and entered his phone number.
"Oh, my goodness," Brown said as he recalled the moment. "I couldn't believe those guys coming up to me, acknowledging me, and telling me I did a great job. It was awesome. It was crazy."
What's crazy is how Brown got to that spot. Originally a fourth-round draft pick by the Giants in 2009, the former North Carolina State back ruptured his Achilles tendon in mid-August that year during training camp and missed his entire rookie season. When he came back for the 2010 season, he was behind and struggling to catch up. He eventually got caught up in a numbers game and the Giants waived him on Sept. 4, 2010.
Then Brown found himself thrust into a dizzying game of Around the NFL (see right). In a little over a two-month period during the 2010 season, he bounced from the Giants to the Broncos to the Colts to the Panthers, back to the Broncos, and then to the Redskins. He dressed for only four games (three with Denver, one with Indianapolis) and seemed to keep winding up in a different city from where his Range Rover and his clothes were.
"I had my car and my clothes shipped out to where I was," he said, "and then a week later I wouldn't be there. My stuff would be in Denver while I'm in Washington."
The musical chairs game started anew in 2011 when the Redskins released Brown on July 29. A few days later, the Giants re-signed him, waived him on Sept. 3, and then one day later signed him to their practice squad, where he spent the entire 2011 season. Brown finally had a home, even if his role wasn't what either he or the Giants had expected when he was drafted.
"Andre reminded us of (former Giants running back) Derrick Ward coming out of college," Giants general manager Jerry Reese told SI.com in an e-mail. "His skill set was similar, but Andre was faster than Derrick and could bounce to the outside. Like Derrick, he has size to pound inside, run instincts and vision. We thought he was a good dependable receiver and blocker in [the] pass game."
Practice squad players participate in practices but don't suit up on game days. They usually stand on the sideline in team-issued shorts or sweats. During the week before a game, they often are asked to play on the "scout" team and simulate opposing players to help the offense or defense prepare.
During the week before the Giants played the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, the 6-foot-0, 227-pound Brown "impersonated" New England wide receivers Deion Branch and Julian Edelman in practices in Indianapolis.
"They wanted a quick guy, so I had to get in and out of my breaks as quick as I could, trying to give them the best simulation of those guys that they could get," Brown said. "I was a hundred miles an hour out there. I was out there running and giving everything I had."
Although he never played a snap last season, Brown contributed to the Giants' Super Bowl season in his own way. And after the confetti had stopped falling at Lucas Oil Stadium last Feb. 5 and he was still on the field, basking in the glow of the 21-17 victory over New England, Brown realized that he had earned the same prize as Eli Manning, Hector Cruz, Jason Pierre-Paul and the rest of the Giants players.
"I got a ring," Brown started singing. "You got one, too," he continued, pointing to one of his teammates. "I got a ring," Brown sang again. "You got one, too," he added, pointing to another teammate.
On the team's raucous plane ride back to New York the following day, safety Deon Grant asked Brown for an encore performance. Brown stood up in the aisle and started singing "I got a ring." This time, his teammates joined in. Linebacker Mark Herzlich captured the moment on his cell phone and the video went viral.
Which brings us to this season. One of the Giants' priorities was to improve a running game that ranked last in the league last year (89.2 yards average). They got younger and faster at running back by allowing seven-year veteran Brandon Jacobs to leave for San Francisco in free agency and selecting David Wilson with their first-round draft pick. But things didn't quite go as planned.
Coach Tom Coughlin benched Wilson in the season opener against Dallas after the former Virginia Tech star fumbled on his second carry (Wilson continues to return kicks, but he has had a minimal role as a runner). In the second game against Tampa Bay, Ahmad Bradshaw, who had been slowed by a fractured foot last season, suffered a sprained neck. At that point, the Giants turned to their former practice squad back.
Brown rushed 13 times for 71 yards and one touchdown in relief of Bradshaw as the Giants came from behind in the fourth quarter and beat the Bucs. Four nights later, against Carolina, Brown finally made his first start -- an opportunity that seemed like a long time coming.
"It's just been bottled up so long," Brown said. "All the hard work is starting to pay off a little bit. It's not the end; I'm going to continue to work hard. ... The real work is about to begin."
Brown, who describes himself as "a north-south runner" who goes "downhill" and can power his way between the tackles, was asked if he thought he proved something -- to the Giants coaches, his teammates, opponents -- by his performance against the Panthers.
"No, I don't," he replied. "I really don't think I proved anything. If you're consistent with it, that's when you prove something. The more consistent you are, the more reliable you are. I've got to get through one season. I don't want to be no flash in the pan. I'm just taking it one week at a time and, hopefully, continue to shock the world."
With Bradshaw healthy enough to start Sunday night in Philadelphia, Brown received only six touches (five carries for 14 yards, one catch for four yards) in the Giants' 19-17 loss. But don't look for him to disappear for the rest of the season. The Giants plan to keep him actively involved.
"We expect him to continue to be the versatile player that he is and fill whatever roles we need," Reese said, "as a starter, backup or special teamer."
When the Giants cut Brown the first time, it seemed improbable that he would return to them. In fact, Brown thought he might land a job in a couple of other cities during his Tour de NFL in 2010.
"The team where I liked their running scheme was the Redskins," he said. "That zone scheme they run there is what I thought my talents were best fitted for. Out in Denver, I thought I was going to get a shot because of the (running) backs situation, but that never happened. If you're the last one in, you're probably the first one out if somebody else gets injured."
Brown said his season on the Giants' practice squad was a benefit. Even though he never dressed for a game, he learned how to be a professional football player, take care of his body, and learn the concepts of plays and studying defenses.
"It was very humbling and an experience I can't forget," Brown said. "It made me a better person. It just made me want to work harder. It was like I'm a part of it but not really a part of it. ... Until these last few games, I was best known for the guy that never took a snap in single Giants regular season game. I was known more for singing a song."
Brown hasn't quite become a recognizable face in public, except for when he goes to Zinburger, a gourmet burgers and salads restaurant in Clifton, N.J., where the manager calls out Brown's name when he walks through the door, a la Norm in Cheers. But if Brown can continue to make the most of his opportunities like he did against Carolina, it won't be long before everyone knows his name.