If ever the players or coaches at NC State need advice on the best paint to buy for their house, senior receiver Na'Quan Brown will be ready to answer their questions. If one of them gets lost wandering around the Wal-Mart at 8180 S. Tryon St. in Charlotte, N.C., Brown can direct them to their aisle of choice. And if anyone is looking for inspiration, they can simply ask Brown to share his story.
Five years ago, the Wolfpack's 6' 1", 203-pound wideout wasn't sure he would ever play college football. After graduating from Charlotte's West Mecklenburg High in 2010, Brown put his football dreams on hold because his mom needed him more. Out of work and low on cash, Sharima Brown couldn't pay her bills by herself.
"We were living paycheck to paycheck, and I was so proud of him when he came to me and said, 'Ma, you know what, I'm gonna sacrifice this time and not go to [a four-year] school—I know you need help,'" Sharima says. "Wow. That was something. A shocker. And boy, it really [made] an impression on his younger brother."
A former high school quarterback who only switched to receiver as a senior, Na'Quan didn't have much experience, but his stats were good enough (25 catches for 816 yards with five touchdowns) that a handful of small schools offered him scholarships. Tennessee showed interest, too, but Brown's lackluster GPA meant that he could not enroll at a four-year university. So, the high school all-conference wideout made a backup plan: He would attend Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, and train between classes and eight-hour work shifts (CPCC does not have a football team) while Sharima hunted for jobs.
Na'Quan, now 23, may have believed that his stint at Wal-Mart was for the short term, but he was a motivated employee nonetheless. He mixed paint, moved furniture and learned the inventory of the entire store. "Man, I knew the whole store," Brown says. "People would come up asking me stuff like, 'Where are decals? Where are toys?' I wasn't even in those departments, but I learned real quick." In 2012, he thought he'd found his way back to the football field. Set to enroll and play at West Virginia—he says he made the team as a walk-on—he learned he still wasn't eligible because he hadn't earned his associate's degree. Back to community college, and Wal-Mart, he went.
"A little part of me was bitter," Brown says. "It wouldn't hit me till I was watching it on TV, and then the football side of me would be just screaming. I was missing out, and I'm human, so I'd get upset. But the thought of my family … I knew I had to take care of them. I coped by telling myself that it was only temporary."
As a single mother raising two boys, Sharima lived by the philosophy that you can choose to be bitter or better. She chose the latter, and encouraged her children to do the same. Plenty of families struggle, she says, but hard times are not an excuse to give up on your dreams—detouring is O.K.; derailing is not.
In the spring of 2014, with his associate's degree in hand and financial aid footing the bill, Na'Quan enrolled at NC State. In Raleigh, he scoured campus to find information on football tryouts. Though he played just one season as a receiver in high school—he vividly remembers his first catch, a 70-yarder that put his team in scoring position—Brown believed he had the speed to match up with college defensive backs. Clearly, the Wolfpack's coaching staff agreed. Brown made the team as a walk-on.
"Putting on pads again was like that feeling you get when you haven't seen a sibling in a long time," Brown says. "Like, wow, you look different, but you're still in my blood."
After a long, circuitous path, Brown finally got what he'd been waiting for: an opportunity. With one of the team's top wideouts suspended for the Oct. 18 game at Louisville, Brown played 35 snaps and caught his first collegiate pass, for five yards. But with less than 30 seconds left and the Wolfpack trailing 30–18, the pocket collapsed and quarterback Jacoby Brissett ran, with Brown in position to block for him. An offensive lineman slipped and landed on Brown's leg, dislocating his left ankle. His season was done—and possibly, his career.
Unaware that the clock on his college football career had started when he enrolled in junior college, Brown was surprised to learn his eligibility was technically up. When he called Sharima to tell her the news, she sympathized, then asked, "Where are you gonna go from here?" In a tone that allowed for no debate, Na'Quan cried back, "I'm not quitting! I'm going to play!"
He attacked rehab with the same relentlessness that had earned him a spot on the NC State roster, and took notes at every off-season team meeting. On crutches for six months—he couldn't put weight on his foot until early summer—he lifted so hard with his upper body that "I looked like a defensive player," he says.
"I used him as an example to my other receivers," says George McDonald, Brown's position coach. "Here's a guy who has no guarantee that he's going to play next year, but his dedication … He's in meetings acting like he's the star receiver getting ready for the NFL."
The Wolfpack petitioned the NCAA for one more season for Brown and got it—with help from Sharima, who provided detailed records that showed her family's dependence on welfare, and proof of Na'Quan's role as the primary breadwinner. Brown found out in mid-May that the NCAA had granted him a family hardship waiver (he was ineligible for a medical hardship because his injury occurred in NC State's eighth game of the 2014 season) and immediately shared the news with his mother.
"Emotional," he says of their conversation. "Lots of tears. She couldn't really even talk because she was crying. I had to give her a minute."
For Sharima, who now works as a medical reimbursement counselor, Na'Quan's extra year of college football reinforced a lesson she taught her boys long ago: When you sacrifice for others, the universe pays you back.
"When you have a genuine heart, even in your most impossible situations, things will turn around when you're there to help other people," Sharima says proudly. "He helped me when I needed it most, and I really believe that's why things worked for Na'Quan."
And it's fitting for a kid who has spent a lifetime surprising people. Brown walked at nine months, could dribble a basketball by the time he was two and once defied Sharima by touching a hot iron just to prove that he was tough enough to handle the pain.
Early in Na'Quan's high school career, Sharima and her boys lived in a shelter. They hurt for money, but Sharima made sure they never dressed or acted like they lived below the poverty line. And when the boys told her, "Mom, we love you and we're sticking with you," she responded by telling them they could achieve anything no matter their circumstances.
This season, Na'Quan is expected to play a backup role for the Wolfpack, a dark horse in the ACC, with a schedule that sets up nicely for bowl eligibility. He did not play in NC State's 49–21 win over Troy last week, but could see time this Saturday against Eastern Kentucky. He'll be easy to spot: Just look for No. 3 in red, who is grateful for a game that has brought him comfort, distraction and motivation all his life.
"I fell in love with football when I was six, watching Deion Sanders return a kick, then dancing in the end zone," Brown says. "I thought, I wanna be like that dude."
And even if he doesn't play a meaningful snap this season, Brown's story has already inspired the one person for whom he has always been setting an example.
De'Shone Brown is 21, and grew up idolizing the big brother who taught him the game of football. De'Shone followed Na'Quan everywhere and even tucked a towel into the waistband of his pants so they'd look alike. Watching Na'Quan give up football for his family shook De'Shone: "We used to talk about wanting to be a spark for our family. When he said, 'I'm doing it for mom,' it's like we were lost, and then he got found."
Currently a student at Central Piedmont Community College himself, De'Shone plans to enroll in Division II UNC Pembroke this spring and walk on to the football team. He knows he can do it, he says. His big brother already showed him how.
Know of a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.