- "We both come from the bottom and we’re both climbing that mountaintop." Antonio Brown and DJ Khaled have both overcome unimaginable odds on their paths to stardom.
Like any proper sports/hip-hop crossover story, this one starts with a mixtape. The sub-HD film features highlights of Steelers wideout Antonio Brown (then at Central Michigan) juking opponents, outrunning defenses and just plain showing off. To set the reel’s tone, a DJ Khaled beat plays in the background, the star producer kicking things off with a signature “We the Best!”
That was the beginning.
As it happened, a mutual friend of Brown’s and Khaled’s in the overlapping Miami factories of chart-topping hits and NFL stars-to-be decided to do some match-making after seeing the video. And as soon as the two got together midway through Brown’s college career, first to hang in Khaled’s studio and then later to chill at his house, “we became brothers,” Khaled says. “We both come from the bottom and we’re both climbing that mountaintop. We’re real.”
The differences were striking—the undersized speedster with the man 13 years his senior and nearly twice his size—but the similarities were also impossible to ignore. Each had faced unimaginable odds, Khaled once selling clothes out of the back of a van and Brown spending months searching for shelter in high school. But by the time the two met in 2009, Khaled was on his way to putting out Victory, an album featuring Snoop Dogg, Drake and Lil Wayne. He could immediately see the same confidence and passion that helped him succeed when he looked at Brown. “I knew he was one of the greatest,” Khaled says. “He had a glow.” Or, in the vernacular Khaled has recently popularized on his Snapchat channel, “Special cloth alert! One-of-one alert!”
He’s now spreading that vocabulary—and the gospel of confidence—along with Antonio Brown on the We Know Game Show in collaboration with Champs Sports. Alert! Alert! Alert!
After taking encouragement from Khaled’s climb to stardom—“He’s always been real inspiring,” Brown says—the Steeler hopes the series will motivate a new generation. When Brown looked in the mirror as a college student, he saw a potential star, even after being declared academically ineligible at Alcorn State, spending a year at a North Carolina prep school, getting bounced from Florida International and walking on at Central Michigan. Because when he looked at Khaled, he saw the path to get there. If a child of immigrants could do that in the hip-hop game based on dedication and bravado, the same thing had to be possible in the NFL.
DJ Khaled has made a career out of identifying talent and nurturing relationships. In Silicon Valley, they’d call him an influencer. In 18th-century France, he would have played the role of Salonnière, if not philosopher-poet. But when it came to Brown, he simply started as a friend and a fan. Khaled grew invested in the Miami product as he racked up over 3,000 yards at Central Michigan, and he showed up at the GMAC Bowl to see Brown tally 178 receiving yards in his final college game.
Come draft day, the two were at Khaled’s house. As the rounds went by—first, second, third, fourth—Khaled thought, “What are these guys doing over there!? Antonio Brown is available! You’re tripping.” Draft-day evaluators, it turned out, had put more emphasis on Brown’s 5' 10" stature than his prophetic glow. Finally, Pittsburgh nabbed Brown in the sixth round. “He knew he was greater than the number they gave him,” Khaled says now. “I knew in his eyes—he had that fire in his eyes.”
By the second game of his career, Brown took off—figuratively and literally. Wearing No. 84 (8 times 4 equals the 32 teams that opted not to draft him), he scored an 89-yard return touchdown in his second pro game. Last month, he earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the player to reach 600 career catches the fastest. Along the way, he’s generated some all-time GIFs—kicking a punter, straddling a goalpost—and though the NFL flagged and fined him for each of those moments, Brown is still proud enough of them to have Fathead posters depicting each in his house. As DJ Khaled says, “We didn’t get in the game by somebody telling us how to do it. We do as we do.”
So you’re going to have to take those moments of brashness from Brown, because they come with the mentality that helped him get here in the first place. “You’ve got to be confident,” he says, and his definition of the word falls in line with Khaled’s ethos. Confidence, he explains, doesn’t come from what other people think of you, or even what you think of yourself. It’s what you do. “I’m a 6’ 5” guy in my mind,” Antonio Brown likes to say, but more importantly, he plays like one on the field. His confidence also comes from the early morning and late night workouts he consistently broadcasts on social media.
For Khaled, the analog is long hours in the studio and sleepless evenings on his bus (he’s afraid of flying). While Brown is scoring against the Giants on a recent Sunday, Khaled is hard at work, recording with Fabolous. But despite their harried schedules, the two still talk often—or message at least—like when Brown scored three touchdowns on Turkey Day. “He went bad. He made a movie—went berserk,” Khaled says. “So I had to text him, ‘Keep living. Don’t ever stop. And Happy Thanksgiving!’”
On their recent commercial shoots, the two men have had more time to talk about how far they’ve climbed and how much farther they want to go. Khaled aims to be a billionaire featured on the cover of Forbes magazine (He’s already made the front of Businessweek). Years after pushing his mixtape while selling shoes at Champs Sports, he now has his own store attached to his studio. Meanwhile, Brown—who’s leading the league in catches for a third straight year—is well on his way to getting a bust in Canton, Ohio, where his gloves already reside. Before he was drafted, he told Michael Irvin that the Hall-of-Famer was looking at the class’s top wideout. Then he proved it. And his antics—on and off the field—have only grown his crossover appeal. On the YouTube show, Brown and Khaled pass on the keys (i.e. Major Key Alert!) that have helped them succeed. They recently brought on a Texas high schooler who gave his teacher a pair of Jordans as a thank-you for “keeping it 100.”
“Something we share in life is motivating others, inspiring others and staying encouraged,” Brown said. Khaled’s message is simple: “They didn’t want us to win, so we won more. That’s what it is about, giving the kids hope and energy to do what you want to do.”
And how about when the director yells action? Who is the better actor, between the two friends at the top of their respective games?
“We both great, man,” Khaled says.