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Mum's His Word Penn State's Courtney Brown doesn't toot his own horn, but his impeccable reputation on--and off--the field makes him a good bet to be the first pick in this week's NFL draft

April 17, 2000
April 17, 2000

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April 17, 2000

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Mum's His Word Penn State's Courtney Brown doesn't toot his own horn, but his impeccable reputation on--and off--the field makes him a good bet to be the first pick in this week's NFL draft

This is Courtney Brown: Early in his freshman year at Penn
State, Brown, a growing pup of a defensive lineman, needed some
new clothes but didn't know where to go in State College to buy
a shirt with a 20-inch neck and 42-inch sleeves. So his academic
adviser, Don Ferrell, bought the clothes, delivered them and
told Brown not to worry about reimbursing him right away. "No,"
Brown said, "until I get the money from my mom, I won't take
them."

This is an article from the April 17, 2000 issue Original Layout

This is Courtney Brown: In a 1998 game against Michigan State,
he sprinted around left end and blindsided Spartans quarterback
Bill Burke, causing a fumble. It was one of Brown's
school-record 33 career sacks. "Greatest hit I've ever seen,"
says Nittany Lions linebacker and fellow All-America LaVar
Arrington. "It looked like Burke was in a car accident. I
probably could have recovered the fumble, but I was in awe. I
couldn't move."

This is Courtney Brown: Last fall, during his most important
football season, the time in which his play would determine how
high he would be taken in the NFL draft and thus how many
millions he would sign for, Brown also had his most impressive
academic term. His 3.40 average ranked 17th among the 133
football players, managers and trainers at Penn State. Most top
prospects have dropped out of school to fine-tune for this
weekend's draft and what lies ahead, but graduation day seems as
important to Brown as draft day. He's still attending classes in
three courses so he can graduate on time, on May 13, with a
degree in integrative arts and computer graphics.

This is Courtney Brown: When he finds out SI wants to take
pictures of him in an academic setting for this story, Brown
suddenly gets cold feet about a previously arranged interview.
His agents persuade him to cooperate, but he won't allow himself
to be photographed in a library or a classroom or with books
because he doesn't want to be portrayed as being superior to
other high draft picks. He also won't allow the university to
release the names of his professors, won't divulge the names of
his courses and won't allow an interview to be conducted in his
campus apartment. "You're frustrated by Courtney, aren't you?"
Arrington says to a reporter. "You can't figure him out. That's
the way he likes it. He doesn't want people to get a handle on
him."

Sorry, Courtney, but we've got a pretty good handle on you:
Principled, bright, excruciatingly reserved--and a superb football
player who surely will be among the first three picks on
Saturday. At a time when the off-field exploits of its players
have been a source of embarrassment to the NFL, a prospect's
character has become as important a part of his resume as his 40
time. In Brown's case the character issue enhances his draft
position.

The Cleveland Browns have the first pick in the draft, and their
head of security, former Secret Service director Lew Merletti,
checks the backgrounds of about 200 potential draft choices a
year. Brown came up clean. By last weekend the Browns had decided
to make Brown the first selection, assuming the two sides can
hammer out a deal before Saturday's proceedings. Should Cleveland
turn to Arrington, Brown would fall to the Washington Redskins,
who pick second and third. "There's not one thing we can find
wrong with him," says Redskins director of player personnel Vinny
Cerrato. "With everything that's happening in the NFL, he's
coming along at the perfect time. He's almost too good to be
true."

Right man, right position, right time--even if his demeanor might
be ill-suited to face the public demands that come with being the
first pick. Cleveland is concerned but not scared off by Brown's
reticence. Over lunch last month in State College, Browns coach
Chris Palmer told Brown two things: Cleveland would take a
defensive player with the first selection, and if that pick was
Brown, he would have to take on a leadership role on defense,
much the same way the Browns' top pick in 1999, quarterback Tim
Couch, has done on offense. Moreover, Palmer told him that the
club would make sure he received counseling on how to deal with
the media. "His private nature won't be a big factor," Palmer
said last Thursday, as Brown wound up a two-day visit to
Cleveland's training facility. "You turn on the film and see him
hunt down the quarterback and play with emotion. I see intensity.
I like what I see."

As do others around the league. "When I wrote my report on
Courtney Brown, I said, 'This is the next Bruce Smith. I'll bet
money on it,'" says John Wooten, the Baltimore Ravens' assistant
director of pro personnel. "The principle of building a team is,
you get a quarterback first, and then you get the guy who can go
after a quarterback. The Browns got the quarterback last year.
Now they can get the pass rusher."

The 6'5", 271-pound Brown is a remarkable physical package. He
stunned scouts during an on-campus workout last month, when he
ran a faster 40 time (4.52 seconds) than the elastic, cat-quick
6'3", 248-pound Arrington (4.55), who until then had been viewed
as quicker and faster than Brown and nearly as strong. (Brown's
time was also faster than those turned in by the two top
wideouts in the draft, Peter Warrick of Florida State and
Plaxico Burress of Michigan State.) Brown had a vertical leap of
37 inches to Arrington's 36. Brown bench-pressed 225 pounds 26
times, Arrington 20. "I was talking to one scout after the
workout," says Penn State defensive ends coach Larry Johnson,
"and he said it was the most amazing display he's seen in his 19
years in the business." Also, few prospects have had Brown's
86-inch wingspan.

The NFL, however, is littered with workout wonders who were
disappointments as pros. In 1995 Boston College defensive end
Mike Mamula blew away scouts with his efforts at the NFL combine
and skyrocketed to the seventh selection in the draft. But
Mamula has never had more than 8 1/2 sacks in a season during
his five years with the Philadelphia Eagles. Brown is presently
too light to be a formidable run-stuffer--though in a couple of
years he'll carry 285 pounds--but should hold his own in a 4-3
scheme at left end, where Cleveland or Washington would likely
use him. That would put Brown opposite the right tackle,
generally the less skilled of the two offensive tackles, and the
tight end. "No tight end will block him," Cerrato says.

You don't rack up 33 sacks and 70 tackles for losses in a
big-time college program by being nothing more than a good
workout guy. That Brown can leverage his unusual strength in game
situations was evinced by a videotape that Johnson popped into a
VCR last week, showing Brown bursting through and around larger
linemen. "We put these tapes of Courtney on when we recruit kids,
and they walk out with chills up their spines," Johnson says.
"That's the player they aspire to be."

One play on the tape shows Brown, as a junior playing against
Minnesota with a fractured thumb, double-teamed by a tackle and a
tight end. As the tackle held Brown's right arm, a running back
joined the scrum. Still, Brown made a one-handed sack. Against
Purdue last year Brown evaded the Boilermakers' right tackle,
pursued quarterback Drew Brees with his arms raised, deflected a
pass, gathered in the ball for an interception and outraced Brees
for a 25-yard touchdown.

Last week Brown was clearly uncomfortable talking about himself.
Each question was followed by a short response in his deep, quiet
voice, followed by silence. This much an interviewer learns:
Brown dislikes the notion that he has an edge in the draft
because he has a stellar academic record and a spotless
reputation off the field. When he arrived on campus from the tiny
town of Alvin, S.C., his mother, Shirley Ann, told Ferrell that
if her son ever got behind in his schoolwork, she wanted him
taken off the team. "It's important to graduate," Courtney says.
"It's one of the reasons I came to college."

The too-good-to-be-true label bugs him too. "I'm not claiming to
be some perfect guy," he says. "No one is perfect. I'm just
trying to be who I am. I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do."

Brown also doesn't think his reluctance to be a public figure is
unusual. He believes his private life should be private. That's
why he would be a better fit with Washington than with
Cleveland--the Redskins already have defensive stars in recently
signed Bruce Smith and longtime Skins cornerback Darrell Green,
with corner Deion Sanders expected to sign later this year. In
Cleveland, Brown would become a person he never had to be in
college, The Man on defense. "It would be nice to play in either
place," says Brown. "All I can do is go wherever I'm picked and
give it the best I've got."

Sometime soon, Brown will sign a contract worth about $45
million, including a signing bonus of approximately $10 million.
"Will that change you?" he's asked. Brown shifts in his chair,
and then says, stone-faced, "I don't know what to say about that.
I'll have to see what happens and act accordingly."

Perhaps his reticence should be interpreted as another plus.
Haven't there been enough players who talk a better game than
they play? Brown is a genuine person with a spotless reputation
whose goal is to be the best player he can be. He plays the
defensive position, the all-purpose end, that's the hardest to
fill. He just wants to show up, do his job and win. "The
landscape in the NFL isn't good," says Ferrell. "The league
needs some good, strong trees."

On Saturday, Brown will put down some strong roots in Cleveland
or Washington. Two days later he will be back in class. Rest
assured, the NFL is looking forward to the Courtney Brown Era.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CRAIG HOUTZ/CENTRE DAILY TIMES BAGMAN Both strong and fast, Brown racked up a school-record 33 sacks during his four seasons at Penn State.COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA
"With everything that's happening in the NFL, he's coming along
at a perfect time," Cerrato says of Brown.