|Sergio Brown, undrafted out of college, is happy he chose the Patriots after weighing his options. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)|
Patriots’ Brown still looks to late father for guidance
FOXBOROUGH - Growing up in Chicago, there was always someone telling Sergio Brown that his father was special.
“Everybody on the South Side of Chicago knew who Mario Brown was because of the person he was,’’ Brown said.
Everyone knew he was an athlete. Recruited by Shelby Metcalf in 1971, Brown was the first black basketball player at Texas A&M. His crossover was his calling card.
A notorious talker, he knew how to work a room.
“He was the only person I knew that really got kicked out of a football game for being too loud,’’ Brown said, laughing at the thought of it.
It was a Pop Warner game, and after getting the boot, he walked to one of the houses near the field and persuaded the owner to let him watch the game from the backyard.
He was a father not only to his own children but to the kids in their neighborhood who didn’t have one. Each year iHoops First Team, a mentoring program between the NBA and NCAA, gives out an award in his honor.
“He was a really strong influence in the kids’ lives,’’ Brown said. “He was more of the community father for the kids that didn’t have fathers.’’
When his father died of cancer in 2002, the void for Sergio Brown was immeasurable. He was a freshman in high school when his father died, but it lingered with him while he was at Notre Dame. Brown thinks about it now that he’s in New England trying to solidify a spot as a safety with the Patriots.
“I look back on it a lot,’’ Brown said. “Not having my father, it got kind of heavy. But you just keep pushing through.
“I had to grow up fast and take on being a man early. So that transition had to happen real fast with me stepping up to the plate.’’
Brown had every intention of following his father’s lead. Basketball was his first love, and still is to an extent.
He went to Proviso East, the same high school as Michael Finley and Celtics coach Doc Rivers. He played on the same AAU team as Derrick Rose. But Brown dislocated his ankle his junior year. While he sat out the basketball season, he watched the college recruiting letters pour in for football. He put his hoop dreams to the side.
There’s some irony, though, that he can’t help but recognize now. When Brown was in the seventh grade, he played in a basketball tournament that Notre Dame hosted. At the time, Shannon Brown, now with the Lakers, had all the scouts’ attention. But Mario Brown was going to make the most of the trip. He chatted up nearly everyone he saw.
“He talked to janitors, talking, talking, talking,’’ Sergio Brown recalled. “He ended up talking his way all the way up to the head football coach’s office.’’
That office belonged to Ty Willingham back then. Initially, Willingham gave him the stare you give strangers. “Who is this guy?’’
But eventually Mario charmed him into loosening up. By the end of the conversation, Willingham gave Brown his card.
Before he left, Brown told Willingham, “My son’s going to play football for Notre Dame.’’
Sergio got a scholarship to play for the Fighting Irish under Charlie Weis. Nothing about the experience was easy. He played mostly special teams his first two seasons. The team went from 10-3 his freshman year to 3-9 his sophomore year. The Irish hovered around .500 in Brown’s last two seasons. He didn’t have an interception in four years.
Off the field, moving from Chicago to South Bend, Ind., was a culture shock and he felt isolated. Without his father, he felt like he had no one to talk to. There were points when he wanted to transfer.
“It was tough,’’ he said. “Going through college, not really having anybody to have my back and push for me going to a school where a lot of people had their fathers there. It was kind of a dark spot. You didn’t have too many people that you had a lot of stuff in common with and not too many people to talk to.’’
But when he thought about that basketball tournament and the lengths his father went just to sit down with Willingham, just to crack open a window of opportunity, it helped.
“When I was having my rough patches at Notre Dame, really thinking about leaving, transferring, that was always in the back of my head,’’ Brown said. “My father wanted me to come here, so just stick it out and everything will turn out for the better.’’
Brown wasn’t drafted. When he weighed his free agent options, he leaned toward New England because after playing for Weis, the Patriots’ system seemed familiar. Last season, he spent the first six weeks on the practice squad before being added to the 53-man roster in October. In the 11 games he played, he was more of a spare part. This season, he’s part of the plan.
When the Patriots released Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather before the start of the season, it was a sign they had more confidence in Brown. When Patrick Chung went down with a thumb injury, it opened the door for more playing time. Brown has started the past two games, making the most of the opportunity.
“I think it’s just been the next step in the process for him,’’ said cornerback Devin McCourty. “Last year, once he moved to the active squad, he was thrown right in against San Diego, and ever since he had a role.
“He’s just been improving. He’s been getting after it, getting better and just showing that he can play.’’
Brown said his confidence grows the more he’s on the field.
“It helps because you get prepared more,’’ Brown said. “You’re not just ready in case something happens. You’re more ready for playing a football game, you’re getting reps and you’re getting ready for a football game. So it helps you a lot from a preparation basis.
“It feels a little better but at the same time you’re still fighting every week because you never know what can happen.’’
He works toward his goal with the memory of his father in mind.
“Doing a lot of the stuff that he would have wanted me to do or knowing that he’s still looking down on me,’’ Brown said. “It feels good to really be able to live a good life, carrying on with him not there.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.