February 13, 2014

Loran Smith: Determined Bulldog finds his place in NFL

— When Marlon Brown — the oft-injured University of Georgia wide receiver whose career in Athens was ended by anterior cruciate ligament surgery — received scant attention at the NFL combine last spring, he didn’t let it affect his attitude. When he wasn’t drafted, he did not despair.

His confidence remained high because of his belief in his ability and his love of competition.

The Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans expressed interest in him as a free agent. Marlon thought his best opportunity was with Houston, but the Texans were concerned he might not be fully recovered from surgery. He only spent one day in Houston. While that was disconcerting, he still believed he could play in the NFL. When Brown received a call from Ravens coach John Harbaugh encouraging him to sign a free agent contract, the former Bulldog’s journey had begun —  although there were no guarantees.

Yet Marlon realized immediately he could compete. He was healthy for the first time since his freshman year at Georgia. He had no responsibilities but to work, study and sleep football. Training camp was fun. He realized he was making progress. When the cuts were made, he was one of those left standing. After the third preseason game, when the roster was reduced from 90 to 75, Brown was still in possession of his playbook.

Nonetheless, he realized that ultimately there would only be 53 spots on the team’s active roster.

At lunch one day, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to a smiling Harbaugh, who was offering congratulations. He had made the team. He would play on special teams and be a backup receiver.

“Marlon,” Harbaugh said, “is a humble, hard-working guy. There are plenty of things he can get better at ... but he stays after it and he made big plays for us.

“He’s a big, strong guy with body control. (Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco) can put the ball around him, and he can make an adjustment and go make the catch. That’s really valuable in the red zone.”

The Ravens gained confidence in Brown right away, realizing he had big-play capability. When the Ravens hosted the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 8, Brown scored the decisive touchdown in a 29-26 win that featured an exciting final quarter — Baltimore led 7-6 going into the fourth.

For Brown, who finished the game with seven catches for 92 yards, that touchdown catch was the highlight of the year for at least two reasons. First, it gave him confidence that he could compete against the NFL’s best. Second, his grandmother, Calvary Malone, was in Baltimore to see the game.

“She came to town for a couple of weeks,” Brown said. “She stayed at my condo and cooked for me. It made me feel good to see her enjoying herself, and I sure enjoyed her cooking.”

As soon as the season was over, Brown hurried back to Athens to enroll in classes, and he has plans to compete degree requirements in 2015. He signed up for 12 hours of coursework and is giving top priority to earning his degree in psychology. In the afternoons, he is hard at work on the Georgia practice field and in the weight room.

“You can always improve,” he said. “I won’t get caught letting up. In the NFL, there is always somebody poised to take your place.”

The first thing he noticed was that all the defensive backs in the league were fast and tough. But Brown learned he could play tough, too — he played fumble-free his entire first season in the NFL, which he finished with 49 catches (including seven touchdowns) for 524 yards. He played in 14 games.

It was Brown’s consistency that got the attention of Harbaugh and the Ravens’ offensive staff.

“You can tell nothing is too big for him,” Harbaugh said. “He is always ready to go in there and make plays. I think he is going to have a good future for us.”

With a successful rookie year behind him, Brown reflected on his Georgia experience.

“I felt that when I got to the league, I had an advantage on the other rookies because of the fundamentals I learned from (Bulldogs wide receivers coach Tony Ball). He taught me fundamentals which have enabled me to compete and earn a job. My Georgia experience was very positive, and I enjoyed my time in Athens.”

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.