>Who’s Afraid of Ronnie Brown?

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Seems like I’ve interviewed a lot of former Auburn running backs these days. Here’s another one of my favorite pieces. This time it’s about Ronnie Brown of the Miami Dolphins. Printed in January 2009, I still remember how grueling it was getting the answers out of this shy, reserved guy.

One of my favorite parts of the article is the opening spread. We actually won an award for the for the headline and subhead. The awesome photo was taken by Jason Nuttle, and without it, I really don’t think the piece would have worked so well.

Who’s Afraid of Ronnie Brown?

By Nila Do

“Hi, my name’s Ronnie Brown,” the Dolphins running back says with a warm smile, introducing himself with a handshake.

As he enters the offices of the soon-to-open Broward Bank of Commerce in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where he’s a board member, the 6-foot Brown glides into the room nearly unnoticed. A little surprising for one of the NFL’s most explosive offensive threats.

Dressed in a crisp periwinkle blue dress shirt with understated Louis Vuitton cuff links and black pinstripe pants, Brown arrives early for the bank’s board of directors meeting. He has no entourage with him, no publicist and certainly no ego. He arrives empty-handed and greets everyone in the room, individually, no less.

Scheduled to open in January, the Broward Bank of Commerce’s current décor gives suitable insight to its most famous board member. The design is simple, masculine and rather quiet, much like Mr. Brown himself.

The second overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft, the 27-year-old Brown has become a household name in most every South Florida home. But to some, Brown is the quintessential sports star who doesn’t see himself as a quintessential star. While some players with multi-million-dollar salaries flaunt it both on and off the field, Brown considers himself just another Dolphins player who’s still working to help his team get over a nasty hump of a 1-15 season.

In street clothes, the 232-pound running back looks rather unintimidating. From the neck down, Brown appears the part of a professional athlete – a solid, compact body that’s ready to take a hit, and ready to hit. But from the neck up, Brown’s a big little boy with a sincere smile to go along with his baby-face countenance. While opposing teams spy on Brown’s every moment before the ball’s snapped, off the field poses a stark contrast for Brown where he’s unassuming, hardly garnering attention or much more than a glance.

And thank goodness, because he wouldn’t want it any other way.

A self-described homebody, Brown has an easy way. In contrast to certain teammates (ahem, Mr. Joey Porter), the fourth-year running back is barely audible when he speaks, sometimes shading his mouth while resting his hand near his jaw line. His anti-loquacious demeanor makes assignments nightmarish for Dolphins beat reporters (“He’s not our go-to quotes guy,” Sun-Sentinel reporter Harvey Fialkov declares). He’s polite, holds the door open for others, and wants nothing more than to give a kid an opportunity to better his or her life.

So, it begs the question: Who’s afraid of Ronnie Brown?

Ask his closest friends, and it’s doubtful you’ll get an answer. Ask his tight-knit family, and chances are they’re baffled for a response. Ask any South Florida reporter, and they’ll tell you he’s never once brushed them off.

“You think of football players as fierce and fired up, and Ronnie’s always laid back and always smiling,” says Fialkov, who’s been covering the Dolphins for about 20 years. “Pretty much what you see is what you get. He’s very calm, he’s never angry. He never gets really down when the team has lost, never really up when they’ve won.”

But don’t let his good nature be mistaken for anything except that – good nature. Fialkov says, “At first impression, hard-nose coaches don’t like his personality because he’s not as vocal, but then he shows them how hard he gives it in practice. He grows on them with his work ethic and talent.

“The way he came back from his knee injury shows how fierce he is,” Fialkov continues, referring to last year’s torn ACL Brown suffered in week 7. “That injury can sideline someone for a year, and he came back within eight months and is doing a great job this season.”

Blessed with the strength of a fullback and the speed of a sprinter, Brown no doubt incites a bit of fear in undersized secondaries, bowling over them like a bull tossing aside an inept matador (ask New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who Brown repeatedly trucked in week 3). To date, he’s rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, has 23 touchdowns, has more than 1,000 receiving yards, and the lefty even threw a 19-yard TD pass this year. (And, there’s no doubt the numbers would be significantly higher had he not missed games due to injuries in 2007 and 2008.) His combination of size, speed and football intelligence has created match-up problems throughout his entire football career, making the answer to the above question more rhetorical than anything else.

On this Tuesday, like most every Tuesday (the players’ day off), Brown just wants to relax. He anticipates a quick board meeting, a good thing as he wants to recover from the pounding he received on Sunday. Developed to serve the needs of small to mid-size business, professional, executives and real estate investors, the Broward Bank of Commerce opened under the auspices of banking veterans Keith Costello, Mark P. Snelling and Kim M. Scarlett. Brown was recruited to the bank by its chairman Dr. D. Arnold Tillman, who is from Brown’s hometown in Georgia.

His parents are in town, as they usually are during football season. Born and raised in Cartersville, Ga. (but born in a hospital in Rome, Ga., he clarifies), Brown can attribute his laid-back ways to the small town’s family-oriented and humble lifestyle. With a sub-25,000 population, Brown says, “somehow everyone knew each other and supported each other.” The youngest of three children, Brown excelled at each sport he played, always rubbing it in whenever he’d beat his older brother Kevin, seven years Brown’s senior. With cousins and close friends constantly available for pick-up games, it was rare for Brown to not have an athletic apparatus of some type in his hands.

Cartersville High School was a popular spot during Friday nights in the fall. The town came out to support the Purple Hurricanes, where young Ronnie Brown starred as running back and even pulled a stint at free safety. A two-sport athlete, Brown was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the fifth round of the 2000 MLB draft. Brown declined. He wanted to enjoy the college experience instead of working his way up through farm teams with slim expectations of making it to the MLB.

As he looks down at his hands, Brown says, “Growing up, there were some guys who were better than me, faster, stronger. Some guys were a lot faster on the football field and a lot better on the basketball courts. So, I never really accepted the fact that I was better.”

Huh? Wait, never accepted you were better? But aren’t you the one with the NFL contract? Please, do explain.

“It wasn’t until my sophomore season at Auburn when Cadillac [Williams] got hurt that I knew I was pretty good,” Brown says, referring to his former college teammate and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back. “I took most of the carries from then on, and I finished the game with two or three touchdowns. That’s when I knew.”

Up until college, Brown always wore the number 20. “It’s because my idol is Barry Sanders,” he explains, referring to the former Detroit Lions rushing phenom and one of history’s best tailbacks. “I looked up to him.”

When upperclassman kicker Damon Duval called dibs on that number, Brown picked another, um, rather famous two digits to wear: 23.

Still, Brown has developed a similar path to his football idol. Both on hard-working football teams whose record never showed it (while with Detroit, Sanders & Co. only once advanced to the NFC Championship), the two have been consistent bright spots in the team’s offense. And while Brown has a long way to go to eclipse his icon’s staggering 15,269 rushing yards and 109 touchdowns, Brown hopes to one-up Sanders by winning a Super Bowl title.

“That would be my dream,” he says, flashing that signature smile. “I’ve never thought about not being a football player, and winning the Super Bowl is every player’s dream.”

Brown remains close to his Auburn Tigers teammates, phoning Carnell “Cadillac” Williams on a weekly basis and hanging out with former roommate and current Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell during the off season. And as his former teammates rack up their own stats with their respective teams, Brown doesn’t look to be overshadowed.

So how do you evaluate your play since you’ve turned pro, Ronnie?

“I feel like I’ve contributed, and I feel like I have a lot more to give,” he says plaintively. A typical Ronnie Brown response. An honest, concise answer that never veers on boastful. That’s just who he is.

A superstar in the making with the anti-NFL personality, Brown has stayed grounded, a refreshing notion in this world of Ocho-Cincos. To him, his job is no different than any other working-class American, say except for his face being blasted on every South Florida high-definition television set every fall Sunday. He seems to remain what he’s always been at the core: a big little kid. Known for his perennial dancing in the huddles, Brown’s the only grown man in the NFL who doesn’t mind when the jumbotron catches him shimmying between plays (“I like to keep things light in the huddle, not so serious,” he says). And while an appearance on “Dancing With the Stars” is not in Brown’s sight, perhaps a Pro-Bowl bid is.

He is the kinetic energy the Dolphins and its fans seem to feed off. Brown still has a long way to go to earn the respect and recognition afforded to names like Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and, yes, Barry Sanders (“I don’t think little kids in Minneapolis are wearing Ronnie Brown jerseys,” writer Fialkov jokes), but he intends to do so, with a smile.

“I’ve gotta go now,” Brown says, politely excusing himself. “I’m taking my mom and dad to the airport.”

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