By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
John Brown doesn’t have to look far for motivation.
He finds it in the memory of his late brother. In the downgrading voices of past coaches. In the eyes of his infant daughter.
That motivation is what landed him in Pittsburg, Kan., some 1,400 miles from his family in Homestead, Fla., a suburb of Miami in extreme southern Florida. It’s what made him resume his training just three days after he helped Pittsburg State to the NCAA Division II title last December and not stop — even for holidays — until the fall camp picked back up again.
“I’m doing everything I can to make a better future for me and my daughter,” Brown said, speaking of Caia, who was born on April 1. “And I think I’m in the perfect place to do that.
“When I was looking for a place to transfer, I told myself that if it wasn’t D-I, I wasn’t interested. But coming to Pitt State, I feel like it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Long road to Pittsburg
Brown — now a junior for the Gorillas — has played receiver since his Pop Warner days in Florida.
“Ever since I was 65 pounds,” he says.
He was an All-Dade County performer at Homestead High in 2007 and signed with Mars Hill, a Division II school in North Carolina.
He played one season for the Lions, leading the team with 1,472 all-purpose yards and scoring eight touchdowns, good enough to be named the South Atlantic Conference Freshman of the Year.
But he wasn’t happy and he let his classes slip. He was ruled academically ineligible before his sophomore year. He returned home over Christmas break and began looking for a new school.
“I wanted to go to a winning program and Mars Hill wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the right fit,” he said. “I decided to leave and coaches started telling me that I’m not good enough and not smart enough to go anywhere else and have success.
“I was down-talked a lot.”
Brown ended up in Kansas, at Coffeyville Community College, where coaches decided to redshirt him, putting him behind some receivers with bigger names or better pedigrees.
It gave him a chance to get his class work back on track and regain eligibility.
And just through his performances in Red Raven practices, word got back to Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck.
Current Pitt State defensive line coach and former Gorilla defensive end Ike Eguae was an assistant at Coffeyville at the time while Jon Wiemers — brother of PSU defensive coordinator Dave — was the Red Ravens’ offensive coordinator.
“We found out about him and we had coach (Larry) Garman go watch him in practice,” Beck said. “I think Coffeyville felt like they made a mistake by not certifying him and letting him play. It was obvious he had a ton of talent.
“We started recruiting him like anyone else. I first talked to him at a basketball game and he was just a kid looking for a home where he could fit in.”
Beck offered Brown a scholarship and a few days later — at 6:30 in the morning — Brown called Beck and told him he was ready to be a Gorilla.
“One day at practice Pitt came and watched me and at first I wasn’t real interested because they weren’t D-I,” Brown said. “But they offered me a scholarship and my family doesn’t have much at all and they can’t pay for my school, so I decided to go.
“And Coach Beck and everyone at Pitt, they were the first ones to ever keep it true with me. They kept their word. If they said something, they did it. And that meant a lot.”
Making his mark
It didn’t take Brown long at all to make a splash for the Gorillas. Eight plays, to be exact.
Less than three minutes into the 2011 season, Brown returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown to spark the Gorillas to a 34-7 win over Missouri Western.
He shined throughout the season, racking up 1,216 yards and 12 touchdowns on 61 catches while averaging 25.7 yards per kick return.
But he was even more stellar down the stretch.
He tied a school record with five touchdowns when the Gorillas clinched the MIAA title against Missouri Southern, had 119 yards in a second-round playoff win over Washburn, hauled in three touchdown passes — including a season-long 78-yarder — in the quarterfinals against Northwest Missouri and then, harkening the season opener, returned the first punt of the game for a touchdown in an electric national semifinal win over Delta State.
“He was absolutely huge for us,” Beck said. “We knew he was talented and we knew he was a tremendous worker, but you never know exactly how things will work out. But he came in and, along with Andrew Castaneda, gave us a threat that made our offense that much tougher.”
That work ethic that Beck speaks of is something Brown takes great pride in.
“I’ve been doubted so much, I always put in the extra work,” he said. “People say I’m too small or I’m too slow, which is just crazy, or they say I don’t weigh enough. So I outwork everybody. I don’t take holidays off. I work every weekend.
“I’m showing people I can do it. And I still have some points to prove.”
Brown’s short-term goals are pretty clear.
“I want to do whatever I can to help us win another national championship,” he said. “And, man, it’d be nice to win the Harlon Hill.”
The Harlon Hill, of course, is annual award for the top player in all of NCAA Division II. Put together another season like 2011 and Brown will most definitely be in the running.
He’s got two seasons left to make his mark even bigger in school and D-II history.
And though he won’t speak much about it, he hopes it parlays into at least a shot at the next level — professional football.
He wants to use his talents to make a better life for his daughter Caia, who is back in Florida. Although technology makes it easier for Brown to be away from his daughter — “Man, she always lights up and has a big smile when I see her on FaceTime,” he says — he wants her to know that the time he spent away from her was worth it.
And he wants to honor his older brother, James Walker, who was a father figure for Brown and was shot three times outside a Miami nightclub in July 2010 and died from his wounds while Brown was at Coffeyville Community College.
“I don’t like to talk about the past, but our family never really had nothing at all,” he said. “This is my way to show people I’m doing something. I have something to talk about and work toward. And it’s good feeling.”