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COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE
FIRST PLACE: FEATURE
CHICAGO There are children playing on 90th Street, with real smiles and untainted dreams, 20 feet from a drug deal in the making.
The well-kept houses and tiny manicured lawns in this South Side Chicago neighborhood reflect the pride of the people who live here as much as they betray the cycle of desperation.
Corwin Brown stands in the middle of the street, in front of the house he grew up in, admiring a development that promised to upgrade the facade of progress even more before, that is, the builder inexplicably aborted the project in midstream. It's not the buildings that need a makeover, though, Brown is convinced. It's the culture.
It's not enough for Brown that he got out, went to the University of Michigan, put himself on the fast track for law school before a longer-than-expected run in the NFL changed the trajectory of his thinking and his mission.
Notre Dame's first-year defensive coordinator suddenly wasn't comfortable being the clichι the guy who escaped his brutal past, merged with the white-bread world and made good. He needed to make peace with his past, then reframe it.
"In my mind, I don't know what it is, but I feel like I have a purpose," said Brown, who came to ND following a three-year stint as an assistant coach with the New York Jets. "God made a plan, and he's using me. It sounds corny to a lot of people, but not to me. That's why it was a real good deal for me to come to Notre Dame. It's because I'm going to affect more people than I will in the League."
He is now in a job at a school that once preferred to airbrush rιsumιs like his, sometimes people like him all together, out of the big picture. But Notre Dame's original creed looked nothing like the uptight, sanitized version that now seems to be reaching an expiration date.
Heck, Knute Rockne himself enrolled at Notre Dame in 1913 as a 22-year-old high school dropout from Chicago, the connection forged from a promise to work his way through school and toil even more diligently in the classroom in exchange for a clean slate, an open mind and an opportunity.
There's a parallel in the recent resurrection of the ND-Chicago football connection that Brown and ND head coach Charlie Weis have fueled. It's an embracing of diversity, an understanding of culture, a muting of stereotypes.
Notre Dame, through its football program, is becoming less about packaging and rigid, sometimes archaic, thinking and more about what people stand for at their core. Yet if all Brown was about was massaging his old ties for recruiting glory, he could gloss over his darkest moments, skip a few pages of his life, stand up in recruits' living rooms and proclaim to the parents, "Look at me now."
But because it's as much about bringing a piece of Notre Dame to Chicago see, the connection runs forward and back Brown also says, "Look at me then."
It is his belief that the past imperfect makes the message stronger, more penetrating. And the message is that there is something better and our children deserve better but it's locked in a mindset that seems to be sliding the other way. Where once kids ages 16, 17, 18 carrying guns was the baseline for shock, now it starts at 10, 11, 12. What were once fistfights are now bloodbaths.
Too many drugs, too many influences, too much entitlement, too many funerals.
And everywhere you look, there are children, still full of hope, still full of bliss and unaware and unaffected to this point by what the $1,500 car with $4,000 rims is doing on their street.
"I know what it's like outside of this circle," Brown said. "But at one time I didn't know. I thought I was a pretty sharp kid, but I didn't have a clue until I got out.
"It wasn't a big deal to be shot and killed, it just wasn't. I want kids to at least see what else there is to life. It's one thing if you have an opportunity and you don't seize it, but it's another thing when you just don't know what's out there.
"I want these kids to do better than I did. I don't have all the answers, trust me. I've got a lot of parts of me to clean up. I'm a work in progress. But I do want the next kid to be better than me, to have a better situation, whatever that looks like."
Corwin Brown's head is bleeding still, 12 hours after the undercover cop hit him from the blind side.
It started innocently enough, a skirmish about who lives where in the grid that is Chicago. A cap turned the wrong way, a few harsh words. It doesn't matter if you're invested in gang life or not if you live on a certain block, that's who you're associated with.
It was Brown's junior year at Chicago's Julian High School. He was a rising football star there and a whiz in the classroom. The jagged scar from that night is still with him. So is the lesson of just how easy it is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Not that he hadn't been warned before and after. His friend Mimi's brothers, Yusef and Abdullah, were gunned down in separate incidents when someone in a rage started shooting before he found who he was really looking for.
And then there was the old man at Wendy's, South Chicago's version of Arnold's of Happy Days fame, at least that's how Brown remembers it. The man had just celebrated his birthday, albeit modestly. A gunman looking for someone else came down the alley that runs behind Wendy's and shot blindly through a wooden fence.
"I was determined I wasn't going to be a victim of circumstance," Brown said, "but it wasn't always easy."
And his intentions weren't always innocent. He and his friends used to throw eggs at cars, hoping the drivers would chase them. And before he got to Julian High School, he'd constantly pick fights with bigger kids.
"I would say my natural instinct is that I didn't want to get hurt," he said. "I would fight out of fear more than anything else. Because I was skinny, I didn't want people knowing how scared I was, so I would fight dudes. And I'd fight the bigger cats to make people think I shouldn't be messed with."
Athletes largely got a pass in Chicago except in Benji Wilson's case. The former Simeon basketball star should have been celebrating his 40th birthday last spring. Instead he died at age 17, gunned down on the eve of his senior basketball season.
"That was taboo, that he got shot," Brown said. "He was the No. 1 player in the country. He had his whole life ahead of him. Everybody idolized him. Everyone wanted to be like him. I know I did."
Brown's mind drifts back to the brawl in his high school junior year. The memory of Wilson flashes through Brown's mind as he throws a bottle in the senseless fight that could end his life. Somehow he was lucky that the whack on the head came from an undercover cop. Somehow he ended up not being arrested that night.
He wanted to avoid his father's wrath, so he went straight to his room and went to sleep. In the morning he awakened to a blood-stained pillow and a screaming father.
"He went through the roof," Brown said. "He never told me this until I went away to Michigan, but every time I went out, he stayed up and worried that I was going to get hurt. But he wasn't so worried that he would make me come home at 10 or 11 o'clock. He'd just stay up and wait for me. And that became a source of tension in our house.
"He was physical with me. He screamed at me so many times and embarrassed me in front of my friends. Years later, we would make our peace. My dad was a good dude, a wise dude, but the message got lost in the delivery."
The rift grew into a chasm between father and son, but life kept bringing more positives into Brown's world Julian head football coach J.W. Smith, a Wisconsin assistant football coach named Lovie Smith yes that Lovie Smith and friends who wouldn't let Brown cross the line into a life with no future.
"When I think back on it, it was a lot of fun growing up here," Brown said, "I do love Chicago. It really teaches you in your own way how to survive. Everybody's got their own way of doing it. Some cats are more thuggish and fight more. Some cats are more cerebral. Some cats have got to be somewhat of a punk.
"When people see you're weak, they're going to take advantage of you. So there's a certain image that you have to uphold. If you don't, they're going to prey on you here. Then the word travels and spreads, and then you're going to have real problems."
Brown went to grammar school just down the street from his house, but eventually his parents sent him to schools out of the neighborhood with the best of intentions and the worst of consequences. Gillespie, his middle school, for instance, was in rival gang territory. And the street code, the culture, wouldn't allow Brown to tell his parents.
The break of his life came when it was time to go to high school. Brown's father, Albert, was a teacher at Julian, so Brown went to the relatively new school, rich in football pride but short on facilities.
Once the practice field next to the school became unplayable from weather and overuse late each fall, the team members would have to walk more than a mile through the bushes, across the Dan Ryan Expressway overpass to a public park to prepare for their games.
In the classroom, though, serious students could get a serious education, thanks to the football team.
"Our football team was the pride of the school, but it had always been that way," Brown said. "From Carl Boyd to George Streeter to Howard Griffith, if you came to Julian and you did something that was out of order gang or no gang the football team was going to beat you up. That's how it went down.
"Julian was a unique school that way. Now if you tried doing that now, everybody would wind up getting killed."
Getting home, though, was a lot more of a challenge for a lot of Brown's teammates. Because Julian drew kids from a geographically diverse area, the shortest route was often through a death trap.
"Julian sits on 103rd," Brown said. "The dudes from that live near Corliss and in London Town that went to Julian, they couldn't take the 103rd Street bus home, because they would get killed, even back then. And you certainly couldn't go through the L station. You didn't even think about going through there.
"So what the dudes would do is take the 24 Wentworth bus down to 87th Street, take the 87th Street bus all the way over to Cottage Grove. From there, you take the Cottage Grove bus up to 95th and then catch the 111 bus up there. That's probably an hour and a half out of their way.
"The tradeoff is you lived. About a month ago, a kid got shot right here on 103rd. A dude who used to go to Julian, he got on the bus, started shooting people and he killed a kid who was destined to go to college."
Brown's destiny also pulled him toward college. Both of his parents were educators, so valuing education was in his DNA. Football made it a reality.
And J.W. Smith is why college recruiters flocked to Julian in the Public League. Not only was Smith way ahead of the curve in terms of strategy, not only did he demand, motivate, inspire, he could reach kids.
So charismatic was Smith that Griffith begged his parents to let him transfer from Mendel Catholic to Julian for his senior year.
"I think the biggest thing for me is that coach Smith was a leader on and off the field," said Griffith, who went on to star at Illinois and play with the Denver Broncos. "He expected guys to perform in the classroom, at home and also on the football field.
"He was all about family and doing things the right way. So really, for a lot of people who weren't fortunate enough to have a father, he was a father figure."
It wasn't fear of Smith that drove the Julian players. It was respect. It was pride. So instead of getting lured into selling drugs like a lot of Brown's friends were doing, Brown worked at White Castle Hamburgers including the graveyard shift once a week.
"There were times I'd get off at 7 a.m. and have an 8 a.m. track meet, but I never regretted it," Brown said. "When you hustle drugs, there's only two things that can happen you get locked up or you get killed."
Notre Dame was briefly involved in Brown's college recruitment, and the star defensive back could very well have ended up in South Bend had the courtship lasted.
"Gerry Faust was the coach when my recruiting started," Brown said. "And I can remember when he came to Julian to see me (and some older prospects on Julian's team), it was the talk of the whole school."
So was the fact that Faust's car was stolen while he was inside the school. Lou Holtz took over at ND shortly thereafter, and the Irish lost interest. So did a lot of other schools. Brown was a hot commodity healthy, but he wasn't breathtaking enough as an athlete to keep them coming when he suffered a knee injury during his senior season.
Even Michigan, the school he ended up playing for, slowplayed him. "I remember assistant Les Miles (now LSU's head coach) telling me they weren't sure they had a scholarship for me."
So it came down to Illinois, Northwestern and Wisconsin and he almost scared off Wisconsin.
Brown's father had gotten into an altercation with a female student the day Lovie Smith first showed up at Julian.
"My dad is a strong dude," Brown said. "If a student talks back, he's going to slam you through a locker. because you can't show weakness to these kids. The moment that you do, they're going to run over you."
Word got around that the female student's brother and his friends were going to jump Brown's father after school. Brown and the football team went to intervene.
"When I got upstairs, I hit the first dude I saw," Brown said. "And it's on. The teachers were all breaking it up and Lovie Smith is sitting there through the whole thing. And when it was over, someone asked Lovie, 'Now who are you here to see?' And Lovie says, 'Corwin Brown.' And I just kind of waved at him, 'Here I am.'
"Lovie was real cool. He was the reason I wanted to go to Wisconsin, and we still have a great relationship today. We never talk about X's and O's, though just life. I really liked Wisconsin, but my parents wanted me to go to Michigan."
Ann Arbor, Mich., took Brown away from the violence and the temptations but also threw him out of his comfort zone. The only white people he had encountered in 18 years on Chicago's South Side were some of his teachers.
"I got along with those teachers, too," he said. "But it was just different at Michigan. We all grew up wanting to be teachers and sports players. And these kids in Ann Arbor wanted to be doctors, physicists and nuclear this and that.
"I didn't look at it as hard. I looked at it as, this is what I've got to do. When I left, everyone had been saying, 'Well, you shouldn't have gone to Michigan. You'll never play there.' In my mind, I was going to prove everybody wrong. And even if I didn't play, I was going to get my degree and I was going to be able to do something when I got done. I mean, I love my neighborhood to death, but I didn't want to stay there for the rest of my life."
The more Brown talks, the more it becomes apparent that his 3-4 defense is the vehicle, not the octane, toward a better Notre Dame defense.
"I think being successful as a coach is a blend of X's and O's and who you are J-dub taught me that," Brown said of his high school coach. "Football is football. Cover 2 is Cover 2. But there's a certain way I want my guys to play when the ball is snapped. There's a certain way I want my guys to run to the ball. It's all about mindset. And I tell my guys this, 'You're an extension of me.'"
So who is Corwin Brown?
He's a guy who's as comfortable in the houses off the alley as he is visiting the kids in the cul-de-sac. While playing for the New England Patriots, for example, he gave a speech at Harvard and one in a prison in the same day.
He can switch his vernacular in mid-sentence. He likes to see the good in every situation, but won't ignore the bad. He is smart enough to learn from his mistakes and from others'.
When his 10-year-old son, Corwin Jr., was 4, Junior bumped his 2-year-old sister. Had Brown not been in the right place at the right time, well, the mental picture of his toddling daughter standing at the top of the stairs still brings tears to his eyes.
So does the fact that his rage that day was squelched by his compassion. He saw the fear in his son's eyes, and he kept the promise he made to himself when having a family of his own was just a dream.
"I broke the cycle that day," he said.
He believes there's something synchronistic about the presence of Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, J.W. Smith and now Weis in his life.
"Charlie Weis fits into this picture," he said, gazing down 90th Street. "Charlie understands people. Charlie understands culture. He really does. If there's one dude that's not prejudiced, it's Charlie. He's real. Charlie may not agree with the rules of the street, but he understands."
He understands that Brown once fought a boy named Eric, just a few yards away from his house, just beyond the makeshift end zone of their street touch football games.
And only by getting cerebral, making Eric believe he was going into his house to get a weapon, did Brown survive. There was no weapon, only fear. But Eric was the one who ran away from the fight.
"That fight goes the other way," Brown said, "my whole life changes in that moment."
"I think at some point growing up, there's a time and a place where you're going to have to stand up for yourself," Griffith said of Brown, "and sometimes you're forced into those types of situations. I could see Corwin as being a kid who would have to maybe prove himself.
"On the football field or in the streets, people are going to try to test you to see how far they can push you. And once you make your claim, 'I'm not putting up with it,' people know where the line is drawn. But so many times growing up, there's always going to be a turning point where you have to put your foot down and stand up for what you believe in."
And now Brown is doing it again. But this time, Weis is fighting with him too, and Griffith and J.W. Smith and all his buddies from the old neighborhood. He does is for Abdullah's son. He does it for ND quarterback Demetrius Jones, whose own Chicago neighborhood mirrors Brown's. He does it for every kid in the Chicago Public League with a dream.
And it's here for the long term. So is Brown.
"Me and coach talk about this. I wouldn't mind it someday to be a head coach," Brown said, "but I wouldn't be incomplete if I don't. The thing that's most important to me right now is to get my defense together and playing well, and have a real effect on guys.
"If I'm a D-coordinator for six, seven, 10 years and we have success and a lot of kids respect me and admire me and all that stuff, I'll be more than happy to go off into the sunset like that. I told Charlie that.
"I'm not trying to go anywhere right now. I even told Charlie I'd like it to be set up so that I really didn't have that option. I don't even want to think about it. And not even money can talk me into changing my mind, because money doesn't mean anything.
"You saw how I came up. I didn't have money and I don't need money. What I need is for people around me to be happy. I need to feel like I'm making a difference in people's lives. That's who I am."
Comment of the judge, Mickey Spagnola: Wow, what a wonderful storyteller this writer was, and the story was very complete. This was as complete and well-written piece as I've seen in quite some time, and to tell you how good it was, this category was very hard to judge, with so many excellent entries. So that tells you what I thought of this story of Corwin Brown. Beginning to end the writer never lost me, almost as if this was a minibook. Wonderful job. Second place: Christopher Walsh, Tuscaloosa News
Third place: Molly Yanity, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Honorable mention: Blair Kerkhoff, Kansas City Star; Matt Hayes, Sporting News; Vahι Gregorian, St. Louis Post Dispatch
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