This is Courtney Brown: Early in his freshman year at Penn State, Brown, a growing pup of a defensive lineman, needed some new clothes but didn't know where to go in State College to buy a shirt with a 20-inch neck and 42-inch sleeves. So his academic adviser, Don Ferrell, bought the clothes, delivered them and told Brown not to worry about reimbursing him right away. "No," Brown said, "until I get the money from my mom, I won't take them."
This is Courtney Brown: In a 1998 game against Michigan State, he sprinted around left end and blindsided Spartans quarterback Bill Burke, causing a fumble. It was one of Brown's school-record 33 career sacks. "Greatest hit I've ever seen," says Nittany Lions linebacker and fellow All-America LaVar Arrington. "It looked like Burke was in a car accident. I probably could have recovered the fumble, but I was in awe. I couldn't move."
This is Courtney Brown: Last fall, during his most important football season, the time in which his play would determine how high he would be taken in the NFL draft and thus how many millions he would sign for, Brown also had his most impressive academic term. His 3.40 average ranked 17th among the 133 football players, managers and trainers at Penn State. Most top prospects have dropped out of school to fine-tune for this weekend's draft and what lies ahead, but graduation day seems as important to Brown as draft day. He's still attending classes in three courses so he can graduate on time, on May 13, with a degree in integrative arts and computer graphics.
This is Courtney Brown: When he finds out SI wants to take pictures of him in an academic setting for this story, Brown suddenly gets cold feet about a previously arranged interview. His agents persuade him to cooperate, but he won't allow himself to be photographed in a library or a classroom or with books because he doesn't want to be portrayed as being superior to other high draft picks. He also won't allow the university to release the names of his professors, won't divulge the names of his courses and won't allow an interview to be conducted in his campus apartment. "You're frustrated by Courtney, aren't you?" Arrington says to a reporter. "You can't figure him out. That's the way he likes it. He doesn't want people to get a handle on him."
Sorry, Courtney, but we've got a pretty good handle on you: Principled, bright, excruciatingly reserved—and a superb football player who surely will be among the first three picks on Saturday. At a time when the off-field exploits of its players have been a source of embarrassment to the NFL, a prospect's character has become as important a part of his r�sum� as his 40 time. In Brown's case the character issue enhances his draft position.
The Cleveland Browns have the first pick in the draft, and their head of security, former Secret Service director Lew Merletti, checks the backgrounds of about 200 potential draft choices a year. Brown came up clean. By last weekend the Browns had decided to make Brown the first selection, assuming the two sides can hammer out a deal before Saturday's proceedings. Should Cleveland turn to Arrington, Brown would fall to the Washington Redskins, who pick second and third. "There's not one thing we can find wrong with him," says Redskins director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato. "With everything that's happening in the NFL, he's coming along at the perfect time. He's almost too good to be true."
Right man, right position, right time—even if his demeanor might be ill-suited to face the public demands that come with being the first pick. Cleveland is concerned but not scared off by Brown's reticence. Over lunch last month in State College, Browns coach Chris Palmer told Brown two things: Cleveland would take a defensive player with the first selection, and if that pick was Brown, he would have to take on a leadership role on defense, much the same way the Browns' top pick in 1999, quarterback Tim Couch, has done on offense. Moreover, Palmer told him that the club would make sure he received counseling on how to deal with the media. "His private nature won't be a big factor," Palmer said last Thursday, as Brown wound up a two-day visit to Cleveland's training facility. "You turn on the film and see him hunt down the quarterback and play with emotion. I see intensity. I like what I see."
As do others around the league. "When I wrote my report on Courtney Brown, I said, 'This is the next Bruce Smith. I'll bet money on it,' " says John Wooten, the Baltimore Ravens' assistant director of pro personnel. "The principle of building a team is, you get a quarterback first, and then you get the guy who can go after a quarterback. The Browns got the quarterback last year. Now they can get the pass rusher."
The 6'5", 271-pound Brown is a remarkable physical package. He stunned scouts during an on-campus workout last month, when he ran a faster 40 time (4.52 seconds) than the elastic, cat-quick 6'3", 248-pound Arrington (4.55), who until then had been viewed as quicker and faster than Brown and nearly as strong. (Brown's time was also faster than those turned in by the two top wideouts in the draft, Peter Warrick of Florida State and Plaxico Burress of Michigan State.) Brown had a vertical leap of 37 inches to Arrington's 36. Brown bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times, Arrington 20. "I was talking to one scout after the workout," says Penn State defensive ends coach Larry Johnson, "and he said it was the most amazing display he's seen in his 19 years in the business." Also, few prospects have had Brown's 86-inch wingspan.
The NFL, however, is littered with workout wonders who were disappointments as pros. In 1995 Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula blew away scouts with his efforts at the NFL combine and skyrocketed to the seventh selection in the draft. But Mamula has never had more than 8� sacks in a season during his five years with the Philadelphia Eagles. Brown is presently too light to be a formidable run-stuffer—though in a couple of years he'll carry 285 pounds—but should hold his own in a 4-3 scheme at left end, where Cleveland or Washington would likely use him. That would put Brown opposite the right tackle, generally the less skilled of the two offensive tackles, and the tight end. "No tight end will block him," Cerrato says.