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There are a lot of good college football players in the land, yet the ordinary fan cannot hope to scratch below the game's lush surface—the Michigans, the Miamis, the Notre Dames—to sample the gems hidden in the college substratum. NFL scouts, of course, aren't ordinary fans. They routinely seek out the strong and the swift in the depths of the lower divisions, the hidden recesses of the hyphenated schools, the canyons of the NAIA. The reward can be a Dave Meggett of Towson State or a Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State, players who fall through the college recruiting cracks only to emerge in the Pro Bowl. Who are the finds of 1990? Call the players on the following pages sleepers; the pro scouts call them cinches.
IVORY LEE BROWN
Seventeen seconds into the seven-minute Ivory Lee Brown highlight video, you have seen everything you need to see. That's when Brown, a tailback at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, rushes off right tackle against Henderson State. He turns upfield, breaking one tackle like a man pushing through a turnstile, and enters the secondary. A cornerback from the far side of the field, number 29, has drawn a bead on Brown and accelerates toward him, anticipating a juicy, blindsided hit.
That's when Brown makes The Cut, a kind of instinctive side-hop, a near-instantaneous 45-degree change of direction that good backs, even very good backs, don't make. Brown makes it. As number 29 goes somersaulting past, with tube-sock fibers under his fingernails, Brown outruns five more defenders to the end zone. The rest of the video is more of the same: Brown hitting the line like a young Earl Campbell; Brown slashing and high-kicking, once he is past the linebackers, like Walter Payton. So far, 16 NFL scouts have made their way to see him at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, an NAIA school with an enrollment of 2,800.
Texans who remember his senior high school season in the town of Palestine must wonder, What ever happened to Ivory Lee Brown? In 1986, Brown rushed for more than 1,800 yards in 10 games. The only Texas schoolboy more highly ranked by recruiters that year was Darren Lewis, at Carter High in Dallas. Lewis ended up at Texas A&M, where his name will be mentioned often this season in connection with the Heisman Trophy. Brown ached to become an Aggie, too—"Even my wardrobe was maroon and white," he says ruefully—but he had problems with his SAT and enrolled instead at Tyler (Texas) Junior College. A&M expected Brown to go to College Station after his semesters at Tyler. Nebraska also thought it had a shot at Brown. Both schools failed to reckon with the Gunslinger.
Upon first seeing film of Brown, Archie (Gunslinger) Cooley, the coach at Pine Bluff, began lamenting the predicament of an NAIA school. "I couldn't believe what I saw," says Cooley of the film. "My first question was, What can I do to get this boy? We don't have any facilities. Our stadium looks like a junior high stadium. How can I get him?" Go through the mother, a small voice told him. From the time Ivory Lee was three years old, his mother, Doris, had held down a steady job and raised eight children by herself. Brown does very little without consulting his "Mama." Cooley arranged for an audience with Mama.
"I told her the truth—that all we could offer was an education," recalls Cooley. "She said, 'You're the only coach who's come in here and talked about education. I want my son to graduate from college. Ivory Lee, I want you to go with Coach Cooley.' That's how we got Ivory."
Cooley has become a father figure to Brown, a role that Cooley unhesitatingly exploits. "Let me tell you what I do when we got to have it," Cooley says. "I slide up to him and say, 'Hey, boy, your daddy got to have this first down.' He'll put his arm around my shoulders and say, 'You got it.' And he gets it."
Cooley walks a fine line between legitimate motivation and shameless exploitation of Brown's emotions. But then, Cooley has never been one to shy away from walking a fine line. That would help explain why 96 allegations of wrongdoing—ranging from falsifying eligibility certificates to sending players out on the field under the names and numbers of other players—were lodged by the NAIA against Cooley's program this past spring. Cooley denies all the charges and claims they represent an attempt by unnamed conspirators to destroy his program.
Meanwhile, Brown has no regrets about his circuitous path through college football. "I don't look back," says Brown, who is on schedule to graduate this spring or summer. "It doesn't do me any good to wonder what I could have done at A&M. Darren will probably end up in the pros, and maybe I will too. There's no telling what I'll be able to do if I get there." But 17 seconds of his highlight video leave one with a pretty good idea.