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Until recently, Vincent Brown was the "other guy" from Mississippi Valley State, and that was fine with him. If it had taken the presence of Jerry Rice at the tiny school in Itta Bena, Miss., for NFL scouts to get their first peek at Brown, that was fine, too. "Scouts would come down to see Jerry," says Brown, the Patriots' budding star at inside linebacker, "and they'd see me and say, 'Hey, who's that guy over on defense?' It was a blessing in disguise for me."
It's a nice story, but Dick Steinberg, the fellow who plucked Brown in the second round of the 1988 draft for New England, has a different recollection. "Believe me, Vincent Brown didn't need Jerry Rice to put him on the map," says Steinberg, now the Jets' general manager. "He was that good. When you saw him, thoughts of [All-Pro Dolphin linebacker] John Offerdahl came into your head. He was definitely going to be found down there."
Now when teams play the Pats, they have to keep an eye on Brown or he can ruin their day. Installed full-time at inside linebacker this season for the first time in his four-year career—established veterans kept him out of the lineup at first, and injuries prompted an ill-suited move to the outside in 1990—Brown has a team-high 109 tackles. At 6'2" and 245 pounds, he has the prototypical body for an inside linebacker. He's strong enough to stuff the run, as a premier inside linebacker must do, and he's quick enough to pursue.
Against Miami on Nov. 10, with the Dolphins facing third-and-one at the New England 32 and with six minutes to play in a 20-20 game, Brown came up to stuff Sammie Smith over the left guard for a one-yard loss. Miami missed a field goal on the next play.
The previous week against the Bills, Brown had a team-season-high 19 first hits—defensive coordinator Joe Collier considers the man who delivers the initial hit the most important tackier on the play—and made three solo stops when Buffalo was inside the Pats' 10. On one of them, he tripped up Jim Kelly at the New England four-yard line. The Bills wound up kicking a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown.
The big hit—that's what Brown's becoming known for. Just ask Pats nosetackle Tim Goad. "Sometimes, I'll be on the ground with a couple of guys on top of me, and Vincent will hit somebody and I'll know it," Goad says. "It sounds like thunder overhead."
"For me," says Brown, "the exhilarating part is not just the hit. It's making plays that give my team a chance to win. In my position, that has to be the important thing."
Important, too, is the recognition he has yearned for ever since he went unrecruited by a major college while at Walter F. George High in Decatur, Ga. "In college I was always kind of envious of Jerry," says Brown. "I wanted to be as successful as he was. I wished I could get to his level."
You're getting close, Vincent.