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WICHITA, Kan. – After announcing he would be playing at Tennessee on Monday in front of a national audience, Bryce Brown sat alone on a white folding chair at the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. His friends and family hovered around him, chirping among themselves about the events that just unfolded.
With his new orange and black Tennessee hat tilted to the side of his head, Brown was oblivious to the events around him. Slouched in his chair, he looked like a heavyweight boxer who just completed 12 rounds of a championship match.
He was spent.
The recruiting process had worn him out. It was a gut-wrenching process that saw plenty of highs and just as many lows. As he sat there, one could see the three-year journey that led him to this moment reflecting in his eyes.
The 52 touchdowns as a junior and a senior.
The experience of going through the recruiting process with his older brother, Arthur.
The early commitment to Miami.
The MVP performance in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The visits to Missouri, Oregon, Clemson, Kansas State and LSU.
The drama with Miami when he wasn't ready to sign his letter of intent on Feb. 4.
The allegations of NCAA violations against his mentor, Brian Butler.
The late recruiting push by Tennessee and his announcement for the Vols.
After a few moments of contemplation a smile began to form on his face. The challenge of being the nation's No. 1 football recruit took a lot out of him, but he was all right. He knew deep down that despite all the drama, everything that led up to his decision has made him a better person because of it.
"If I can handle all of this, then I know I can make it through anything that's thrown at me the rest of my life," Brown said. "I learned in church that when you get pressure put on you, that's when you get the best out of you. I'm expecting to be at my best when I get to Tennessee, and if it ever gets tough, I can always look back and think about what I went through in the recruiting process. Nothing will be as stressful as what I went through.
"I feel like I'm ready now for whatever life might throw at me. I'm ready."
SPECIAL FROM THE START
Brown first appeared on Rivals.com's radar in June 2006. That's when he and his older brother, Arthur, attended a camp at Oklahoma. The brothers were so gifted they easily stood out among the other 200 campers at the event, but it was Bryce who really caught everybody's eye.
"Even next to his older and bigger brother, you couldn't help but notice his athleticism," said SoonerScoop.com associate editor Josh McCuistion, who was there at the Sooner camp and first entered him into the Rivals.com recruiting database.
"He made diving catches, had great moves and speed that was well beyond most kids his age. You knew if he put the work in, he was a guy who had a chance to be special."
It wasn't long before Bryce emerged as one of the nation's top prospects - even though he was an underclassmen. As a junior he racked up 1,873 yards and 29 touchdowns and was already beginning to draw comparisons to Barry Sanders, the most legendary football player to ever come out of Wichita.
"Wichita is well-known for being the hometown of Barry Sanders, but the fact is that Barry did not play running back at Wichita North until his senior season," said Chris Allison, the host of "The Gameplan" on Sports Radio KGSO 1410 AM in Wichita.
"Bryce developed much quicker, and we as fans were able to watch him run the ball for four years. His first carry as a freshman was for 55 yards – and only the end zone stopped him. He accelerates better than any high school running back that I've seen. Bryce was a better high school player than Barry Sanders, but will he live up to Barry's NFL success? Not many have. But if Bryce continues to work hard and is a good team player at Tennessee, he will certainly be given the opportunity to run the ball on Sundays."
By the time he announced for Tennessee, Rivals.com had published more than 135 content items on Brown. The only player to have more items published about him in Rivals.com history was Terrelle Pryor, the No. 1 prospect in the 2008 class who was also a star basketball recruit.
If there was anybody who was worthy of all the attention, it was Brown.
"He is so good, and he plays running back, a fairly easy position to adjust to in college," Rivals.com analyst Barry Every said. "No player should have a more immediate impact in college than Brown. We also think he could have the most lasting impact. He is the leading rusher in Wichita history – he even had more yards than Barry Sanders – and he comes up big in big games like the U.S Army game, when he was named the MVP.
"He reminds me of Ronnie Brown, the current Miami Dolphins and former Auburn Tigers star. He has great overall size, above-average speed and excellent hands. Add that to great vision and a willingness to block, and you have a five-tool, every-down back."
That type of talent doesn't go unnoticed by college coaches, and the recruiting letters and scholarship offers poured in. But after watching his older brother go through the process, take visits to Miami, North Carolina, USC, Alabama and LSU and eventually sign with the Canes, Brown wanted to do things a little bit differently.
CANES GET EARLY COMMITMENT
On Feb. 21, 2008, Brown decided to end the recruiting process early, calling Miami coach Randy Shannon and letting him know he was a Hurricane. The decision wasn't a shocker because he is extremely close with his brother and his parents wanted to see them play together in college.
What was a surprise was the timing. Brown essentially ended the process before it could get started.
"The first thing about it is that I've been feeling Miami spiritually for the past few weeks," Brown said at the time. "God was telling me that this was the best decision for me, and everybody in my family was comfortable with it. I've been feeling this for a month now, and I think it's a really good fit. It's the right decision for me."
Brown said he watched his brother go through the hectic recruiting process and believed making a decision early could reduce the amount of calls from coaches, reporters and questions about where he will be playing his college football in the future.
He was under the impression that we wanted him to do what Arthur did, but once he realized we wanted what was best for Bryce, it was like a 100-pound weight was taken off his shoulders.
- Bryce Brown's father, Arthur Sr., on Bryce's commitment to Miami
"I wasn't in a rush, it was more of a spiritual thing, but this hopefully will keep it from being too crazy," Brown said.
Boy, was he wrong.
When he committed to Miami, Brown told Shannon he would take other official visits to make sure he made the right decision. That caveat immediately put a strain on a relationship that had been especially strong through the recruitment of his older brother.
"When he committed, he said he had been down there [on] numerous occasions, liked the school, the campus environment, the city itself, the people and he was comfortable with the decision," said Arthur Brown Sr., Bryce's father. "He was comfortable with everything and said, 'I can commit.'
"After doing so, he also told Coach Shannon he wanted to take all five of his visits. He went on every visit that Arthur went to. He got to visit places, like LSU, that when he went with Arthur they were looking at things from a defensive standpoint. There were some schools that interested him because he was really curious about their offensive system, and he set out to visit those places."
That led him to take official visits in the fall to Missouri, Oregon and Clemson, but the plan was still in place for him to graduate early and enroll at Miami. That plan was the right one for Arthur, but his family could clearly see it wasn't the right one for Bryce.
"As time went on, we noticed that Bryce started to sleep a lot more," his father said. "He started to be real short as far as temperament. It seemed like his demeanor was heavy. He was under a lot of stress. We didn't put our finger on it.
"Finally we had a meeting. We sat him down and talked to him to see where he was and why he was having all the tension and all the stress. We found out that with all the class work, all the training and the big push on him finishing early, he seemed to lose the joy of being a senior."
Brown and his parents came up with a new plan that kept him in the Wichita area by taking some community college classes in the spring, delaying enrollment at the college of his choice until next fall and, most important, getting a chance to enjoy more of his final year at home with his friends from high school.
"He was under the impression that we wanted him to do what Arthur did, but once he realized we wanted what was best for Bryce, it was like a 100-pound weight was taken off his shoulders," Arthur Sr. said. "He began to eat more. He began to be more happy."
While his personal life was coming back into order, Brown was far from happy with his original decision to commit to play for the Hurricanes.
"He started to notice a lot of Missouri running backs were very productive compared to the production of Miami backs, who he felt had the better talent," Arthur Sr. said. "He thought it was the system they were running and he was concerned with that. So he started to look at other schools, Clemson and others. It threw up a red flag. It started to give … I wouldn't say an uneasy feeling, but a concern.
"I remember going down to Miami when they played Virginia Tech. They wanted to know how he felt, and Bryce's personality is very direct. If you ask him something, he's going to give his honest opinion on it. They wanted to know what he was thinking, and he just told them. He told them some of the concerns he had with the lack of production of the offense versus some of the schools he's looking at. He basically came right and said if it were not for his brother, he would not be considering Miami. He was blunt, but that was his honest opinion."
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
From that point on, what started out as a great relationship began to play out like an ugly divorce.
When it became clear Brown wasn't ready to sign on Feb. 4, the first day of the national signing period, the relationship became even more strained. On Feb. 13 Brown took an official visit to Tennessee and a few days after that Florida media outlets reported that if Brown didn't sign by Feb. 18, when his letter of intent expired, the Hurricanes would not re-issue another.
"One of the other coaches continued to call, and I guess they were really getting a lot of negative publicity that was the circus that was going on surrounding Bryce's recruiting and how him dragging this thing out was beginning to not look very good," his father said. "They mentioned that Patrick Johnson ordeal about how he was committed to Miami and then basically thumbed his nose at them and signed with LSU.
"They also mentioned Robert Marve, his name came up, and I admit it was a legitimate concern. There were some things that I understand from looking at it from the university's perspective. They just don't want any negative attention. I understand that. That's perfectly understandable.
"So then they said that well, 'Coach Shannon was under the impression that Bryce has had enough time,' and, 'He should know by now what he wants to do.' "
Even with all the drama the family was still adamant Brown was still committed to the Hurricanes. They kept in communication on a regular basis with the Miami coaches and told them they were planning on using the final official visit to Coral Gables despite getting repeated requests from LSU to make his scheduled Feb. 27 visit there official.
"The final visit was going to be to Miami and somebody made the comment that we could drive down there, get the mileage and then he could fly from Miami unofficially," Arthur Sr. said. "I said 'No, that's not what we're going to do out of respect for Miami, Coach Shannon and that entire program.'
"I felt like Bryce needs to make that last visit an official visit. We had planned it around a spring practice, so he could go in and really get a visual as to what Coach [Mark] Whipple's teaching style, type of system and type of offense he was running. I thought that would help Bryce see and understand the things that Coach Whipple tried to verbally express and explain to him."
But the visit never happened.
"In the end, I talked to Coach [Michael] Barrow and he told me that as it stood right then that Miami was no longer recruiting Bryce," Arthur Sr. said. "I told him well, 'Coach, Bryce is scheduled and planned on coming there on an official.' He talked about the feelings of Coach Shannon and the pressure that he's under. He said that he feels they went above and beyond to accommodate Bryce in making a decision. They felt like he had enough time."
In the end, both Brown and his family have nothing negative to say about Miami and how it handled the process. They admittedly wish things would have worked out differently, but both parties had to do what was best.
"In my heart, Miami has always been the school," Arthur Sr. said. "My wife and I have always said we'd love to have Arthur and Bryce together. But we wanted them to have their own individual process. We were going to support their process and whether or not they ended up turning out together or not, we'll let God lead them in the process.
"I've always been sold on Miami since day one. Miami always has my heart and soul. Miami is family. They're always going to be family."
Brown agrees with his father.
"I'm a Cane," Brown said. "I love the Hurricanes. I'm going to be down there. I'm going to be a familiar face. As long as my brother stays down there – he says he is – I'm going to be down there, too. I can get a direct flight to Fort Lauderdale, so Miami is going to see a lot of Bryce.
"It didn't work out the way we all thought it would when I originally committed, but things happen, and I believe God has a plan for all of us. My original plan was to go to Miami, but God's will changed that, and I know it worked out best in the end. I have nothing but respect for all of those coaches at Miami. They're going to always be family, because of everything that we went through."
IS BUTLER TO BLAME?
Brown has been ripped in the media more than perhaps any recruit in history, and many of the critics point to his relationship with Butler, his mentor/advisor, as the central reason why.
ESPN, The New York Times, CBS and countless other media outlets all piled on Butler, calling him everything from a hustler to a street agent because of the way he managed Brown's recruiting process.
Butler trains and advises many high school football prospects in Kansas through his Potential Players program, but what really irked a lot observers was a short-lived attempt to sell updates of Brown's recruiting for $9.99 a month or $59 a year on a Web site. There were also Butler's comments to The Times about Brown potentially taking his game to the Canadian Football League that outraged fans.
In that same story Brown's high school coach alleged Butler told Brown to not work out with his high school teammates and to let up after he padded his stats in the games. Then there were the rampant message board rumors that Butler was taking money from colleges to get Brown to sign with a specific school.
Butler's involvement raised a lot of red flags, enough to get the NCAA's amateurism certification staff to visit Wichita late last month. While in town, the NCAA talked with several people close to Brown's recruitment, several local high school coaches and a former client of Butler's Potential Players program.
The NCAA wouldn't comment on the specific investigation, but its amateurism certification office was created in 2007 to determine the amateur status of domestic and international freshman and transfer prospective student-athletes initially enrolling at NCAA Division I schools. The amateurism certification section is a different department from the NCAA's enforcement section, which often examines the recruitment of high-profile athletes.
Butler strongly defends the work he does and scoffs at the allegations he took money, pushed Brown toward a certain school or was involved with Brown for personal gain.
"Everything I do is 100 percent legit and is for the best interest of the kids I work with and train," Butler said. "I welcome the NCAA and anybody else to look into how we do things. When they see it, they'll see that we're about helping the kids and trying to help them reach their highest potential."
Both Brown and his father are also quick to defend Butler.
"I wouldn't be here without Brian," Brown said. "He's helped me out a lot by organizing my workouts, setting up my college visits and handling all of the media requests. He's been treated unfairly by a lot of people and it's taken a heavy toll on him emotionally. I can tell that. But like I said, God put this in place. Brian's been there 100 percent. Without him, none of this would be possible."
Arthur Brown Sr. said without Butler's help the recruiting process would have been impossible to navigate.
"To me and my wife having Brian there as an advocate and a buffer has really, really been helpful," Arthur Sr. said. "He's been a very resourceful person. He knows what is legal, what is not legal. He's been a blessing.
"I don't really care what the people outside looking in think because he's family. We see him as family. They don't know. Unless you know, I'm speaking facts, it's all speculation and rumors. I don't respect people that speculate and speak rumors."
Brown's father said he was one of the people who spoke with the NCAA in Wichita. He said he isn't able to fully share what he talked with the NCAA about but knows why it was there.
"With such a high-profile situation, I can understand why the NCAA would look," Arthur Sr. said. "I don't know what goes on in basketball, but I hear they have some issues with that. They have every right to ensure everything is above the board. That is definitely something they should look at. I would do it."
HAPPY ENDING ON ROCKY TOP
Back at the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, it was clear Brown was thankful the process was finally completed.
"I really don't know where to begin," he said. "If you followed this recruiting process, you know it was a roller coaster. I didn't expect it to turn out like this, but some things happened that I didn't expect. I had to come up with an alternative plan and that's what we did."
Brown said he picked Tennessee for a number of reasons, especially the relationship he built with running backs coach Eddie Gran and the "not-going-to-back-down attitude" of new coach Lane Kiffin.
"I love Coach Kiffin," Brown said. "A lot of people don't think Tennessee is going to turn around instantly. But that's not what is going to happen. Coach Kiffin thinks it's going to be turned around by tomorrow. He's pushing his coaches. He's pushing his players. I think he has a lot of energy, and it's contagious."
Brown said he learned a lot about himself through the trials and tribulations, and he's a changed man because of what he went through.
"I'm depending on God in everything," Brown said. "Anything that happens, the whole way this thing played out, I believe God had a purpose. People talk about this whole process was about me.
"Really, it's a bigger picture. It was not about me. I think all kids should think about taking their time to make a spiritual decision. I feel like if God put you in a place, any trials and adversity that you have to deal with, he's going to get you out of it. So you need to make a spiritual decision."
Brown's father also noticed the difference in his son.
"It showed him in search of any major big decision that can affect your life long term, that you can't compromise your beliefs, your values and your standards," Arthur Sr. said. "I think that it has caused him to draw closer to searching out God's perfect will for his life in a more earnest and fervent way. I see Bryce in his Bible. It has caused him to meditate on spiritual things and take to heart those things because they are what's important. It's taught him to not be swayed by outside influences of people that don't understand you.
"We're proud of how things turned out. He didn't let anybody dictate to him how he was going to handle his decision and his recruiting process. Sure there were some bumps along the way, but he's a better person because of this."
Brown has plans in the future on helping recruits better comprehend the recruiting process and make decisions for the right reasons.
"Everything that happened, I think it happened for a reason," Brown said. "God chose me to go through this. He set all this stuff in place for a reason. I think I can help other recruits out. I came up with some goals and plans for the future. I plan on holding seminars, where I can talk to recruits and help them make spiritual decisions.
"Hopefully this will make it easier for them. I'm sure they will have to deal with some ups and downs like I did and it will be stressful. But hopefully when they reach the end of the line, they can also sit back, relax for a little bit with their friends and family and smile about the decision they made."