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John Brown's path to NFL slow yet steady

TEMPE, Ariz. -- John Brown had the plan all hashed out.

He was going to spend a year at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas getting his associate degree, then move home to Miami and try to walk on at Florida International University in order to be closer to his brother, James Walker, who was lying in a hospital bed, fighting for his life.

Besides their relation, football had been their bond. As a child, Brown, one of the Arizona Cardinals' third-round picks, would carry Walker's pads to practice. He watched his older brother on the field and wanted to be a part of the game.

Walker was shot three times in front of a Miami night club on July 4, 2010 -- once in the head and twice in the chest. About two months after the shooting Brown's plan started to unravel. In Kansas, community colleges can only have 12 out-of-state players. Brown didn't find out he was Coffeyville's 13th until the day before the first game. But instead of dropping out, he stayed in school and was allowed to practice.

The following April, nine months after the shooting, Walker died. Brown's motivation to move back home was gone, but football was still a priority.

“But when I thought about it, he passed so I was like, I just wanted to get far away," Brown said.

Armed with the memories of his brother, Brown set out to return to the field.

"It just made me a better man, just seeing the stuff I had to see with my brother put up a fight for nine months before he passed," Brown added. "It taught me a lesson that no matter how hard things get, you can't give up,” Brown said. “I thought about giving up but looking at what he did, there was no way I could give up and if I made it through that I believe I can make it through anything.”

Fortunately, a small Division II school 77 miles away from Coffeyville had its eyes on Brown.

Pitt State was recruiting Brown, all 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds of him, while he was practicing. But even that wasn't part of the plan.

Brown played his freshman season of college at Mars Hill University, a small Division II school in the middle of the North Carolina mountains. He was forced to sit out his sophomore season there after his ACT score was flagged, which is how he ended up at Coffeyville. The plan all along was for Brown to return to Mars Hill, but when Pitt State offered a full scholarship, it was an opportunity Brown wasn't about to pass up.

“I was out for two years,” Brown said. “I was just amped up to play and show the guys what I could do and do it for my brother. I told the guys when I first got in, like two months before the season, I was like, ‘The first time I touch the ball I'm going to score.'”

Brown wasn't kidding.

On his first play as a Gorilla in 2011, Brown returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown.

That play kicked off a record-breaking career for Brown. In three years, he had 185 receptions for 3,387 yards and 34 touchdowns -- all Pitt State records. His touchdowns and receiving yards placed Brown fifth all-time in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association's record books. Brown also returned three punts and two kicks for touchdowns at Pitt State, while rushing for six more.

And the Gorillas won the 2011 Division II national championship on Brown's heels.

He parlayed his collegiate career into a spot at the East-West Shrine Game which landed him a spot at the NFL scouting combine. That's where he shined, running a 4.36-second 40-yard dash.

It was fast enough to draw the attention of Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who likes small, speed receivers.

“Fits the mold that B.A. was looking for that he has talked to me about since the day that he has got here: fast, explosive, T.Y. Hilton-type of player, guy who can take the top off the defense, has dual return ability in the punt- and kick-return game,” Arizona general manager Steve Keim said of Brown. “He has been phenomenal since the season was over. We went and worked him out privately and a great workout for us.”

After liking what they saw, Keim and Arians used the Cardinals' second third-round pick to draft Brown, who'll likely be a fourth receiver and back-up kick and punt returner.

Of all the adjustments he's making as a professional football player, speed isn't one of them.

“I'm just a person who plays fast,” Brown said. “When I got in the East-West Shrine Game, I showed them that I can play with speed. I think it will be faster here but I think I will adjust real quick.”

After just a few practices, Brown said his speed hasn't been tested but he gets the feeling the quarterbacks are aware of it.

“I think Carson Palmer kind of knows that I have speed,” Brown said.

It took six years and three schools for Brown to reach the NFL. But with his speed and his brother in mind, Brown will make up for how long it took.

“I most definitely appreciate it,” Brown said. “I learn from (wide receivers) Michael (Floyd) and (Larry) Fitzgerald every time they go up, just to learn and see if I can do what those guys do.

“It's actually crazy, but you can't be too excited. You just have to do what you can do and focus on helping the team.”