When Curtis Brown was starring from Gilmer High School, he was a do-everything playmaker that stood above the competition, whether he was lined up on offense, defense or special teams. Brown was a threat to take the ball back for a score every time he lined up deep to return a kick or punt. On defense, he could lock down just about any player he lined up against with nothing more than raw athleticism. But on offense oh boy, on offense.
There were few players in the entire country that could match Brown's skills as an offensive playmaker when he graduated in 2007. At 6-0 and about 170-pounds, the rail-thin Brown could get from point A to point B in the blink of an eye. His could change direction so quickly and in such limited space that defenders were routinely left grasping for air. Brown could outleap the tallest of defenders. His vision allowed him to see plays develop seemingly before the offense ever broke the huddle. On top of all that, Brown just had that feel for the game that all great offensive playmakers possess.
Brown had the look of a can't miss prospect as a slot receiver, but for one small issue he wanted to play defense at the collegiate level.
Fast forward three years and Brown is set to enter his senior season with the Texas Longhorns, and it's hard to argue with his decision. He's appeared in 40 games at Texas in his first three years and started all 14 games last fall at cornerback. Brown earned honorable mention all-Big 12 honors from the coaches for his efforts as a junior, and he's poised for what should be a big senior season. Looking further down the road, Brown has set himself up for a big NFL payday after the 2011 draft, where he has a shot to be chosen in the first round.
Gilmer head coach Jeff Traylor knows more than anybody just what kind of talent Brown has on the football field, and Traylor says that he too was a bit surprised at Brown's decision to play in the Longhorn secondary.
"Curtis has always wanted to play defense. He never wanted to play offense. I had to make him play offense. That's just something he's always felt good about doing. He's crazy because his highlight video (on offense) is as good as anybody in the country. Coach (Mack) Brown knows it, everybody at Texas knows it," Traylor said. "But Curtis was dead-set on being a cornerback, he thinks he can play in the National Football League for 10 or 12 years at corner. And he's probably going to prove that he's right and we're wrong.
"He can stop and start up at full speed quicker than any kid I've ever seen before. He's a freak. He really is. I think at the combine he's going to blow them away."
A dynamic player in high school, Brown started his varsity career as a cornerback as a sophomore, where he picked up District Newcomer of the Year honors for his efforts. As a junior and senior, the Gilmer staff decided that Brown's talents on offense were too much to ignore, so they moved him to receiver. All he did over the course of two seasons was torch opponents to the tune of 18.9 yards per catch and 14.6 yards per carry despite battling a severe ankle injury as a senior that kept him out of six games.
Defenses knew what was coming, but they just couldn't stop it (video). Brown would often-times catch the ball near the line of scrimmage or take a handoff on reverses, make half the defense miss tackles in about a three-yard radius, then outrun the rest of the would-be tacklers to the end zone. Watching Brown as a junior or senior, it took about one or two plays to understand why he was such a top prospect, but his talent wasn't always so apparent.
"Believe it or not, he was a very late bloomer. His freshman year, he didn't even get moved to our athletic period. He stayed with the freshmen, he didn't get moved to the varsity and I'm talking about in the spring of his freshman year. We had every intention of him being on JV as a sophomore," Traylor said. "But over the summer, he just grew like crazy and just turned into an incredible athlete. He was not a kid that when he was young, everybody knew was going to be great. He'll argue with you and tell you he always knew, but he was very little, very skinny, not very tall. But in one summer just blew-up."
Brown and Traylor have remained close since Brown has left the Gilmer program. The two talk regularly, Traylor tries to make his way to Austin a couple times for a visit and has attended a handful of UT games, and Brown makes visits back to Gilmer whenever his schedule allows. Last year, before Gilmer's state championship victory over Abilene Wylie, Brown addressed the Gilmer team with what Traylor describes as a "great pre-game speech" and it's Brown's progress away from the field that has his former coach the most proud.
"He doesn't speak very often but when he does, everybody listens. He's just very quiet, to himself, takes care of his own business. He used to not smile very much. I told coach Brown when he went there, that was my goal for them to get him to smile and talk. He's a much better speaker now," Traylor said. "He'll look at you in the eye now when he talk. Coach Brown has just been wonderful for him. He told me he was going to do that for Curtis and he has."
On the field, Brown has blossomed into one of college football's top cornerback talents and he's coming off a junior season where he earned honorable mention All-American honors by Pro Football Weekly. Brown finished last year with 53 tackles (34 solo), 1 INT, which he returned for a score, 1 forced fumble and a blocked punt. He ranked to only Earl Thomas with 15 pass break-ups and he led the team with 15 special-teams tackles.
Since arriving at Texas, Brown has continued to make progress both as a player and as a person, and he's done it all after overcoming a lot of obstacles as a youngster that would have derailed a lot of kids. Brown's family situation wasn't always the most stable growing up, but he's managed to keep his focus and he's used those hurdles to help build the type of character that has Traylor beaming with pride.
"I just know where he came from, what he's overcome. He hasn't had a lot of help. He's done a lot of this by himself. That's what makes me so happy for him," said Traylor. "He really has a chance if he can stay healthy, he'll not have to worry about the things he's had to worry about his whole life.
"He's the greatest athlete I've ever coached. I've coached some great athletes, but he's in a class by himself. He's a really neat kid. He overcame a lot at a young age. He's just unbelievably gifted, talent-wise. His quickness, his strength, his coordination, plus he's an amazingly competitive kid. He's a man's man, very loyal, very honest. He's a guy you can't help but like."