NORMAN, Okla. — Marquise Brown remembers the moment he realized he was faster than anyone else. He was only 6 years old, playing quarterback in pee wee football.
“My hands were kind of small, so I used to drop the snap,” he said. “But I would just pick it up and outrun everybody.”
Brown has been outrunning the opposition ever since.
Nicknamed “Hollywood” because of his Florida hometown of the same name and his propensity for dazzling downfield grabs, Brown might very well be the fastest player at any position in this year’s NFL draft. The Oklahoma All-American led college football with 11 catches of 40 yards or more last year and produced consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons starring as the go-to playmaker for Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, respectively, as they won consecutive Heisman Trophies.
That spectacular speed is the primary reason that Brown, even with a slight 5-foot-9, 166-pound frame, projects to be a mid-to-possibly-high first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
“His speed is good on any football field, in any league, anywhere,” said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. “It’s a game-changer and people recognize that.”
Marquise Brown was born 5 pounds, 6 ounces and two weeks early in a delivery so tumultuous that his mother was in and out of the hospital for years. He remained uniquely small as a kid, so small that his pee wee coaches initially were too afraid to play him for fear of him getting seriously injured.
Little did they know, nobody else would be fast enough to touch him.
“Once he got the ball in his hands, it was over,” said his mother, Shannon James. “He was really tiny, always smaller than everyone else. But he moved like lightning once he got that ball. He never stopped from there.”
Even with a few roadblocks in his way.
He created cone drills on his own to hone his speed for an entire year when no scholarships came after high school. He operated a roller coaster appropriately named “Full Throttle” to help make ends meet while in junior college. And he arrived at Oklahoma weighing an unbelievably light 144 pounds.
“I’ve learned to appreciate everything,” he said. “I’m living in the moment, just having fun.”
Having fun. Going fast.
A roller-coaster journey
Brown’s overwhelming speed propelled him to a standout career for Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory in Hollywood, Florida. But he was a late qualifier and possessed nothing close to prototypical size for a receiver. Brown exited high school without any FBS scholarship offers.
Not ready to give up on football, Brown would drag cones to a field near his house almost daily to improve the quickness of his cuts and breaks while researching the idea of going to junior college. At the same time, the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, was recruiting a friend of Brown’s, and that friend told Canyons coach Ted Iacenda they ought to be recruiting Brown, too.
“There are a lot of kids from Florida out this way, because Florida doesn’t have juco football,” Iacenda told ESPN in a previous interview. “We wanted Marquise, but his mom was not sure about sending him all the way to California.”
After a year, though, his mom finally relented. And so, Brown traveled all the way from one Hollywood to another. With no place to live, he moved into an apartment he shared with a family and another roommate. With no scholarship money — California junior colleges don’t offer athletic scholarships — Brown got a job at Six Flags Magic Mountain, which tasked him with operating a 160-foot, looping roller coaster that hit 70 mph. With no mode of transportation, Brown often had to walk an hour each way. Sometimes, he would even show up to the Canyons’ locker room still wearing his Six Flags uniform.
“It was pretty tough,” Brown said. “But it taught me how to work hard. Really hard.”
Though Brown weighed only 139 pounds at the time, the games were the easy part. And questions about him being able to withstand the physical punishment were quickly doused because, well, nobody could get a hand on him, much less a shoulder pad.
“That first game, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is ridiculous,'” Iacenda said. “He took a little screen pass and made four people look absolutely silly on a play that should’ve gone for a 2-yard loss.
“It was like, “Oh, my goodness, this kid is something special.'”
It didn’t take long for Riley to discover the same.
The most immediate compelling storyline surrounding the Sooners in the spring of 2017 wasn’t whether Mayfield could capture the Heisman after coming up short as a finalist the year before. It wasn’t about whether Oklahoma could finally fix its beleaguered defense, either. Instead, the focus quickly shifted to this no-name, 140-pound junior-college transfer whom Riley signed to replace outgoing Biletnikoff winner Dede Westbrook. Wasn’t Riley concerned Brown would be too small?
“Well, I was [too] until I saw him run,” Riley said when Brown first arrived at Oklahoma. “Then I was good.”
The rest of the Big 12 would soon discover what Riley already knew.
Later that season at Oklahoma State, Mayfield lofted a go-route pass down the sideline to Brown, who sailed past the opposing defensive back with ease for a touchdown. Fox play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson, who had given the Hollywood native his nickname, lost control: “Hollywood! Touchdown! Sooners! 77 yards! Who is this kid?!” Brown wound up setting a school record with 265 receiving yards that game, including another long touchdown, this one covering 84 yards. From then on, the moniker stuck.
Hollywood finished his first season with the Sooners racking up 1,095 yards and 7 touchdowns on 57 receptions. Last season playing with Murray, he became a first-team All-American, catching 75 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns. In the regular-season finale at West Virginia, a win that clinched Oklahoma’s spot in the Big 12 championship game, Brown nearly broke his own record with 243 yards receiving.
“It’s pretty fun knowing I can run faster than this guy, that guy,” Brown said. “You can toy with them a little bit. It’s pretty fun.”
Combine dreams dashed
Among those cheering on Brown from the Oklahoma sideline in Morgantown, West Virginia, was Antonio Brown, who then was still a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hollywood speaks with his cousin almost daily and works out with him on occasion.
“He wants me to be better than him,” Marquise Brown said during the combine. “So that’s what I’m aiming to do.”
Antonio Brown has been a valuable resource for Hollywood as he prepares for the draft and playing in the NFL. Antonio also has encouraged him as he works back from a Lisfranc left foot injury he suffered in the Big 12 championship game against Texas. On Jan. 8, just over a week after Oklahoma’s loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl, Brown underwent surgery, performed by Dr. Robert Anderson.
Other NFL receivers, including Kansas City’s Sammy Watkins and Houston’s Corey Davis, have overcome similar injuries. Brown got the protective boot removed from his foot in late March, and he already has started running again. Though he’s still expected to be ready for summer training camp, Brown wasn’t able to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine or Oklahoma’s pro day — something he’d been dreaming about for years.
“I always looked up to fast guys. Deion Sanders, I always heard the famous 40-yard dash story,” he said, referring to Sanders famously bolting the combine through the tunnel in 1989 after turning in a 40 time of 4.27 seconds. Brown, who ran a time of 4.30 in the 40 last offseason at Oklahoma, had targeted Cincinnati Bengals WR John Ross’ 4.22 mark at the 2017 combine.
“It’s been pretty tough. Since I can remember, I always dreamed of running that 40-yard dash at the combine. I told myself all year, ‘I’m gonna break that John Ross record,’ but I didn’t get a chance to.
“I hope the scouts see my speed on tape. But hopefully, one day, I’m gonna get [the 40] on film — I gotta run it.”
A fit for a changing NFL
Brown’s imminent arrival to the NFL dovetails at a time in which speed from the receiver position has never been more paramount. Ever since DeSean Jackson torched the NFL as a 5-foot-9, 170-pound rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles a decade ago, franchises have coveted that top-end speed, regardless of size.
“I give credit to the guys before me for paving the way,” Brown said. “You [no longer] have to be big and strong — you can just be fast, quick.”
That doesn’t mean Brown will be relegated to operating exclusively out of the slot. In fact, 57 percent of Brown’s receiving yards at Oklahoma last season came while lining up from the outside. That is yet another reason he figures to be a surefire first-round selection.
“I’ll get utilized wherever, but I’ll let the film speak for itself. I played outside, I played inside — it’s nothing new. I feel I can play both pretty well,” said Brown, who is only an inch shorter — with hopes of eventually being just a few pounds lighter — than cousin Antonio, who lines up at both spots on a regular basis.
“After I made a name for myself, people didn’t really press me that much. I know in the NFL, you’re gonna get press coverage a lot, and I’m going to be ready for it.”
Above all, Brown is ready to run.