Running back Matt Brown stretches during rookie minicamp with… (Al Messerschmidt, Getty…)
Every time he steps on the field at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice, Matt Brown finds himself in the land of the sequoias.
If he makes the team as a punt or kick returner, he'll be the smallest player in the NFL next season. The Bucs list him at 5-foot-5 and 165 pounds, but that seems overly generous.
Oh, Trindon Holliday, the Denver return specialist who shredded the Ravens for 248 yards in the Broncos' playoff loss last January, is also 5-5. But Holliday weighs a whopping — OK, by comparison — 170. Brown would have to wipe out every tray at a Dunkin' Donuts and lie on the couch for a month to weigh that much.
But you know the old cliché that you can't measure heart? Brown, a Baltimore guy, has been proving that for years. He knows making the Bucs won't be easy. And he knows when you're built like one of the Smurfs, you have to work twice as hard to open some eyes.
"I'm trying to prove to everyone that I belong," he said after a recent Bucs' organized team activity. "I try to go as hard as I can so they'll have respect for my work ethic. As far as playing, I feel right at home. I feel I can play with anyone."
He's been proving that all his life, too. This is a kid who went to City and Cardinal Gibbons before playing at a couple of private schools in New Jersey and New York, putting up big numbers and hoping to attract a sniff from a Division I program.
(His last stop was the tony Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y., where NFL running backs LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia Eagles) and Shonn Greene (Tennessee Titans) played.
When no D-1 teams came calling — diminutive running backs not being in huge demand — all Brown did was walk on at Temple and earn a scholarship the following season. Two years later he was Big East Special Teams Player of the Year and paired with current Ravens' running back Bernard Pierce in the backfield known as "Bernie and the Bug."
No one watching the two of them ever had to ask: "Which one's the Bug?"
Are you kidding? Pierce was the Owls' big star. And Temple had equipment trunks bigger than the Bug, even though he went on to finish second in all-purpose yards (5,272) in school history.
Now Brown, the son of prominent local attorney Warren Brown, gets a shot at his long-time NFL dream. He'll spend this summer working out in Tampa after the Bucs signed him last week to a three-year deal for the league minimum salary.
Nothing in that process came easy, either. The day the Bucs' called, he was actually flying out of BWI-Marshall to sign with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
Until it was discovered his passport had expired. So much for that trip.
As Brown scrambled desperately to get an expedited passport, his cell phone rang. It was his agent, Marty Magid. Brown assumed Magid was calling to ream him out for the passport screw-up.
But, no, that wasn't it at all.
"Basically he said: 'Forget about Canada, Tampa Bay wants you,''' Brown recalled.
Brown was stunned. No, check that. He was beyond stunned, whatever that state is.
"I'm like: 'Are you serious?'" he said. "I literally dropped the phone. In college, I worked very hard for this moment. And I was jumping all around. I was so-o-o happy."
Magid said there was something else, the something else being that Brown had to get to Tampa that night.
"I'll walk down there tonight if I have to," Brown assured him.
Now Brown works out happily in the stifling heat of a Florida June and practically has to pinch himself when he pulls on a Buccaneers uniform.
All his life, he's had to fight the perception that he's too small to play the game he loves. Now he gets to play it at the highest level, providing he can show the Bucs that he can be the same dynamic playmaker he was at Temple.
His strategy is simple: go full bore with everything the team asks him to do.
"You have to have the same intensity in the weight room and the same intensity in the meeting rooms as you do on the field," he said. "In college, there's the school element that comes with [football]. Here it's just ball. You have to produce. If you don't produce, you're gone."
He's a long-shot to make it. But he's been a long-shot all his life.
"He's living his dream," his father, Warren Brown, said. "But the higher up you go, the harder the fall. It'll be a huge disappointment if he doesn't connect."
But that's a concerned dad talking. Matt Brown's not thinking that way.
For him, wherever he plays, the story always has a happy ending.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show.'