The first play that “Coach Rob” McCoy teaches his pee-wee football players in Hollywood, Fla., is always the same: 22 Quickie, a straight dive up the middle that gives the kids their first taste of the terminology.

But when McCoy got a good look at Marquise Brown, then a 7-year-old playing in the 85-pound division of the South Florida Youth Football League, McCoy came up with a new play:

Fake 22 Quickie Wide Receiver Reverse.

The quarterback would fake a handoff, roll out one way, and then little Marquise Brown — “he wasn’t 85 pounds soaking wet,” McCoy says — would take a handoff going the other way.

“We didn’t have blocking, no guards pulling, it was all Marquise,” McCoy says. “He was fast as all outdoors. Get him out in the open field and run track.”

That God-given speed, McCoy says, “got him to where he is today.”

Indeed, Brown used that blinding speed, along with an indomitable will, to blow past all defenders, all limitations and all skeptics — including, if he is honest, McCoy — to reach “the league.”

Brown and his good friend, 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson, who grew up about 20 miles north in Pompano Beach, are not only focal points of a Ravens offense that has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, but they are also two of the latest players to make the NFL out of South Florida, where the palm-tree-lined parks grow pro football talent like grass.

Northwest of Pompano Beach along the banks of Lake Okeechobee lies the city of Pahokee, also known as “Muck City” because of the dark soil that produces sugar cane. It also produces NFL players, including Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. Pahokee, population 6,200 — smaller than the Baltimore suburb of Lutherville — has turned out more than a dozen NFL players, including former Raven Anquan Boldin, whose brother, DJ, is now Pahokee High School’s football coach.

Pahokee’s archrival is Glades Central in nearby Belle Glade, where Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead began his high school career before moving to Michigan.

“Down in Florida, football is a way of life,” says Devin Bush Sr., who grew up in Miami and then coached his future-NFL-first-round-draft-pick son in the same youth football league in which Brown played.

“I mean, when they come out of the womb,” Bush says, “they’re almost handed a football in South Florida.”

“Raw Talent”

Texans will argue they have the best youth football in the country, a claim backed up with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

In 2018, McKinney Intermediate School District north of Dallas unveiled a $70 million football stadium for the district’s three high schools, one of which is the alma mater of Ravens rookie defensive lineman Justin Madubuike. That came a year after the Katy school district in suburban Houston opened a $70 million facility, one of several eight-figure stadiums that have risen like crops across Texas in the past decade.

And while the Sunshine State can’t boast such facilities, it’s hard to argue there’s a more fertile breeding ground for NFL talent than the fields of South Florida (although the 11 Texas natives on the Ravens’ training camp roster, including kicker Justin Tucker, quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back J.K. Dobbins, might beg to differ).

“They’re blessed that they have those facilities to better their players,” says rookie quarterback Tyler Huntley, who grew up about 5 miles from Brown in Hallandale Beach. “Down in Florida, it’s more off raw talent.”

Marquise Brown (center) with the Dania Bears
Marquise Brown (center) with the Dania Bears (Photo Credit: Marquise Brown/Baltimore Ravens)

While the pint-sized Brown was learning Fake 22 Quickie Wide Receiver Reverse, other players running around pee-wee leagues in South Florida included Jackson and Huntley, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush.

“We used to play football all day,” says Huntley, who signed with the Ravens this spring as an undrafted free agent out of Utah. “We’d go to school, come back, play football in the streets. … We’d have practice later that day and then go play football again.”

“The talent level is just crazy,” Brown says.

According to Pro Football Reference, 284 active NFL players hail from Florida, the most from any state. Fourteen high schools nationally boast at least four alumni playing in the NFL — and five of those schools are in South Florida.

“It’s just a part of what most kids aspire to do,” Devin Bush Sr. says. “It’s a way to keep our kids off the street. It’s an escape for our kids with anything they’re going through at home, be it hard times, poverty. It’s a way for them to get together with their friends and have fun in a structured environment. … It’s a big support system.”

Bush noted that as the talent level increases, so does the quality of coaches who volunteer to help, and good competition attracts more good players. It becomes a cycle of athletic production.

“You keep sharpening the tools,” Bush says, “so these kids keep getting better and better by each generation. … Kids learn from imitation, more exposure, more visibility [and] good instruction, so our kids get really, really good.”

That trend doesn’t appear to be changing.

Five of the top 21 football players on the Rivals100 ranking of top high school seniors hail from South Florida, including inside linebacker Terrence Lewis from Chaminade-Madonna, where Brown played as a senior (also the alma mater of former Ravens receiver Kamar Aiken).

Jackson says he doesn’t remember playing against Brown in youth ball, but he knew of him and watched Brown’s Oklahoma highlights during his rookie season.

“I’m like, ‘Man, we need to get someone like him on our team,'” Jackson recalls. “His speed is crazy. He’s got that Florida speed in him.”

A Roller-Coaster Ride

Jackson got his wish when the Ravens selected Brown with the No. 25 pick in the 2019 draft, the culmination of an improbable journey for Brown.

Brown’s mother endured a complicated pregnancy that included failing kidneys to deliver Brown two weeks early, 5 pounds and 6 ounces of fight and drive.

With a late-qualifying ACT test score and all of 140 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame, Brown generated virtually no interest from Division I colleges. An apparent offer from Utah State dissolved.

About that time, College of the Canyons, a junior college in Santa Clarita, Calif., was recruiting a wide receiver from South Florida named Jeremy Lubin. He told head coach Ted Iacenda that he should also look at his friend.

“This happens at our level all the time. ‘Coach, I have a friend.’ … Of course, the friend is always a tiny wide receiver,” Iacenda says with a laugh. “The friend is never a 6-7 offensive tackle, you know what I mean? So we see the film. … He can run a little bit. Oh my goodness, but he is tiny, there’s no question about it.”

Brown’s mother initially balked at sending her child 3,000 miles away, so Brown sat out during the fall of 2015, staying in shape with regular workouts at a local park. His mom then had a change of heart, and Brown arrived at College of the Canyons during the winter.

Other than his size, Brown made another immediate impression on Iacenda: dedication.

“The kid from Day One is on time, every day, every meeting, working his tail off,” Iacenda recalls. “He shows up every day, he’s ‘Yes sir,’ ‘No, sir.’ He’s taking instruction and implementing it.”

College of the Canyons offers no scholarships, so to make ends meet, Brown took a job at Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, Calif. He operated a ride called “Full Throttle,” which quickly accelerates to 70 mph. Before long, Brown was flashing his speed on the field, too.

Iacenda explains that he had seen Brown run during offseason conditioning, but, “You don’t really see Marquise’s next gear until he competes.”

On the first day of spring practice in 2016, matched up one-on-one against a cornerback, Brown competed.

“He’s running a streak up the sideline,” Iacenda recalls, “and the quarterback threw the ball. We were like, ‘Oh, he overthrew him.’ And Marquise hit a second gear. I will never forget … watching him accelerate to go get that ball. We all looked at each other on the offensive side of the ball and go, ‘Wow! Did he just catch that ball? Oh my goodness, this kid is special.'”

Marquise Brown at College of the Canyons
Marquise Brown at College of the Canyons (Photo Credit: Tim Strong/COC Sports Information)

In Brown’s second game for College of the Canyons, he caught a 61-yard touchdown pass on the Cougars’ third offensive play. He finished that game with 151 yards and three touchdowns receiving, plus an 84-yard kickoff return score, in a 42-19 win.

From that point, Iacenda says, “The phone was ringing off the hook.”

Brown ultimately landed at Oklahoma, where he played with future Ravens teammates Mark Andrews, Orlando Brown Jr. and Ben Powers and caught passes from Baker Mayfield, the first of two consecutive Heisman Trophy winners to be his quarterback. A deep touchdown pass from Mayfield to Brown led FOX announcer Gus Johnson to exclaim “Hollywood!” — and the nickname stuck.

“I Feel 100 Times Better”

Now Brown is trying to run past the Ravens’ tortured history at the wide receiver position.

The Ravens have drafted 31 wide receivers during their 25-year history, and exactly one has compiled a 1,000-yard receiving season with the team — Torrey Smith.

Brown missed much of his first pro training camp in 2019 recovering from surgery on a Lisfranc foot injury, and after first-round wide receiver Breshad Perriman’s rookie year vanished because of injury, fans grew restless to see a high-impact, homegrown playmaker.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Playing just a long post pattern from his hometown, Brown caught touchdown passes of 47 and 83 yards on the first two receptions of his career during the Ravens’ 59-10 rout of the Miami Dolphins in Week 1.

Brown, though, acknowledges that the foot was never right last year.

“Sometimes, I would try to make a cut that my foot wasn’t able to make, and I would go down,” he says. “It was more about getting the yards that I could get, get down, get ready for the next play. It was better for me to be in the game than to be out of the game.”

He finished the season with 46 receptions for 584 yards in 14 games, and his seven touchdown catches tied a Ravens rookie receiving record.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brown was timed at 20.33 mph in the win at Miami, his fastest time of the season. Brown says he ran 23 mph at Oklahoma. The fastest runner in the NFL last year by Next Gen’s measurement was running back Matt Breida, who was clocked at 22.3 mph on an 83-yard touchdown run against Cleveland.

Brown had a screw removed from his foot this offseason and he is up to 180 pounds — more than 20 pounds heavier than at the end of last season. With that weight, though, Brown says he hasn’t lost a step.

“I feel 100 times better than I did last year,” he says.

Marquise Brown
Marquise Brown (Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox)

His teammates have already noticed.

“He looks like a totally different kid from when I saw him last year,” Snead says.

Describing Brown’s speed on one of his long touchdown catches during training camp this summer, head coach John Harbaugh says, “It was really a third or fourth gear. How many gears are there on a sports car? Whatever it was, he was in it.”

Jackson, one of Brown’s offseason workout partners, figures to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of a healthy Brown. Coming off a record-breaking season for the 14-2 Ravens, Jackson says he wants to improve his deep throws this year.

“His full potential is going to show off this year,” Jackson says, adding, “He’s a lot faster with that foot at 100 percent.”

McCoy, Brown’s very first coach, admits he did not see the NFL in Brown’s future way back when, but now he unabashedly holds him up as a poster child for other kids running around the fields of South Florida.

“He was small,” McCoy says. “I thought youth football would be the sum total of his athletic career. But obviously he had the right attitude. He wasn’t going to let anyone else make that decision for him. … He is, without a doubt, the one you want to tell all the little kids about, to give them some inspiration. There’s not one that has a story like Marquise.”

Photo Credits: Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens; Marquise Brown/Baltimore Ravens; Tim Strong/COC Sports Information; Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 264: September 2020

Bo Smolka

See all posts by Bo Smolka. Follow Bo Smolka on Twitter at @bsmolka