Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Jamel Brown could have easily quit in his pursuit of a college football scholarship.
Yet, he stayed the course, even with the setbacks: Being suspended from the Desert Pines High team for most of 2017, opening his senior season last fall as the Jaguars' third-string running back, bombing the college standardized exams because he didn’t realize they were timed, and seeing his lone scholarship offer wiped out last month when the coach was fired.
A few weeks before national signing day on Feb. 6, Brown’s fortunes changed. His coaches at Desert Pines have a relationship with new UNC Charlotte defensive coordinator Marcus West, who reached out to the local power looking for a “fast kid who was a dog,” Jags assistant coach David Hill said.
“I told him we have the perfect kid,” Hill said. “Thirty minutes after he watched (Brown’s) film, he offered the scholarship.”
Brown verbally committed to Charlotte shortly after his visit last weekend, becoming emotional in a Twitter post about his appreciation for the Desert Pines staff helping him along the way.
Take counselor Kristine Korth, whose persistence was the difference in increasing his grade point average from 2.6 when he arrived at the school as a freshman to 3.7, which was vitally important to become an NCAA qualifier. She also got him practice taking the SAT. He learned to answer questions every six seconds to complete the entire exam. He received a qualifying score on his second attempt.
There’s Desert Pines coach Tico Rodriguez, who allowed him to be the team’s manager last season after suspending him. (The coach, legally, can’t discuss discipline.)
“He’s a tough-minded kid,” Rodriguez said. “He got in a little bit of trouble but stayed with the team and learned his lesson. It shows we don’t quit on our kids at Desert Pines. He made a mistake and fixed it.”
Brown started his senior season last fall behind Cameron Wiley (who is committed to Minnesota) and Devin McGee (New Mexico) at running back. He was a defensive starter at safety. By the time the season ended, he was named the team’s most valuable player after rushing for 600 yards and recording 80 tackles with five interceptions.
Still, he remained under the recruiting radar, which he admits was concerning.
“I had to trust the process and plan the coaches had for me,” Brown said. “I wasn’t going to give up.”
Part of Brown’s makeover happened last spring when he won a state championship in track’s 300-meter hurdles at 40.16 seconds. He previously ran track to be around friends and wasn’t the most dedicated participant. But it was different in the spring — he put in the work and saw the rewards. Instead of being labeled as someone with the potential to be elite, he finally lived up to the billing of a gifted athlete.
The track title also helped repair his reputation with his football teammates, who voted him as the most valuable player.
“I was tired of the bad vibes,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to be considered a bad kid.”
The staff at Desert Pines consistently finds the good in students whose backgrounds aren’t traditional. After all, it’s an at-risk school with plenty of children in need of someone to advocate for them, whether that’s with a meal after school, a teacher taking on the role as father figure, or helping a football player secure a scholarship. They have mastered that, with about 20 getting full rides to Division I programs in Rodriguez’s six years as head coach and many others landing at lower-tier schools.
Just because a player has a setback doesn’t mean Rodriguez or Hill will stop investing in him. They’ve repeatedly handled season-ending injuries, family member deaths, tough defeats and dealing with the hardships of the inner city with a pro-kid attitude that’s refreshing.
For Brown, it was life-changing. He will soon leave for Charlotte to attend college, where he plans to major in criminal justice with aspirations of going to law school. Along the way, he’ll try to be that “dog” coaches think he can be.
“He’s a resilient, tough kid,” Rodriguez said. “Of all the (prospects) we have in the program, he became the alpha leader. He brought such a strong energy to the program. He’s not a big talker — just a big doer.”