Miami Jackson is used to being an underdog among South Florida’s high school football teams.
But playing that role doesn’t amount to being an underdog in everyday life.
Pain, suffering and bad influences surround some schools in the area more than others. That’s why Jackson coach Antonio “De La” Brown has taken it upon himself to shine some light in his players’ lives.
Brown, 35, was 12 years old when his father, Richard, was killed during a home invasion. Before and during Brown’s senior year at Miami Central in 1997, his 14-year-old brother, Carlos, was murdered over a pair of shoes, his cousin was killed in a Burger King drive-thru and his sister lost her life around Christmas.
Brown didn’t let those losses deter him from graduating high school at 19, graduating with a sociology degree from West Virginia, or spending three seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins.
He paid his family members the highest homage he could, blowing kisses into the air during his only career touchdown in the NFL — a game-winning, 91-yard kickoff return for the Redskins on Dec. 11, 2005, against the host Arizona Cardinals.
While football and family have helped Brown overcome his loses, he feels his faith in God has always led the way.
“I look at life and I can really see,” Brown said somberly this month as tears started to swell his eyes. “I can really see, and I done seen some things.
“[There’s] only one person and that’s who I believe in. I wouldn’t be here. I just wouldn’t.”
Brown is entering his second season at the helm of Jackson’s program, where the Generals ended last season losing its final three games before catching fire in the playoffs and falling to Immokalee in the state semifinals.
Brown’s relationship with his players has been the driving force for the team’s success. One rapport in particular, with starting quarterback Quinton Flowers, has had a little more significance in both of their lives.
Flowers was 7 years old when his father died, while his mother, Nancy, died of cancer in January 2012. Flowers said his mother died when he was out of town, but she had a conversation with him and Brown before she passed away.
“She said just keep fighting, keep going,” Flowers said. “And she told Coach Brown to watch over me and ever since then, that’s what he’s been doing and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Flowers threw for 1,712 yards and 17 touchdowns, while totaling 642 yards and nine rushing touchdowns on the ground last season. His team faces fellow Miami teams like Norland, Northwestern and Booker T. Washington again this season in hopes of putting up more than just 16 combined points against those teams in losses last season.
Brown said enduring those bumps and bruises from those teams before their playoff run helped Jackson realize what it had to do to make an impact and how to prepare for this upcoming season as well.
“Things were going right for us all season,” Brown said. “It’s just that the opponents we were playing, we had to give the utmost respect. Being the little brother to a lot of the inner-city schools in Dade County prepared us for the run.”
Brown said that while his team is heading in the right direction toward becoming a better unit, building off of last season’s success has given the players some newfound motivation to play against traditional Miami powerhouses ‘because if you can stand in the ring with them for a moment or two, you can build some confidence.”
“Even though outside the gate people will say, ‘Oh, y’all just Jackson. That’s just Jackson.’ Now [they’re] looking at us and we’re swinging a little harder now,” Brown said. “That’s motivation for the kids.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids for Brown.
“I was doing things I didn’t have no business doing,” he said. “Being in the wrong places at the wrong time. Being with the wrong people in the wrong places. But I just looked at it as a blessing because the Lord has seen me through this.
“It’s a duty for me to do this. It’s a duty for me to mentor kids. There’s a lot going on in the inner cities.”