A win-win situation

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DeRon Brown may end up playing professional football, or he may be behind the latest application you use on your smart gadgets. It’s his choice.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

Life is full of choices. DeRon Brown has had his share of choices, and so far, it all seems to have worked out pretty well for the former Grayson County multi-sport athlete. As a high school runningback drawing interest from bigger programs such as Davidson, Cornell, Princeton and Pennsylvania, Brown instead decided to play for one of Division III’s less stellar programs, wisely choosing to place academics ahead of athletics. His decision to accept an invitation to drive 14 hours (and pay his own travel, meal and lodging expenses) to play in a little-noticed game in front of a sparse crowd on a miserably wet and cold December day, that worked out well, also. And now, a few short months away from earning a college degree, Brown faces more options. There isn’t a bad one among them.   Boston-bound Brown’s choice of colleges was a no-brainer, pardon the pun. You simply don’t turn down an opportunity to obtain a world-class education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Ivy League schools were an attractive option, but as one of Brown’s high school coaches once said, Harvard is where kids go who can’t get into M.I.T. Located a couple of miles from Boston in Cambridge, Mass., the institution is culturally, academically and socially about as far away from Independence, Va., as it is geographically. Grayson County High is a fine secondary school, but not many public schools could prepare a country boy from Galax for what was to come. “My freshman year, coming from a public school and going to the best institution, it was really tough at first because the workload is very heavy,” said Brown. “I didn’t come from as rigorous an academic background as people who came from magnet schools or prep schools.” A summer transition program before his freshman year gave him a taste of what was expected academically at a place where keeping up with the schoolwork has been compared to drinking water from a fire hose. “But if you can get into the school you can definitely get through it,” Brown said. “Some people may have to work a lot more than others, but I wasn’t afraid I couldn’t make it through it. I was pretty confident that if I could get in, I could do the work. It’s been really hard at times, the tests are really hard, but I was confident I could get through it.” That’s from a student’s perspective, before factoring in the responsibilities of playing football. Class time, labs and two hours of practice takes a pretty big chunk out of the day, and Brown would often find himself in the books and hour or two past midnight.    Like a broken record Coaches at M.I.T. didn’t know it in the fall of 2006, but the freshman from rural Southwest Virginia would some day destroy the school’s record books. Despite playing for a program that had averaged three wins per year since it resurrected football as a varsity sport in 1989, Brown led the nation in rushing at the end of the regular season as a junior, and was poised to repeat the accomplishment as a senior until leaving his final game in the first quarter with an injury after nine carries netted just three yards. It’s easier to list the school rushing records he does not hold (single game rushing yards, career rushing average). But for the sake of thoroughness,  Brown will graduate as the Engineers’ record-holder in  career rushing yards (4,141), attempts (764) and touchdowns (38), single season rushing yards (1,818), attempts (275) and touchdowns (22), single game touchdowns (4, twice) and single game rushing attempts (41). The career records are fairly safe, as Brown shattered those marks while still a junior.   A first among firsts Brown’s accomplishments on the football field earned him an invitation to the inaugural D3 Senior Classic, a first-ever all-star game for Division III players, held last Saturday. Like his choice of colleges, accepting the invitation was a no-brainer, as the event was held in Division III TitleTown, otherwise known as Salem. “One of the biggest reasons I wanted to play in it,” Brown said, “was when I found out it was going to be in Salem. I was like, wow, it’ll be really close to home and people can come out and see me play who haven’t seen me in four years if they want to. My family could all come out. It was great being back home in Virginia.” Brown stayed at his parents’ home in Galax, unlike other players who drove from as far away as Texas and the Dakotas, staying in hotels, footing their own bill the whole time. Accustomed to toting the ball 30 times a game, Brown got eight carries Saturday. After just two rushes in a scoreless first half, he became the answer to a trivia question when he bulled in from a yard away for the game’s first points, leading the North to a 14-0 win over the South. “That was awesome,” Brown said. “Twenty years from now I can say, yeah, I scored the first touchdown in the first game. It’s pretty cool.” The trip south from Boston served a dual purpose for many players – fulfilling a desire most athletes have to take the field one last time, plus getting the chance to impress some pro scouts in attendance. “I was hoping I’d be able to draw some attention, but I also knew I wasn’t going to get that many touches because we had so many runningbacks,” he said. All of Brown’s carries were between the tackles, and the 5-8, 186-pounder didn’t get a chance to show off his speed, which is somewhere in the 4.4-second range in the 40. “I think I played well, and the carries I had, I ran hard,” he said. (Brown’s speed can be seen on YouTube by searching ‘Crosstown Brown.’)   Gainful employment There is a place for 5-8 runningbacks in the NFL (see: Darren Sproles), which brings Brown to his current set of options. He definitely plans on trying to play at the next level, expects to participate in some pro days and hopefully be invited to an NFL scouting combine. Just how to go about it, though, is a new one on him. “If you had asked me, DeRon, are you going to enter the draft? I would have said, I don’t even know how you do that,”  he said. “I’m trying to learn about it, talking to my coach to see how I can get to some pro days. “I love what I do. I love computer engineering and I love writing software, but if I could play football for a couple of years, that would be a dream come true. I talked to my dad at the beginning of the season, and he said ‘If the door is open, take it.’ I don’t want to be two years from now, a year from now, thinking, what if I had tried? Just making it to training camp would be a huge success.” Success is in his future, whether it involves football or not. Brown interned two summers ago in San Francisco and worked in London last summer. He began working a couple of months ago for a startup company called Starstreet, and has already written applications in use on the Web and in mobile devices such as the Android phone. “I’ve had the chance to work in England, I’ve had the chance to work in California, I’ve learned a lot about how much knowledge I can gain,” he said. “Coming into college I didn’t know anything at all about computer engineering. But you learn how to learn.” Brown plans to see how far he and football can take each other, then find his niche in the real world. Or the virtual one, as the case may be. He’s interviewed with some of the software giants, but would prefer working with a startup company and envisions himself in San Francisco, Boston or New York City. “It’s kind of like a team,” he said of his early experiences with Starstreet. “You’ve got a really strong group of guys and you’re working to create this product. It’s really high energy and you also know that what you’re working on will be in the product, where if you’re working for a large corporation you might not know if the work you’re doing is going to be in the product.” So if the NFL doesn’t work out, that M.I.T. degree won’t exactly be gathering dust. He can do with it as he chooses.