CHAMPAIGN – Throughout the course of his collegiate football career, DeKalb High School graduate Dre Brown has endured a lot.
Brown, a senior at the University of Illinois, is finishing up a playing career that has spanned five seasons, three head coaches and a couple of debilitating injuries along the way.
But through it all, Brown has remained steadfast in finishing what he started, no matter what the price may be.
“I look at my career at Illinois as sort of a roller coaster ride,” Brown said. “I’ve had highs, and the ACL tears were the dips in the ride, but Illinois is a great university because you can explore other avenues and be developed as a well-rounded person.”
Brown was named a semifinalist for the prestigious William V. Campbell Trophy, an award that recognizes an individual as the best football scholar-athlete in the nation for his combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership.
“It’s awesome,” Brown said. “As a student-athlete, I pride myself in being a well-rounded individual in both academics and football, so it’s cool to see.”
Originally recruited by then-coach Tim Beckman in 2015, Brown tore his ACL in fall training camp and sat out the season as a result. A similar injury sidelined Brown in 2016, further testing his limits of seeing the game from the sidelines.
When Beckman was fired one week before the season opener in 2015, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit took over the program, and while Brown never played for either coach during his tenure at Illinois, he has grown a lot during that time.
“When I came to Illinois, I was just a 17-year-old kid thrown into the fire, so to speak,” Brown said. “I’m much more mature now, five years later, and I’m better for it due to what I’ve had to go through.”
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said Brown exemplifies what he looks for in a player.
“Every coach looks for players that represent the university well both on and off the field, and nobody does it better than Dre,” Smith said. “Another example is the adversity that he has faced with his injuries. As a football player, you are going to get knocked down from time to time, and the question is whether you get back up. Dre has shown that on numerous occasions.”
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith also was very complimentary of Brown, and despite all that he has been through still maintains a positive attitude.
“Dre is probably one of my favorite players on this football team,” Rod Smith said. “To endure what he has had to deal with and still be an example to others says a lot about his character. He’ll tell you that he’s a total team player and not about himself at all, and he’s 100% orange and blue. My heart goes out to guys like that, and to see him having success at his position like he does means the world to me.”
Mike Epstein, who is in his third season with the Fighting Illini, has endured a similar fate to Brown and has sat out parts of every season due to his lingering injuries.
Brown has some advice for Epstein and players with a similar story.
“Just play the long game,” Brown said. “You can play the short game and get the accolades and everything that comes with it, or experience what I’ve had to endure and go at it the long way. I’ve waited nearly four years to get on the field, and I’m making the most of my opportunity. Everybody’s journey is different, and life is a process. You don’t get things right when you want them.”
Being from DeKalb and playing for a state school gives Brown tremendous pride.
“You gather a following after a while,” Brown said. “Not only do you get people from DeKalb following your progress, but also people from Decatur, Springfield and other major cities in the state. It’s not unusual to get 20 or 30 texts after a game, and I think that playing for the University of Illinois lends a lot of credibility to that process.”
Brown, who is one of the few players on the Illinois roster who is married, treats his marriage like any other one.
“I just look at it like coming home from a long day at work,” Brown said. “I usually arrive on campus about 6:30 in the morning and after classes and training, usually get home about six in the evening. Then it’s time to devote my full attention to her. It’s cool that the younger players ask about what it’s like being married, and I have fun telling them, because it is [fun].”