Last Saturday in the fourth quarter of Tennessee's game at Ole Miss, Vols senior Wes Brown sucked in a little more air, gritted his teeth and climbed back into his stance to collide again with an offensive guard. And it was by choice. The Athens, Ala., native simply refused to come out of the game when the coaches tried to take the ailing defensive tackle out and call it a day.
Despite the outcome no longer in doubt, Brown was in it till the end. A perfect summation of his Tennessee career.
"Wes has really been an inspiration to our team and to me as well in our first year here," head coach Lane Kiffin said. "He's real quiet. He kind of stands back a little bit. We moved him to a different position. That can be a major issue for a guy going into his senior year. He could have very easily had issues with that and not bought in, but he never once complained. He said, 'Whatever you need coach, I will go in there.' I just wish he could have been healthier. Every game something has happened to him, but it doesn't matter. He wouldn't even come out the last game. He wanted to finish no matter what the score was last week."
For Brown, quitting has never been an option no matter how tough it got. Few football players endure it any tougher. Brown has been battling meniscus problems all year in his knees and it's been tougher to deal with than anyone knows, according to roommate and close friend Jonathan Crompton.
"Living with him, I see what he is going through," Crompton said. "If I had to describe it, it would be like being hit by a Mack truck every play. And getting back up and keep fighting and do it all over again. He is one of my best friends, but I respect the crap out of him for what he is going through to play. It's tough at times to see how bad he is hurting. But it's enjoyable to see how much passion he has."
That passion is what fuels Brown. And that passion is an undeniable love for all things orange. It's a love affair with the Vols that started when an 8-year-old boy made his way to Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., in October 1995.
"I remember driving in," Brown said with a smile. "We had our Tennessee flags flying. I accidentally rolled the window down and the flag fell off. And an Alabama fan swerved over to run over it. I will never forget that. I was like, 'Man this is real.' These guys take it so far to run over a flag, that's the passion they have for this game. Tennessee took off on them and won real big. Ever since then, I watched that rivalry and Tennessee football has been special to me."
So special that on the way home, the dreaming soon to be 9-year-old told his dad of his plan. His goal ... to be a Vol.
"Seeing that big section of orange in the crimson stadium and hearing Rocky Top. Peyton Manning (exploded) that game, and it was something special," Brown recalled. "I knew how important it was to my dad and how much he loved it. I told him. I said dad I would love to play for them. It would be a dream come true and a great goal to aim at and I was blessed to have the opportunity for it to come true."
"He had been an Alabama fan. Then, after that game, he told me he wanted to go to Tennessee and set a goal that he was going play for them," Brown's father, Jeff, said. "It's something that I never believed he could do, but he always did."
In February 2005, Brown's goal became a reality and he's been living a dream, albeit it a painful one at times, ever since.
Brown, who currently has 90 career tackles, battles every day just to get to the practice field in a regiment that starts daily around noon.
"I have to get heated up. I get stretched out a lot," Brown explained. "They put heat bags on my knee or I get in the hot tub and take time to get out there and move around. I have to get out there before everyone else to get warmed up. Then after practice, it's a lot of icing.
"I get in around 12 and start warming up. Then we go to meetings for an hour or two and that is when they start stiffening up a little more. That's why I get out there and get on the bike to warm up a little more before practice."
It's a routine that Brown gladly accepted in order to complete his dream of playing football at Tennessee; one he wasn't sure he could continue back heading into this season. In fact, during summer workouts, Brown was miserable. Full of pain and full of disgust as he watched his team work and prepare for Saturday battles in the fall.
"It was horrible because I would be riding the bike while the team was running or when they were squatting I was over in the corner doing some light weights," Brown recalled. "It was very frustrating. I just wanted to be back out there with them. I wanted to play with them. I wanted to run with them and do what I had been used to doing with them."
After suffering mentally and physically in the summer, Brown hit rock bottom when fall camp opened and he couldn't finish the first practice of the year.
"The first day in fall camp they were killing me. My knees were throbbing. That was really the first time that I doubted. I just wondered if I was really going to be able to play," Brown offered. "That was tough. I remember throwing my helmet down. I took both my knee braces off and sat there on the water cooler watching them practice. I was so emotionally down. I hadn't been that down in along time. When you do something you love, you do it 110 percent. That is what I have been taught all my life. When I couldn't give it 100 percent, I was really down."
When Brown called home, his parents knew things weren't well.
"You could sense the disappointment in his voice back in the summer, and it was gut-wrenching," Jeff recalled. "In talking to him, you knew that he was hurting. But knowing him, I knew what he was going to do. I told him to give it all he had. To have no regrets and to hold his head high.
"It's been difficult on both me and his mom. I told him back before the season to hang them up and come home if he wanted to. He had his degree and it wouldn't bother me at all if he had quit. But he said it was his senior year and he was not giving it up. He loves the playing for the school, his teammates and loves being there. He would play five more years up there if he could."
In that lies the essence of Wes Brown. It's about his love for the game and his love for Tennessee. A passion so deep that Brown, who jokingly asked Eric Berry if he could have his fourth year of eligiblity, would gladly continue the same regiment just to keep playing for his beloved Vols.
"God has blessed me with a great opportunity," Brown said. "I have dreamed of this my whole life. I wouldn't spend this year doing anything else in the world. I would give both my knees to have another year to play. This place is special to me. My teammates, everyone I have met here, I have fallen in love with this place. It is just so special to me.
"Growing up watching them run through the 'T,' hearing the crowd, then to actually get to live that out. You don't want it to come to an end. It's just special to put that 'T' on your helmet and put that orange jersey on. It sounds like a cliche and you hear a lot of people say it, but it means a lot to a lot of people and that is why this place is special."
Saturday night, Brown will live a part of his dream for the final time as he will make his solo run through the famed 'T' on senior night. It's a moment that Brown has tried not to think about and one he and his family have no interest in having.
"I am going to try not to be emotional," Brown said. "I am going to try and hold it all in till the end of the game. Coming through the 'T' for the last time is going to kill me. It will be tough. It's going to be real tough. But I will make it. As long as we win that is all that counts. I just want to play well and help my team win."
"I don't want to think about it," Jeff offered. "Both of us (mom, Patricia and Jeff) will have a tough time with it on Saturday. Like I said, he would play five more years if he could and we would be there to watch every one of them."
As Brown's career comes to a close, he will be missed, by teammates, coaches and anyone that roams or works in the football complex. Crompton said no one has more love for Tennessee than his roommate, and position coach Ed Orgeron feels Brown is one of those players that rarely comes along.
"To have the attitude and grit doesn't come along like you have with Wes," Orgeron said. "He's a great guy. I wish I had him for a couple more years. He has great character and is a great player."
And he is a Vol.
"I would rather lose them all here than to wear a crimson jersey or any other jersey from any school in the country," Brown said.
Saturday night, Brown will don the orange one more time and will take a stroll by himself through the 'T.' When he does, don't look for him to move fast. One, he wants to soak in every second. And two, he will be trying to get his ailing knees heated up to finish a dream 14 years in the making.