Sept. 23, 2011
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – For most of his undergraduate career at the University of Virginia, Marques Hagans had a bodyguard on the football field and off, a fellow Hampton High School graduate who stood 6-5 and weighed about 340 pounds.
“It was nice to have him blocking for you, nice to have him protecting you,” recalled Hagans, now a graduate assistant on UVa’s coaching staff. “Everywhere we went, he always made sure I was all right. He’d be like, ‘That’s my quarterback. Don’t nobody mess with my quarterback.’
“We went to parties, he wouldn’t leave my side. It just grows on you when somebody cares that much about you.”
That bodyguard, of course, was the mammoth offensive lineman known as “Big E” — Elton Brown. Virginia (2-1) hosts Southern Mississippi (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, and at halftime Brown will become the 17th former UVa player to have his jersey retired.
The former NFL player expects more than 60 friends and relatives, including his mother, Robin, and his brother, Scorpio, to join him at Scott Stadium.
“It’s going to be an emotional day,” Brown said, “just to be able to share that moment with all the people that believed in me and helped me get to that moment in life — my family, friends, coaches and, of course, the fans.”
That Brown is ecstatic about the honor is clear to anyone who follows him on Twitter (@BiggE61). “He should be,” said Hagans, who roomed with Brown in 2004-05. “He deserves it.”
Brown started 39 games in his four seasons at Virginia, including four as a true freshman in 2001. As a senior, he became only the third offensive lineman in school history to be named a consensus first-team All-American. The ACC’s head coaches selected him as the league’s top blocker in both 2003 and ’04.
He’s most proud, however, of what happened in Charlottesville on May 22, 2005. On his 23rd birthday, he walked the Lawn and received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
“That’s the big thing in my family,” Brown said. “My mother had to work two, three jobs when I was growing up. I had to take care of my little brother a lot. To be able to fulfill her request and graduate, that’s a blessing.”
His jersey retirement cements Brown’s place among the greatest players in the program’s history. He’s proud of that status — especially because “I didn’t leave Hampton, Virginia, thinking I would do that,” Brown said. “I just wanted to graduate and play football.”
When Brown was a senior at Hampton High, George Welsh retired as UVa’s head coach, and Al Groh took over. Groh put together a staff that included Mike London, a Bethel High graduate whose recruiting territory included the Tidewater area.
“I can remember being in Big E’s house with his mom, Robin, brother Scorpio,” said London, now the Wahoos’ head coach. “Great family. Elton turned out to be a great success story. I can’t say enough about him.”
In the beginning, though, Brown had some rough moments.
“I can remember — and I’m going to tell on him — that when he first came to Virginia, he was homesick big-time,” London said, smiling. “His mom would come up and actually spend the night in Charlottesville, because he was so homesick. She stayed with him and let him know everything was all right. But then after a while, when he got used to being up here, his friends became the guys on the team, he never would come home.”
Brown, 29, remembers his time at the University as “four of the funnest years of my life. People say, ‘What about the NFL?’ The NFL is work. I’m not saying it’s not fun, but it’s different. There’s not the bonding you have in college.”
A fourth-round draft choice of the Cardinals in 2005, Brown spent five seasons in the NFL, all with Arizona. Persistent problems with his right knee convinced Brown that retirement was his best move.
“I wanted to walk when I was 40,” he said.
Asked if he’s disappointed that his NFL career didn’t work out differently, Brown answered emphatically.
“I wouldn’t change anything as far as my life,” he said. “Some things are out of your control. I was blessed to play long enough to retire and have my pension and my 401(k). We’d all like to play 10, 15 years, but everything happens for a reason, and now it’s time to focus on the next phase of my life.”
Brown, who is single, lives in Hampton. He coaches a Pop Warner football team for ages 9-12 — the Hampton Hawkeyes — and spends much of his time working with 1st and G.O.A.L., the foundation he established in 2006.
“I basically target at-risk youth and give them direction,” Brown said. “I’m one of them. Where I grew up wasn’t the best of areas. The main thing is to give the kids the encouragement and belief that they can do what they want.”
His foundation offers mentoring and recently gave away school supplies during a back-to-school drive, Brown said. At Thanksgiving each year, the foundation feeds families in Hampton and Newport News.
“My grandmother and my grandfather, rest their souls, they were all about giving back,” Brown said, “and it was one of those things I wanted to do.”
London said: “Elton has made that Hampton area very proud of what he’s done. He’s gone on to the NFL, done a good job there, made his money, invested his money wisely.
“He’s an ambassador for Virginia, because of his education and what he’s doing now. I’m proud of him and happy for his accomplishments and for the retirement of the jersey.”
Hagans is proud of big No. 61, too.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back, give you his last dollar and split a penny with you,” Hagans said. “That’s my man.”