FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — When her son was 2 years old, Shannon James gave him a miniature Dan Marino uniform. It was part of a Halloween costume meant for semi-annual use.
But Marquise Brown had other ideas.
He wore his Dolphins jersey and pants at every opportunity. He’d wrap his body in them, throw on shoulder pads and sprint outside. Sometimes he tried wearing the costume to class, under his elementary school uniform.
James would stop him.
“I would make him take it off and he’d cry and cry,” James said. “He wore it until he couldn’t wear it anymore. That’s where it kind of started. He was a diehard Dolphins fan.
“But once he saw college football …”
This is where Brown’s vision took off.
Before he could become Oklahoma’s top receiver and one of its key pieces to a potential victory in Saturday’s Orange Bowl against Alabama, Brown had to become enamored with the idea that he could play college football.
Growing up where concrete and palm trees meet the ocean near Hollywood and Dania Beach, the undersized Brown — who arrived at OU weighing 144 pounds — fell in love with the idea of being a Division-I star while watching West Virginia beat Clemson 70-33 in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
He lived less than 10 miles away.
“My little league coaches took us. That was one of the, you know, moments that I knew I really wanted to play college football,” Brown said, “watching Sammy Watkins, Tavon Austin, watching those guys play. They put on a great performance.
“It just was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Brown could have an electric performance himself in the same stadium. He anticipates playing Saturday despite recovering from a left foot injury he sustained about a month ago. Those close to him would be surprised if he sat out, especially given the setting.
His unlikely climb began here in South Florida. First with a costume, then that 2012 Orange Bowl experience, then a productive high school career at Chaminade Madonna College Preparatory, where his jersey was retired last year.
But his small physical stature made things difficult.
In 2016, when OU finally snagged him from the cracks of College of the Canyons junior college in Santa Clarita, California, Brown was on the cusp of fulfilling his dream. Even now at just 5 foot 10, 168 pounds, he has developed into one of the nation’s top receivers — a frighteningly fast target capable of knocking the top off most any secondary.
After emerging with 1,095 receiving yards last season — FOX color analyst Gus Johnson dubbed him “Hollywood” and Brown’s Twitter following has since exploded — he returned to Florida in the summer.
He trained with his cousin, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, running in beach sand to improve foot speed. It was a training routine he began at the Pop Warner level; even then, workouts started at 6 a.m.
Back in Norman, most of Brown’s OU teammates hate the sand pit. To him, it’s a preferred surface from home that has given way to his breakneck speed.
Despite multiple injuries this fall he tallied 1,138 receiving yards, which is fourth in OU history. He’s sixth all-time in career receiving yards (2,413) and owns the top two single-game marks (265, 243).
James, who raised Brown and his sister, Shanice, mostly on her own, expected this. Even though Broward County’s violent crime rate is decreasing, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, it remained well above the national average in 2017.
Both her children could have made wrong choices in Hollywood, but James says she never had a problem because, for them, big dreams fueled bright futures.
For Brown, that meant a relentless pursuit of college football, which in all likelihood should give him a chance at an NFL career if he chooses to enter his name in the draft pool after his junior season.
It started with a mother who gave her son a jersey. A football game became an inspiration — as sporting events tend to do — and Brown’s dream wove its way around the banks of the Atlantic Ocean, then to California, then Oklahoma, before landing in Florida again this week.
“To be here, it’s funny, I found a letter the other day when he was a senior in high school,” James said. “The parents had to write a letter to their kids. Everything I wrote was about making life everything you can. About obstacles in the road and how you can move forward through them.
“When I read it, it brought tears to my eyes, because everything in that letter is coming true for him."
No. 4 Oklahoma vs.
No. 1 Alabama
Time: 7 p.m., Dec. 29
Place: Hard Rock Stadium | Miami Gardens, Fla.
Line: Alabama (-14)
Records: OU (12-1); Alabama (13-0)