Antron Brown, one of the nation's top junior college track stars, had just graduated from Mercer Junior College in New Jersey in 1997 and was heading to Long Island University on a full scholarship with the hopes of one day making the U.S. Olympic team.
Then fate stepped in.
Former NFL cornerback Troy Vincent, who is married to Brown's cousin, called to say that he was starting a racing team and wanted to know whether Brown would want to join.
Brown's father answered and said, "Yes," even before his son could get to the phone.
"I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to join a racing team," Brown said. "This has been a dream since I was a little kid. That is where my heart is."
So Brown started riding Pro Stock Motorcycles for Vincent, who was looking for a career outside football. In three years with Vincent, Brown was off to a good start. Vincent then left the sport to focus on football, and Brown went on to win 16 times on a bike.
In 2008, Brown made the move to Top Fuel drag racing. And, just a few weeks ago, Brown became the Top Fuel champion -- the first African-American to ever win a major auto racing title.
"I was going to LIU with the hopes of making the Olympics trials or even the Olympics. I knew Olympian Chris Carter was there and wanted to help me," said Brown, who is from Chesterfield, N.J. "Then Troy steps in and creates this path for me that I'll never forget."
Playbook reached Brown, who now lives in Indianapolis with his wife and three children, to talk about his accomplishments.
Growing up, how competitive were you?
I always played sports. Soccer. Baseball. Basketball. Football. Track. I thought I was going to be this world-class runner. I was the fastest sprinter at my junior college. I never did take the SAT or ACT because I never thought I'd go to college. I was this motorhead.
So this year has been special for you.
It's been great. Moving to the elite category of drag racing was a dream come true. I didn't think it would happen. Normally, you need to know somebody in this sport to move up, have a long heritage, or have your dad or someone in this sport to get in the top class. Being on the outside and getting in and winning was incredible.
How did you stay so positive as you moved into the sport?
I always put in the hard work and so does my team. We've given everything we've got. At the end of the day, you don't want to look back and think shoulda, coulda and woulda. So I was all-in all the time. You have to believe. You need to go back and work harder. That's what makes this whole story come to fruition. I never threw in the towel. Lots of time I was in debt. I had to borrow money to even stay on the track.
What did you learn about yourself?
It's OK to fail. It's OK to stumble. The only real way you lose is when you give up and quit. You need to get past the negativity. People see shortfalls as failure. I look at it as a learning opportunity. As one door closed, I looked for other doors. It shaped and molded me today.
Who were your heroes in this sport?
It's easy to say Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme and Joe Amato. But one that sticks out for me is John Force. And it's not because he is a 15-time world champion. It's because of the stories I heard about him. He lived in a trailer and he loved drag racing. Now he has a multimedia empire and is a 15-time world champion. That story must inspire you. He was also a truck driver! In this sport, you get the chance to talk to these guys up close and ask them about their stories. That's what I did as a kid. If he can do it, I can do it.
You've not once mentioned your race when it comes to your sport. But you know you're a pioneer, right?
I'm humbled and honored to be the first African-American in our sport to get the championship. But, at the end of the day, I never looked at it like that. I wanted to get respect for the kind of person I am and for the kind of race I am. I take it as a privilege and it motivates me to realize that you can fulfill your dreams no matter what color you are. I came from an average home and I reached my goals. That's what the American dream is all about.
What's left to accomplish?
My ultimate goal is to continue racing at Don Schumacher Racing and win as many championships as we can. I then want to be a partner on a race team or own my own race team. I then want to give other people a shot at fulfilling their dreams. I want to give them the chances like I got. I'm also thinking of opening up a junior drag racing school. Kids can bring their cars and we'll teach them about what's on the track and how to handle different circumstances.
And your son, Anson, is interested in the sport too, right?
Right after this, I need to call to check on my son's car. He's getting into junior drag racing himself. He is 8. Winning the title is just the beginning of everything for me.