Bengals sign Jonathan Brown, a kicker who defies convention

CINCINNATI -- When Jonathan Brown was asked to stand up and introduce himself to the other 49 players in the Cincinnati Bengals' rookie camp, he already knew to expect the perplexing stares and quizzical looks.

"Everybody thought I was a DB," Brown said.

Everybody was -- as they often are -- wrong.

That's how it was when he announced himself as "Jon Brown, University of Louisville, kicker."

"Everybody just turned around and looked at me like I was crazy," Brown said. "The special teams coach [Darrin Simmons] just started laughing. I get that same reaction every time I tell someone what I play. You play corner? Slot? Nope. I tell them I kick, and they just stare at me."

Brown has gotten used to people misidentifying his position. Heck, until two years ago, he didn't even have a position. A soccer standout who started at Kentucky before transferring to Louisville, Brown began college trying to live out a childhood dream of playing in the World Cup. Little did he know at the time, but he soon would be driven down a dramatically different path.

Brown's athletic history isn't the reason his position is constantly misidentified. Plainly put, there just haven't been many black kickers in the NFL.

The first black man to exclusively punt in the league was Bengals 1976 14th-round selection Greg Coleman. Cut prior to that regular season, Coleman told the New Yorker in February that the Bengals wanted him to try out for running back and receiver jobs before kicking. By the time he actually kicked in his tryouts, he said he was so winded that he underperformed and was subsequently let go. He still went on to have a 10-year career as a punter for Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington.

One of the league's best active punters, Marquette King, is also black, and he has already dispensed advice to Brown, who at this point is simply trying to make any roster.

"He was saying, 'Man, I want to see you out there. You've got the talent,'" Brown said. "He was just talking to me about how a lot of people are going to expect big things out of you, especially because you're a black kicker and there's not that many of us. He said, 'I want you to be successful. Keep working hard and your time will come.'"

Brown's time hasn't arrived yet, but he cleared one hurdle last weekend when he was signed following a rookie camp tryout.

It was a tryout that came after no other NFL teams called following last month's draft.

It was a tryout that came after he completely reversed course in college, exchanging a soccer scholarship at Louisville for a chance to walk onto the football team as a kicker.

It was a tryout that came after several months of spending Saturdays driving eight hours for place-kicking training sessions. As soon as he would complete the four-hour morning trek from his hometown of Clinton, Mississippi, to Lafayette, Louisiana, he would be taken through a series of kicking exercises held by one-time Rams undrafted signee Brett Baer. Together, they would work out for five hours before Brown got right back in the car so he could return home by the wee hours on Sunday in order to take part in 7 a.m. church service with his parents.

"My legs are just like done because I've been kicking for five hours and my legs are sore," Brown said. "So I'm trying to speed back and my legs are cramping up. Yeah, it was hard. It was rough. It just had to be done."

Brown -- who was a receiver and a kick returner in high school, in addition to a member of the USA under-17 men's national soccer team -- switched back to football during his junior year at Louisville. He specialized in kickoffs, blasting seven in two games during his first season. He only appeared in one game as a senior, launching a 65-yard touchback. An oblique injury just three games into the season led him to move back home, where he took online classes and put the rest of his focus on learning how to be a better kicker.

"I probably watched film for like four hours every single day. It was me just watching and rewinding," Brown said. "I knew I wasn't as experienced as a lot of the guys that are kicking right now, so I knew that in order for me to catch up on time, that was something I had to do. ... I knew where I wanted to go in life. I had to sacrifice a lot of friendships to get where I wanted to be.

"I've had a long journey, for sure."

It's just beginning.

Veteran Bengals kicker Mike Nugent appreciates his new teammate's attitude, but Nugent isn't planning on letting Brown, or fellow backup kicker Zach Hocker, outwork him this offseason.

"I'm insanely lucky to be where I'm at, and a lot of people would like to be in the same position. So I have to perform," Nugent said. "The one second you slip, someone else can pounce on it."