Lessons from baseball helped Titans' A.J. Brown blossom at football

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(Editor's note: This story originally published on Jan. 17, 2020.)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was business as usual in Week 17 for Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown. The Tennessee Titans quarterback dropped back to launch a deep pass from the 3-yard line to the rookie wide receiver, who tracked the ball to make an over-the-shoulder catch. Running under the ball at full speed and throwing his hands out at the precise second to catch it is something that came naturally.

Coach Mike Vrabel has noted Brown's ability "to run through the catch and not stop or jump" as a key to his making big plays.

It's something Brown also did on football fields at Starkville High School. But it's something he learned how to do in the outfields of youth baseball leagues.

"I tell a lot of guys man, you catch the ball with your eyes," said Brown. "Baseball really helped me out with that for football. When you're tracking a ball, especially a deep ball, it helped me a lot. I played center field in baseball. On a deep pass in football, you judge it and go track it just like a center fielder."

Brown is another athlete who has reaped the benefits of playing multiple sports, just like Cardinals' quarterback Kyler Murray.

"It helps a lot," Murray said of his baseball skills on the football field. "I've seen a lot of terrible slides in my day. It's a lot smoother than other people, you know, the pop-up slide, stuff like that, just being able to get down whenever I want. Yeah, I think it helps."

Brown was a standout on the Starkville High baseball team, batting third. He hit "over .360" during his senior year, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Brown got scouts' attention and was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 19th round of the 2016 MLB draft.

Before going to Ole Miss, Brown became the second player ever -- Murray was the first -- to play in both the Under Armour All-Star baseball and football games. (Jerrion Ealy and Maurice Hampton have since joined Brown and Murray.) Brown went 1-for-3 in the Under Armour baseball game, and he still keeps in touch with one of his teammates: Bo Bichette, the son of former All-Star Dante Bichette. Bo Bichette, a shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays, hit .311 in 46 major league games last season. Brown said Bichette sent him an autographed jersey, and Brown plans to return the favor after the season.

Unlike Bichette, Brown didn't pursue a career in baseball, although he spent a part of the summer with the Padres' minor league team in Arizona before reporting back to Ole Miss for his sophomore season. The time spent at camp was a unique experience for Brown. He didn't like how small the crowds were at games, joking that he could count on two hands how many people came to watch.

Brown dipped his toe in baseball's professional ranks for his dad, Arthur Brown Sr., who had another plan for his son's future. Baseball was beloved by the elder Brown.

"I never really watched baseball like that," A.J. Brown said. "My dad, he put a bat in my hand as soon as I could walk and I was good at it. It was my dad's favorite sport."

The slow pace of baseball taught Brown to be patient and how to stay locked in. Brown's favorite aspect of baseball was hitting. He smiled as he mentioned how difficult it is.

"People don't understand how tough that is when somebody is throwing that ball that hard," Brown said.

Big crowds were part of football's attraction for Brown, who asked: "Who doesn't want to catch touchdowns in front of thousands of people?"

But he also wanted to be involved in every play. It's part of what made him fall in love with football and ultimately decide to pursue that over baseball.

"Going into college, I had to make a decision for myself, and I said if I do this [play football] and go forward with it, I had to put my best foot forward," Brown said. "I am not saying I couldn't do both, but it would have been really hard on me. My mindset with anything is that I want to try to do, be the best. If I am not doing it full time, how can I be the best at it? Somebody could have an edge on me. I didn't want that."

The thing that stands out to Brown about football is the process. He enjoys being able to go out there on the football field and push himself to the limit regardless of the circumstance. In Brown's mind, he has to find a way to win no matter what obstacles he encounters. "Find a way to win" is tattooed on his arm as a reminder of where his focus needs to be.

Like anyone else, Brown is fascinated by the giant contracts earned by top players in baseball. Before April's NFL draft, he joked about going back to baseball when he saw slugger Manny Machado sign a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Padres. Then Brown sat back and thought about the time he'd have to spend in the minor leagues and the money he felt he'd make in the NFL once he showed what kind of playmaker he could become.

"It's just so difficult to reach that level honestly," Brown said. "Guys in the minor leagues, a lot of them aren't really making any money. I applaud them. I mean, you be in the minor leagues forever trying to come up. But if you're fortunate to get that type of money, it's definitely life-changing because, man, they get a lot of money. My dad always said there's money in baseball but I feel there's money in everything if you're working to be the best so you can get paid regardless."

Brown signed a four-year, $5.6 million contract after being selected with the 51st pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Sure, it's not Machado money but as the saying goes, "If you find a job you love, you never have to work a day in your life."

And if you watch Brown on the field, it's clear he loves football. "I get the opportunity to do the thing that I love on an everyday basis," Brown told the team's website. "I don't have to do it, I get to do it."

ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss contributed.