Eyes Up: The Steelers' Antonio Brown pulls in a pass for what would become a 79-yard touchdown after juking the Browns' Joe Haden in the fourth quarter Thursday night.
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Chest up: The Steelers Antonio Brown celebrates after scoring on a 60-yard punt return against Cincinnati earlier this season.
Antonio Brown score late in the fourth quarter against the Browns earlier this month.
By Dan Gigler Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Chest up. Eyes up. Prayed up.
Simple and catchy. Sounds like something a television writer created. But it's a mantra for life and football that guides Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown daily.
"That's my slogan. That's my motivation. I've been using that since I was a kid. It's something I've always believed in and something that always helped me persevere. I pride myself on believing that if I keep my chest up and my eyes up, and I remain prayed up, I have what it takes to move forward and get the good out of any situation that may hinder me ... it provides me with peace. Every day presents challenges; its all about your attitude and how you go about it."
That phrase has helped him overcome obstacles like an impoverished background and temporary homelessness and propelled him to a breakout second year in the NFL and, perhaps, the cusp of stardom.
Brown needs 16 yards receiving in the next two games to reach 1,000 for the season, and his first two NFL seasons have been punctuated by a knack for what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays.
Steelers (10-4) vs. St. Louis Rams (2-12), Heinz Field.
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
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But to Brown, those things are only possible as a result of his faith in his six-word credo.
The Liberty City section of northwest Miami -- home to Brown and his younger brother, Desmond, a running back for Pitt -- is synonymous with poverty, crime, violence and drug traffic.
The median household income is just below $19,000. A third of the households are headed by single mothers. It has been the site of numerous race riots. In January, two police officers were murdered while serving a warrant. One stretch of 15th Avenue has been dubbed the "Street of Death" by Miami media.
It is a place where you will be eaten up if you do not have your chest up.
"It's not easy growing up in Liberty City. You see the struggle every day, of hard times and a hard economy," Desmond Brown said.
"A lot of people fall victims to crime and incarceration. We have a lot of friends in jail and that have died young. It's very rare that people make it up out of there."
Their parents were 18 when Antonio was born in 1988 and, although their father, "Touchdown" Eddie Brown, would become in Arena League Football star in the late '90s and early 2000s for the Albany/Indiana Firebirds, the Brown brothers were mostly estranged from him. Antonio fended for himself after his mother remarried and put him out of the house at age 16, often staying with friends. He taught Desmond how to navigate life in Liberty City.
"Whenever my brother went through a situation [in the streets], he taught me how to react to it, because I would witness it soon, too. I followed in his footsteps to prepare me for what was going to happen. He prepared me for the worst from the worst situations he went through," Desmond Brown said.
"Then, he told me what it took in college -- hard work, paying dues -- to better my situation."
After graduating from Miami Norland High School, a stint at a football academy in North Carolina followed before Antonio Brown went on to a standout career at Central Michigan. The Steelers made him a sixth-round selection in the 2010 draft.
Desmond Brown said he once entertained notions of playing college football at one of Florida's powerhouse schools, but when Antonio ended up in Pittsburgh, that's where he wanted to be, too, so he became a walk-on running back at Pitt this season.
"Me and my brother are real tight. He knows he's got a great support system with me," Antonio Brown said. "Just having him around motivates me as well. It's special to have him around -- always there for him, guide him, give him what he needs."
In a sign of how far the brothers have come from the hot, dangerous streets of Miami, they will spend Christmas in a cabin at Seven Springs, with Desmond trying, of all things, snowboarding.
Antonio Brown first gained national notice for his game-clinching grab of a fourth quarter, 58-yard Ben Roethlisberger pass on a third-and-19 play against Baltimore in an AFC divisional playoff game in January at Heinz Field. He pinned the ball against his helmet and, in doing so, set up the winning touchdown in a 31-24 comeback win.
Such catches don't happen by accident.
"I always work at it -- every day before, during and after practice -- catching the ball in uncomfortable positions. I try to put myself through all the difficult catches that you probably can't prepare for because, when the ball is thrown, you never know how it's going to come down.
"You want to take yourself through all the situational catches that you might get. I try to prepare my body for any uncertainty about catching that way, when I have time to catch, I have prepared for it."
That hasn't gone unnoticed by veteran teammates or his coach.
"It's amazing from a year ago how much he's developed, how much he's learned our offense," fellow wide receiver Hines Ward said.
"Antonio, he has all the makings to be a great one."
Tomlin, who doesn't lavish much praise on young players said: "I don't think you will find anyone in our locker room that will question his work. This guy works on a day-to-day basis, and you are able to see it in stadiums."
Case-in-point: Brown's 79-yard touchdown against Cleveland two weeks ago after a short sideline pass from Roethlisberger. His moves and speed embarrassed a few defensive backs.
"I got a good release on the defender -- guys are trying to not let me behind them, so they run into my upfield shoulder. Ben does a great job of placing the ball on my backside shoulder.
"That way, it's only me and the ball. ... I got the ball, spun out, the defender fell down. I was one on one with the safety and I was able to get away."
And that feeling of beating everyone, with a clear path to the end zone?
"My eyes get huge. My adrenaline rushes and my spirit just takes over. It's an amazing feeling. I'm just thankful I get the opportunity to experience it."
Inside of Brown's locker is a Bible verse given to him by former Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, from the book of First Corinthians.
The parable begins: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
An obvious inspiration for a wide receiver, looking for the end zone. But the verse is more about self-reliance and serving a greater good, something that Brown understands.
A devout Christian, Brown lends his time to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, while helping to raise two young children, a daughter, Antonia, and a son, Antonio Jr
And he hopes to inspire them and those around him with those three short instructions: