Tempe, Ariz. - You look at Mike Brown and you say, there's no way this guy is real. He's gotta be fiction.
The Nebraska senior rover is like something created out of an athletic department marketing catalog. He works hard. He plays harder. He's intelligent. He's dependable. His coaches say he's the best player they've ever seen. He has a 3.25 grade point in business administration. He'll graduate in four years. A first-team All-American safety and boy.
And now we know the secret to Brown's success. Behind every great man there's a great woman. Or, in Brown's case, a great mother.
"My mom is the reason I am who I am today," Brown said.
Is there an award for "Mother of the Year?" If so, Susie Freedman needs to be nominated. She may have had doubts about whether her son, an Arizona high-school product, could make it in college against the big boys from Texas, California and Florida. She may bring a smile to her son's face each Sunday when she calls to criticize him for blown coverages.
Plenty of Love
But the one thing this mother knows for sure is that black is black and white is white but love conquers all.
Brown is a product of an interracial marriage. His mother is white. His father, Sam Brown, is black. When he was three years old, they divorced. Brown was a child of a broken home.
Then again, perhaps "broken" isn't the appropriate term here. Both Susie and Sam remained friends and kept in touch. Both remarried and it was like Mike had two families.
"My parents have kept in touch, been friends and that's been great for me," Mike said. "They both loved me to death and helped raise me."
It took all that love to get Mike through what could have been an emotionally devastating childhood. Mike's mother and stepfather, Bruce, moved from Gainesville, Fla., to Scottsdale, Ariz., when Mike was 10. He went from a racially-diverse school in Florida to predominately-white Scottsdale. He was the only black student in elementary school and one of just a handful at Saguaro High. In a state that once didn't recognize Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday, a black child with two white parents stood out.
"People were actually much nicer to us (than normal)," Susie Freedman told the Arizona Republic. "They'd think, "Look, they've adopted him.' "
Not everyone was nice. The Freedmans' ears burned on many occasions from racial slurs. But Brown never knew until years later.
"I was blind to what was going on in the world," Mike said. "I didn't understand that there was anything wrong with that. Luckily, my mother sheltered me from all that.
"As I got older, I began to understand some of the things that were happening with my mom and (step)dad. There was abuse. People saying some things. But people never said them around me. And everything else, she protected me from it."
Freedman had no desire to protect her son from football. Growing up in Miami, she knew football; she even saw Nebraska play in the Orange Bowl. But she jokes that sometimes even she doesn't know that wild man down on the field.
"She doesn't like some of the things I do in a game, like when I'm talking or celebrating," Brown said. "I'm a different person on the football field. I turn into some kind of animal. I talk a lot. I'm intense. I scream. That's not who I am off the field.
"But I play this game with a lot of emotion. I have a lot of respect for the game. I try to play it the way it should be played, and not lollygag around. I owe that to my parents, who instilled that in me, to treat the game, and people, with respect."
The mother's son is home this week, to show off what she created, to show the world what a mother's love and shelter can do. Mother's Day will come early this year in Arizona.
"I love her dearly," Brown said. "I'll always be there for her, the way she's always been there for me, through the good times and bad. I'm dedicating this game to her."
Not even a blown coverage can spoil it.