PHOENIX -- A year ago on Super Bowl media day, Brandon Browner spoke with just a single reporter, from his home in California, while his Seattle Seahawks teammates sat at podiums and held court with the international press, the toasts of New York mere days away from winning the Super Bowl.
Browner was suspended indefinitely by the NFL at the time, unsure if or when he would be granted free agency with his contract expiring, trying to remain upbeat at a time when his teammates were about to experience the pinnacle of their careers without him. That includes guys like Richard Sherman, who Browner still considers "like a brother." So you can only imagine what Tuesday was like for Browner, who, after successfully fighting to get his suspension reduced, was the first Patriots players to appear at his riser waiting to face a deluge of questions.
Browner got to his seat a few minutes early, with music still blaring inside US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix, tapping his knees, dancing a little bit in his director's chair, nodding his head, trying to pick out friends and family in the stands above. It was a bit surreal this journey of his, one that seemed improbable -- if not impossible -- not too long ago, with countless hours of work done behind the scenes by Browner and his agent/attorney Peter Schaffer resulting in him getting a do-over of sorts at this Super Bowl, only now with the Seahawks as the opposition.
"It's crazy," Browner said, his eyes wide, still trying to process it all himself. "I never really thought this could happen, and it's crazy how fast it's come. I feel like it's all happened so fast."
Browner's tone was markedly more upbeat when we spoke on media day last year. Then, he was trying to find ways to stay positive in the face of steep odds against the NFL, knowing a long and exhaustive legal fight with the league was ahead. His words alluded to positivity in the face of so much uncertainty, but he was anything but the upbeat and buoyant -- if not occasionally defiant -- individual who spent an hour fielding questions on Tuesday.
His current team was at the top, yet he was waking up every morning and going to bed every night, Browner told me, thinking about what he was missing out on, and what was to come. At this point in 2014, Browner's league discipline stipulated he would not be reinstated in time for the start of free agency, which was just ahead in March, with him facing at least a year on the sideline.
The league was clinging to its argument that missed drug tests from long ago had pushed Browner into a deep stage of the substance abuse program he was not even aware of, and thus a recent failed test resulted in such stern consequences. Browner was steadfast he never was notified of those tests while out of the NFL for an extended period of time, including a stint in the CFL. During Super Bowl week last year he and Schaffer were talking daily about their looming legal fight, preparing briefs and searching for ways to keep his NFL career alive.
"It's just something that motivates me in life, period," Browner told me during media day last year. "You don't want to go out this way, when something you have worked so hard to achieve is taken away from you."
Few know exactly what went into making Tuesday -- a day of redemption for Browner -- possible, with the persistence of his legal team and negotiations with the league resulting in his conditional reinstatement last March, a week before the start of free agency. Browner still would have to miss the first four games of the 2014 season, but New England and Bill Belichick were undeterred, seeing a big, physical man corner who would be paired with Darrelle Revis to transform their secondary, signing him to a three-year, $17M deal. And the Patriots' defensive improvement is no small factor in them reaching this game.
Last February was long and trying for the corner, watching is teammates destroy Peyton Manning and Denver in the Super Bowl, and then continuing his legal fight with the league. Schaffer, who handled the bulk of the work himself with the NFLPA also involved, estimates he put in hundreds of hours on the case, researching non-sports cases which involved collectively-bargained discipline being imposed on an employee for actions occurring at times when he was not working for that entity.
"We were grinding all of January and February," Schaffer said. "That's when it was getting really serious. I had drafted the complaint and I informed the league I was going to go through with it. We were not going to back down. We were going to the mat. He was being suspended for something he didn't do as an employee of the NFL, and Brandon was behind me the entire time."
Schaffer was prepared to file the case in a federal court near his home in Denver -- Colorado is one of the more marijuana-friendly states in the country -- on the Monday after he got back from the combine in Indianapolis last February. Talks between the NFL and Browner's reps were heating up and at one point, sources said, the NFL offered to shorten the suspension to eight games, which would allow the player to not sign with a team until November.
Schaffer would not speak to the specifics of any prior deals that were discussed, but was adamant he would not agree to anything that did not allow Browner the opportunity to begin reclaiming lost wages and signing with a new team at the start of free agency in March. With age 30 looming, and the NFL threatening to take another year off his career, not being able to hit the market until the middle of the season would have restricted Browner's options and his earning potential.
Schaffer got a call from the NFL's legal team while at the combine, and the sides ended up making headway toward the agreement. "Like any negotiation, there is give and take," Schaffer said. "I would have loved to be able to work out a deal that didn't include a four-game suspension but both sides had to be willing to compromise."
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"There was a lot going on behind the scenes," Browner said, "and that's what my attorney and agent are for, and they did a great job for me at a time when I didn't know what my future held."
Browner referred to Schaffer as "a great guy," and said his counsel was vital to the entire process. "I felt very comfortable with the feedback he was giving me," Browner said.
Alas, Browner's first true media day experience was spent facing many more questions about some of his recent comments than his more distant past. Browner's recent remarks during a television interview alluding to the injuries suffered by Seahawks defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, and how he would tell his Patriots teammates, "Try to break it if you can," created quite the stir. With him meeting the media for the first time during Super Bowl, some began yelling questions to him before the music had stopped blaring and the session officially began.
Browner repeatedly referred to Sherman and other Seahawks as "my brothers," and admitted when he made those comments in the interview "at the time I felt like it was the right thing to say." He stressed that it is all done out of the hyper-competitive nature that helped make The Legion of Boom so great and that Sherman even texted him "LOL" after the interview aired. "There's no hard feelings," Browner said. "He knows exactly what it is."
Sherman said Browner "is still a great friend of mine and we wish him nothing but the best." A year ago at this time Thomas, Sherman and Kam Chancellor were among those calling and texting Browner, trying to help him stay positive at such a trying time. Now they get to talk smack ahead of the biggest sporting event on the American calendar, with Browner perhaps about to collect a second straight Super Bowl ring, only this one with the Patriots' crest and logo encrusted with diamonds, while his friends on the other sideline go for a Lombardi Trophy repeat.
"We're all competitors, we all want to win," Chancellor said. "We all have a thirst for winning ... I don't know about breaking someone's arm, but like I said, bless his heart. Bless his heart. I love Browner."