A few months ago, Ben Brown was one of roughly 1,000 highlight tapes of longshot prospects stacked in John Dorsey's office at Lambeau Field.
Dorsey, the Packers' director of college scouting, said of those 1,000 tapes he receives each year, only one player every three or four seasons is signed coming into training camp.
So far, Brown has beaten those odds.
This week the Packers signed Brown, a 6-foot-1, 246-pound fullback from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., as a nondrafted free agent after he took part in the team's first mini-camp on a tryout basis.
Brown is still a long way from achieving his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL, but he's already made it farther than most with his background could ever imagine.
"We wanted to see if the NFL was too big for him, and he fit right in," Dorsey said. "It wasn't too big for him at all.
"He's got great odds to overcome, so does he have the perseverance to do this? Time will tell."
Sticking with it
If anyone has the perseverance, it may be Brown, who has never lost sight of his dream.
Not when academic eligibility issues coming out of high school steered him toward a junior college in Bakersfield, Calif., rather than Division I schools such as Fresno State and UCLA that were recruiting him.
Not when the birth of his daughter forced him away from football for three years to support his family by working two or three jobs at a time.
And not when a two-year return to football at Tabor, an NAIA school, produced virtually no interest in him as a pro prospect.
Brown's route to the NFL has been unorthodox, for sure. But to grasp how he has kept his seemingly impossible dream alive, it helps to understand the personal qualities that have guided him through the tough times.
Brown learned at a young age the importance of doing what is best for the family, having watched his father join the U.S. Army in his early 30s to provide for Brown's mother and siblings.
So it was only right for Brown to step away from football after two successful years at Bakersfield College to bag groceries, stock shelves at Toys-R-Us, or work overnight security to support his wife and newborn daughter, even if it meant putting the NFL dream on hold temporarily.
"I saw myself in the same situation my father was in, and I related to him," Brown said. "I respect that he could do that, and it helped me get through what I had to get through, too."
It also made him more determined to give his family a better life, and in three years away from football he continued to work out whenever he could. Sometimes it was at 2 a.m. after working a double shift, or at the crack of dawn after all-night security detail.
Unwavering faith and love of the game
The time away from football working dead-end jobs and trying to stay in shape made Brown think long and hard.
"Struggling and not being able to support my family the way I wanted to ... I realized, something has to change, this is not working," he said. "We were at the end of the road and didn't know what to do."
His thoughts kept coming back to football, because it was the one thing he knew he always wanted to pursue. To Brown, the harder it seemed to achieve, the stronger he felt about his dream.
"It's something God put in me to do," Brown sad. "That's why I'm so deep in my faith. Once I realized that, everything started clicking."
So Brown took a friend up on his suggestion to check out Tabor College, where he displayed an intense desire to maximize on his opportunity from the moment he met head coach Mike Gardner.
Brown left an indelible first impression during his recruiting visit.
"We had other recruits on campus, and he was so excited about going back to school and having a chance to play that he was helping us recruit other kids in the lunchroom before he had officially signed," said Gardner, now the head coach at Malone College in Canton, Ohio. "I'm never going to forget that."
Gardner also won't soon forget Brown's contributions to Tabor's school-best 11-1 record in 2005. But Brown's numbers, which included 507 yards rushing, 304 yards receiving, and five touchdowns in 12 games last season, don't tell the whole story.
"He could have played tailback for us and had 1,000 yards rushing, but we needed a fullback, so his statistics weren't truly the measure of what he could do," Gardner said. "He's the ultimate team guy."
In watching Brown's highlight video, Dorsey saw all the attributes he needed to - speed, strength, and blocking and catching ability.
He also felt Brown was a "man amongst boys" in the NAIA.
It was enough to warrant seeing him work out while in Kansas on a scouting trip, and by staying in touch with Brown via phone and e-mail, Dorsey could appreciate that Brown's values, faith and passion for football were genuine.
"He was a tremendous kid," Dorsey said. "It's always 'Yes, sir' or 'No, sir' and he's a deeply spiritual kid. You could see the look of determination in his eyes, and I like guys like that."
Dorsey has advised Brown to trim his weight to 240 pounds to make him naturally quicker in the Packers' new offensive scheme, which doesn't require the bulldozing fullback of years past.
Brown, who received his invite to the first mini-camp just a few hours after the draft, hopes to continue displaying his hustle and knowledge of the offense at the next mini-camp, May 19-21.
"I want to show that even though I came from a small school where everything was pretty basic, that I can learn the plays quickly and adapt to their system," he said. "I'm prepared for anything they're willing to throw at me."
Destined to make it?
In the letter he sent to Dorsey that accompanied his highlight tape, Brown said he is "destined to play professional football." A bold statement perhaps, but he could be on to something.
Through his contact with Gardner during the scouting process, Dorsey learned that his father-in-law and Gardner's father grew up together in Abilene, Kan., about an hour's drive from Tabor College in Hillsboro.
Whether that's a hint of destiny in the works or simply a coincidence may be determined in time, but either way, it will be interesting to see if Brown's story continues to evolve into the fruitful discovery of a complete unknown.
"My job is to make sure I turn every stone over, and that's what I stress to all the scouts that do this," Dorsey said. "This happens to be another example of turning over those stones."
One that is determined to prove he's a hidden gem, no matter the odds against him.
"To be with a team now and to be in Green Bay, I am closer than I ever have been before," Brown said. "I can't say, 'I don't know if I'm going to make it.' I'm going to make it. I have to. I've made it this far."