A quick overview of Ted Thompson's draft class coming out of the 2017 draft. (May 2, 2017) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – Three years ago, Donatello Brown was toiling at dead-end jobs, flipping burgers and working on cars while wondering what happened to his once-promising football career.
So when the undrafted free-agent cornerback gazed around the Green Bay Packers’ locker room during rookie orientation camp and said he felt “blessed for the opportunity,” he was speaking from the heart.
Brown, who signed with Green Bay in April after three years as a starter for Division II Valdosta State, knows the Packers have a history of keeping undrafted rookie corners. Two – Makinton Dorleant and Josh Hawkins – made the opening 53-man roster last season.
“It’s definitely a passing league now so you have to have multiple corners who are going to be able to guard those top receivers,” said Brown, who’s well aware the Packers spent their first 2017 draft pick on Washington cornerback Kevin King and their top two 2015 picks on Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
If the odds still seem long, given that Brown sat out for two years after being declared academically ineligible in 2011 and is already 25 years old, they’re certainly better than they were when he was bounced from school and scrambling just to make ends meet.
That was when Brown found himself serving up fast food at Smashburger and Little Caesars and working as an auto mechanic’s assistant in Atlanta. It was a humbling but eye-opening experience.
“I hated it,” Brown said. “My family wasn’t happy with me, I wasn’t happy with myself. Just all-around disappointed because of the way I messed up my opportunity.”
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Brown credits Seth Wallace, his position coach at Valdosta who helped recruit him to the southern Georgia school, with giving him new life. Wallace and other members of the Valdosta staff remained in frequent contact with Brown and provided the encouragement he needed to return to school and get his life back on track.
”The rug was pulled out from under him, and that killed him,” said Wallace, now a linebackers coach at Iowa. “I think he did whatever he could to survive. There wasn’t a lot there for him.
“I think reality sunk in when he was changing tires or working on cars or serving sandwiches or burgers. I think he always in the back of his mind knew he could do it and it was something that internally had to change for him.”
Brown returned to Valdosta State in 2014 and became a team leader on defense, making 45 tackles and three interceptions over his final three seasons.
“To the kid’s credit, he grew up, he matured and he took advantage of his second chance,” said Wallace, referencing an “unfortunate background” that he said Brown had to overcome during a hardscrabble youth growing up near Miami and then Atlanta. “And here he sits with an opportunity he would’ve dreamed of as a little kid. To go through the emotions of having college football taken away from him … here he sits six years later with the opportunity to play in the National Football League.”
Helping to make the NFL a possibility for Brown are some solid measurables (5-11 1/2, 190 pounds, 4.50 in the 40-yard dash) and an aggressive mindset.
“Physical, competitive … just a very physical style of play, and someone who trusts in their ability and believes in themselves,” Brown said. “You’ve got to have confidence at corner.”
Bubba Walker, who was Valdosta's defensive coordinator for two seasons, said Brown demonstrated clear NFL potential.
"He was a very good man-coverage guy because of his athleticism and the ability to move his feet," Walker said. "Being so tall and playing those deep balls, it was hard to get it over him."
Brown said it’s important to “respect receivers” and study their film to learn tendencies and find ways to limit their effectiveness.
“Studying receivers and trying to be a student of the game has all come with the maturity and growth that he has gained over the last few years,” Wallace said.
Needless to say, Brown’s learning curve got ramped up during a three-day rookie orientation last weekend spent with Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt.
“He’s not going to sugar-coat nothing,” Brown said. “He’s going to tell you what you’re doing wrong and try to make you a better player. I really loved coach Whitt this first weekend, and I can’t wait to get back here and learn the playbook even more.”