From even before he was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers to the very end, wide receiver Antonio Brown was always a part of the exception. And over the course of time, he came to hold the belief of exceptionalism in himself.
That’s how you actually use the word in a sentence, of course. Exceptionalism is an idea. It is the belief that you are exceptional, set apart from the rest, superior. Brown certainly holds himself to be exceptional, and has decided that in virtually every walk of his life, it is necessary that he be treated in that fashion.
And he has been since he’s been with the Steelers. Because he has also been exceptional. Buried on the depth chart as a rookie behind Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antwaan Randle El, and Emmanuel Sanders, Brown was inactive for the season opener, but returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in week two.
He would only catch 16 passes for 167 yards as a rookie, but made big plays in a postseason run that led to a Super Bowl appearance, and broke out in year two, his abilities forcing the Steelers to give him playing time.
He became the first and only player in NFL history that year to record 1000 yards both as a receiver and as a return man, making the Pro Bowl that year for the first time as a return specialist. His cleats from that season were put into the Hall of Fame.
The Steelers—and Ben Roethlisberger—believed so much in his abilities that when talks broke down with Wallace to make him the highest-paid wide receiver at the time, they were prepared to make Brown their future instead as he entered the starting lineup on a full-time basis in 2012.
That was not a great year for him, posting just 787 yards and five touchdowns, also missing three games due to injury, but that would represent the ‘low’ point of his starting career, because he embarked on an ongoing historic run from that point forward.
The lowest marks for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns that he would hit over the course of the next six seasons: 101, 1284, and 9. From 2013 through 2018, he would average 114 receptions for 1524 yards and 11 touchdowns. Average! Incredible!
It’s impossible to deny the exceptional talent and the exceptional football player that Brown has turned himself into through an immense amount of hard work. All the accolades that he gets for what he does on the field are certainly deserved.
As I will look at in a companion piece tomorrow, however, that exceptional ability and production led to the Steelers treating Brown in a very exceptional way—and led to the exceptionalism in which Brown now holds himself, causing the organization not just to look bad publicly, but to break with their historical precedents to which they greedily cling.