TAMPA — Linebacker Richie Brown joins the Bucs this week as an undrafted rookie free agent, which means that despite leading Mississippi State in tackles each of the past two years, he faces tough odds to make Tampa Bay's final 53-man roster.
But if that seems like adversity, consider the last time he called the Tampa Bay area home.
Brown was 11, in the sixth grade, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family's home in Long Beach, Miss., forcing them to relocate to live with family in Florida. At first they stayed in Cocoa Beach, then they spent five months in Wesley Chapel before returning home, where they've lived since.
"It was a tough time, but it was nice to have some family in Tampa," he said. "Tampa was home for a little while, and we've always made trips to visit my (aunt). It's the closest thing to a second home of anywhere I could play."
Brown, 23, was passed over in last weekend's NFL draft and given the chance to choose from several teams trying to sign him. He got $15,000 guaranteed from he Bucs — high for an undrafted rookie — and what he thought was his best chance to make a 53-man roster, as six undrafted rookies did for Dirk Koetter's team last year.
"A few different reasons calculated into the decision," said Brown, who liked linebackers coach Mark Duffner, thought he fit well in the defensive scheme and liked the "depth-chart potential" that Tampa Bay presented.
His father, Richard, had seen that decision coming more than a decade earlier.
He can remember driving past Raymond James Stadium during their time here and pointing it out to his son, who was already playing youth football at the time. One day they pulled over to let Richie and a friend play on the grass lots north of the stadium.
"I looked over and said, 'Hey, buddy, that's where the Buccaneers play. You might be playing there one day,' " recalled Richard, who works as a senior scientist at Stennis Space Center, a NASA rocket testing facility in Mississippi. "He said, 'Whatever,' kept running around and throwing the football.
"But when we'd drive by, I'd still mention it to him: 'Pretty cool stadium there. You might play there one day. It comes with its own pirate ship.' "
In the past six months, Brown seemed destined to play football in the bay area. His final college game came in December at Tropicana Field, as Mississippi State beat Miami (Ohio) 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Brown came up with a team-high nine tackles, a fumble recovery and a key pass breakup on a fourth down in the fourth quarter as the Bulldogs held a one-point lead.
A month later, he was back playing in the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana, and again his family was able to see him play in person.
Brown topped 100 tackles in each of his last two seasons and has good size at 6 feet 2 and 234 pounds, but his smarts also play a role in his football success.
"I'd like to think I can anticipate pretty well, that I'm a pretty knowledgeable football player," said Brown, who graduated last year with a degree in industrial technology. "I always know my playbook pretty well, so I've been able to run the defense, make checks, make calls and make a lot of plays."
Brown will return to Tampa for this week's rookie minicamp, the first step toward training camp and preseason games as one of three undrafted linebackers, each trying to make their stay here last as long as possible.
"I feel great. I'm excited," he said. "I'm ready to get back to some football."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.