The Cautionary Tale Of Antonio Brown’s Downfall


Antonio Brown as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. | Photo Credit: Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

Antonio Brown was one of the best wide receivers the National Football League had ever seen.

Over the course of his career, he led the entire NFL twice in receptions (2014 and 2015) and twice in receiving yards (2014 and 2017), as well as seven Pro Bowl honors, including a six year streak from 2013 to 2018, and a four straight First Team All-Pro from 2014 to 2017. His talents even got him on the NFL’s 2010s All Decade Team. 

An absolutely incredible career for the former 6th round pick by the Steelers.

But, many nowadays will not remember Brown for the show stopping talent he displayed for years. Instead, he might be best remembered for tearing off his equipment and pads and launching them into the crowd before running off the field in the middle of a Buccaneers-Jets game. 

Or being released by the Oakland Raiders before even playing a game for them. 

Or his trolling of Tom Brady during and after Brady’s divorce with his wife Gisele Bündchen. 

Or, most recently, the warrant out for his arrest

But how did Brown, beloved by Steelers fans and forever a part of Pittsburgh, get to where he is today? How did things get this bad?

Antonio Brown was drafted 195th overall back in 2010 by the Steelers, who used a pick acquired from Arizona. After competing for a spot in training camp, Brown was named the 5th wide receiver on Pittsburgh’s depth chart. 

Brown finished his rookie regular season with 16 receptions for 167 yards in 10 games at WR, but had some big moments come playoff time. He caught a 58 yard pass to set up the game-winning touchdown in the AFC Divisional Round and caught a 14 yard pass to seal the AFC Championship and send Pittsburgh to Super Bowl XLV. 

Brown progressed massively in his sophomore season as the third WR on the depth chart, finishing the 2011 season with 69 catches for 1,108 yards. Brown also became the first player in NFL history to record more than 1,000 yards rushing and returning. 

By 2012 Brown, or AB as he came to be known to some, had a shiny new contract, and 2013 was a starting wide receiver for the Steelers, setting new records as he went. 

Brown broke Yancey Thigpen’s single-season team record of receiving yards, which was set in 1997. He also became the second player in franchise history to amass 100 receptions in a season joining Heinz Ward, and also became the first player in NFL history to record at least 5 catches and 50 yards in every game of an NFL season. 

Brown opened up the 2014 season with one of his most memorable moments as a Steeler: while returning a punt Brown kicked the Cleveland punter square in the face mask. Brown was fined and later apologized, but the moment became quite the spectacle for Steelers fans. The 2014 season would end up being one of Brown’s best, as he led the Steelers in receptions and receiving yards, with 129 and 1,698, respectively, and was tied for second on the team in touchdowns, with 13, all of which were team records. 

AB led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards in 2014, the first of two times he would achieve both of those feats. 

The following season, In a playoff game against Cincinnati, Bengals player Vontaze Burfict laid out a brutal headshot on Brown with seconds left in the game. Brown was knocked out cold, and did not return, soon after being diagnosed with a concussion. 

Brown with the Steelers in 2017. | Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE, is a progressive brain condition that is believed to be caused by repeated hits or blows to the head. American football is one of the most dangerous sports for the brain, with constant collisions and hits to the head possible at all times. 

But we’ll get more to the CTE theory later on. 

Brown also had a controversy in the playoffs that year: after winning the Divisional Round, Brown live streamed a celebration on Facebook Live. While choosing Facebook Live to stream a celebration might be the biggest problem of this story, the live stream caught Mike Tomlin calling their upcoming opponent, the New England Patriots, “assholes.” The fiasco caused major controversy for Brown and the team. 

After the 2016 season, the Steelers signed Brown to a 5 year extension, which made him the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL. He followed that up with another amazing season in 2017, the second time he had led the NFL in receiving yards. 

And then there was 2018…

This is what many would consider the beginning of an intense and chaotic downhill spiral to Brown’s career. 

Prior to the start of the 2018 season, Brown faced a lawsuit stemming from an incident in April of 2018, when he allegedly tossed furniture from the balcony of his 14th story South Florida apartment, nearly striking a 2 year old child on the pool deck below. The lawsuit would end in a settlement a year later. 

Two weeks into the season, Brown had threatened reporter Jesse Washington in a tweet after Washington had published a piece focusing on Brown’s social media use. Brown apologized days later. Brown was also cited for speeding over 100 miles per hour on McKnight Road mid-season.

The situation between Brown and the Steelers was growing more and more contentious by the day, even as the Steelers jumped out to a 7-2-1 start to the season. It was rumored that Brown was jealous of the amount of catches that second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was getting, a theory that would later be supported by the report that Brown was frustrated and miffed by the Steelers’ players decision to name JuJu their 2018 MVP. 

To say that AB had a tumultuous end to his relationship with the Steelers might be the understatement of the year. His final game as a Steeler came on December 23, 2018, in New Orleans to take on the Saints in a game the Steelers desperately needed to win in Week 16. In his final outing in black and yellow, Brown had 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. 

Unfortunately, a fumble with seconds left in the game by Pittsburgh would end the contest, resulting in a Saints win. The next week would doom Brown’s relations with the Steelers. 

After getting into an argument with Ben Roethlisberger, Brown had skipped multiple practices in the week leading up to Pittsburgh’s game against the Bengals, a must-win game for the Steelers to make the playoffs. AB skipped the team’s Saturday walk-through and team meeting, yet showed up to Heinz Field on Sunday expecting to play. Instead, he was benched, and left the game at halftime, having never taken the field. 

Brown continued to burn bridges in Pittsburgh (all 446 of them), and his situation with the Steelers ultimately entered the point of no return. 

In February of 2019, after the season, he publicly requested a trade, and after nixing a deal to the Buffalo Bills, was traded to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd and 5th round pick. 

Brown as a Raider. | Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after the trade, Brown would also publicly call out JuJu for the fumble in the Saints game, the first of several times he would attack his former teammate.

Before training camp, Brown had a gaffe while undergoing cryotherapy that resulted in him getting frostbite on his feet, which would keep him out of a majority of training camp. 

In August of 2019, Brown filed a grievance in order to keep wearing his current helmet, which the NFL had now banned for safety protocol. Brown was so adamant about the helmet he threatened to retire from pro football if he was not allowed to wear his helmet. Arbitrators twice denied his requests, but eventually Brown decided on a new helmet to wear. 

A month later, after being fined $54,000 for unexcused absences and missing team meetings, Brown eventually had a confrontation with Raiders GM Mike Mayock, in which Brown had reportedly threatened to hit him and had to be held back by teammates. 

A few days later, Brown apologized for his actions and declared he was ready to play and be there for his teammates, and showed that new-found commitment to his team by demanding to be released by the Raiders 24 hours later, after Oakland had voided the guaranteed money in his contract for conduct detrimental to the team. 

Brown in New England. | Photo Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Brown was released and signed by the New England Patriots the same day, where he would spend the next…two weeks. Brown made his season debut for the Patriots in Week 2, catching 4 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in a 43-0 thrashing of the Dolphins, despite recent accusations of sexual assault. Further allegations piled up and his time with New England came to an end, with the Patriots cutting Brown on September 20th.

He spent the rest of the season without a team, and flirted with retirement in the offseason, but ultimately decided against it, expressing interest in still playing, however he was suspended for the first eight weeks of the following season for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.

Brown with Tampa Bay. | Photo Credit: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

After the suspension, he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, reuniting with Tom Brady, and joined their second half push and eventual Super Bowl victory, making AB a Super Bowl champion. 

The following season Brown also spent in Tampa, but was suspended for three games for submitting a fake Covid-19 vaccination card to the league. 

Shortly after, we reach perhaps the most infamous moment of Brown’s career:

In the third quarter of a game against the New York Jets, Brown was on the sideline when he took off his jersey and pads, tossing some of his equipment into the stands before running off the field mid-play. 

The bizarre scene created a flurry of coverage, with sports shows dedicating entire segments to the wildfire-like spread of related memes with the image of Brown running off the field. In a post-game press conference, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said Brown was no longer a member of the team, and later on Arians had said about Brown’s meltdown “[I have] never seen anything like it in all my years.”

Brown would soon after allege that the Buccaneers had engaged in a cover up of his injuries, but that would be the last time he would step foot on the football field. 

Since his exit from the Buccaneers, Brown has only been embroiled in further controversy and trouble, with recent incidents including a video surfacing of him exposing himself in a pool in Dubai, and most recently, being served an arrest warrant on domestic violence charges. 

His problematic antics have also included a heavy amount of trolling his former teammate Tom Brady. Such instances include selling t-shirts that have a picture of Brown and Tom Brady’s now ex-wife Gisele Bündchen hugging, shortly after news had broke that Brady and Bündchen were getting a divorce. He has also trolled Brady with several other tweets and other pictures as well. 

The move to attack and troll Brady, a man who quite literally opened his home to Brown, was widely criticized and questioned by the public eye, but had become yet another bridge AB had burned.

But now we come to the real question: what happened?

Surely all of this erratic and concerning behavior has to be caused by something, right?

A leading theory is that CTE, caused by repeated hits to the head and concussions, is a major factor in the shift of Antonio Brown’s persona. American football is one of the most dangerous sports for the brain, and one of the most typical symptoms of CTE is changes in mood and frequent mood swings. 

People suffering from CTE may also experience violent outbursts and increased frustration, as well as a lack of interest in things they previously cared about. 

With all of AB’s outbursts over his career, most coming in the latter years, combined with his contemplating retirement multiple times, and frustration with multiple teams and situations, the case can absolutely be made that Brown is suffering from CTE. 

It’s also important to note that CTE symptoms typically do not reveal themselves right away, as it can often take years for traits of CTE to be noticeable after the brain injuries first occur. 

Among those who believe the CTE theory about Brown, many may point to that 2015 Burfict shot he took, and how the real changes and effects began to take place a few years later. 

Brown also played high school and college football, meaning a lot of wear and tear and undoubtedly other hits he sustained before NFL play. 

If it’s true that CTE has led Brown to where he is today, his life and career is a very cautionary tale of what head hits and brain damage can do to a person. It’s a tale of how one of the best players in the league can spiral so far and so fast. 

I am not a doctor, but the evidence shows that there is credibility to the theory that Brown is suffering from CTE.

Even with the validity of the CTE theory, it would be impossible to prove, as CTE cannot currently be diagnosed in someone while they are alive

However, not everyone subscribes to the CTE theory for Brown. 

Another theory is that Brown’s personality was always like this, and with more fame and money, that part of him that was at one point hidden at grown to see more and more light. 

Former Steeler Ryan Clark in 2018 shared a story from when he and Brown were teammates back in 2012.  Clark asserted that he and Brown had a disagreement in practice (the day that Brown had signed a 5 year, $42.5 million contract) and that Brown had screamed at then-Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and at Steelers defensive players during practice, saying “don’t touch me, I’m the franchise.”

Clark also recalled that at the time of the signing saying “When you give him money, you’re going to create a monster.”

Clark and Brown would have the chance to meet again years later, when Clark hosted Brown on “The Pivot Podcast,” where Clark first apologized to Brown for not reaching out to him before criticizing him.

At around the 51 minute mark of the podcast, Brown and Clark discuss the infamous 2012 practice, in which at one point Brown claims that other players on the team, particularly veteran players like Clark, were jealous of Brown and the amount of money he was set to make and the fame he was getting, particularly at his young age. 

Clark replies that “Antonio Brown is full of shit,” and disputes the fact that players on the team were jealous of AB’s money, and later says that he was right when he said that the money would change Brown.

The conversation was mostly calm and did serve as a space for both guys to share their side, despite the fact they maintain disputing stories. 

Antonio Brown’s stats on the field are Hall of Fame level, but the sheer number and intensity of his off the field problems cannot be ignored. If it is true that brain damage from football has impacted him severely, he is certainly not alone, but the story of his career might be one of the most influential, far reaching, and can spark conversations for change around the league.