COVINGTON, Ga. — Jamari Brown was a bit fidgety, and somewhat nervous, as he sat behind a long table with a single file row of 15 tent cards that extended from one end to the other.
On those cards were the names of 15 Division I colleges who’d offered the 6-foot-2, 180 pound defensive back and wide receiver from Eastside an opportunity to play college football.
Those names encapsulated the entire landscape of the sport. From mid-majors like Ball State and Bowling Green to service academies such as Navy and even Power Five schools like Tennessee and Pitt.
What was more, Brown was sitting in a large room filled with at least 100 fellow classmates, students, teammates, coaches, family and friends, all waiting with bated breath to see which school he’d choose.
Brown has made no bones about the stress of, not just the moment, but the process in general. And he was admittedly ready to get over with. So after Eastside head coach Troy Hoff, defensive backs coach Erik McMillian and wide receivers coach Frankie Iverson lauded Brown for his athletic and academic achievements, Brown grabbed the microphone, gave his thanks and finally took the big load off his shoulders.
He reached into a white plastic bag, pulled out a white hat and slipped it on his head, revealing that Gardner-Webb was the winner of the Jamari Brown sweepstakes.
Then he cracked a smile that melted the nerves away. And as the applause and congratulations came, the smile got bigger. Slowly but surely, Brown made his way back to his gregarious, easy-going self. And that had everything to do with him finally putting his recruiting journey to bed.
“I’m super relieved,” Brown said. “All the weight just fell off my shoulders now. The recruiting process was kind of stressful for the last two to three weeks, but I felt like the decision I made was best for me and my family, and that’s really all that matters to me right.”
Brown’s decision came after stints of commitments to South Florida and Florida A&M, as he once had dreams of returning to his native Florida for college. After decommitting from Florida A&M, he picked up opportunities at Tennessee and Mercer. In fact, those two schools joined Gardner-Webb as Brown’s top three.
But he said he’s got the best of both worlds with the Bulldogs in that he’ll be able to play in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and have the chance to contribute immediately.
“It really felt like home going to Gardner-Webb,” Brown said. “I can play both sides of the ball, and play right now and get a great education. All of that builds me up to having a great future. When I took the trip there, I just fell in love with it and I felt at ease. That following Monday after the visit, people came to me and said, ‘Do you want another visit,’ and I said no. This is the place I want to go and be for the next three to four years.”
Brown will carry with him a lengthy array of accomplishments and accolades, from AJC all-state to Georgia Sportswriters Association Class AAAA defensive player of the year. And not only does Hoff, Brown’s head coach in high school, feel like those accolades are rightfully earned, he believes it speaks to the kind of player he is and can be.
“I think he’s got a high ceiling because he’s got a lot of versatility,” Hoff said. “Today, coaches are looking for guys to come on the next level that aren’t pegged into one spot. The way defense is played nowadays, you’re looking for a lot of hybrid players. Guys who are comfortable playing in space, but can still tackle and be physical. And obviously, Jamari can attack the football. He’s got excellent ball skills, and that’s an excellent combination to have when you’re talking about this day and age in football. I think he’s got a lot of opportunities in the (defensive) backfield.”
Brown made the most of his opportunities in 2018 on both sides of the ball for an Eastside team that won its first region championship in nine years and became the first ever Newton County football team to finish a regular season undefeated. The Eagles’ lone loss came in the Class AAAA quarterfinals to eventual state champion Blessed Trinity.
Brown had 26 catches for 372 receiving yards and six touchdowns while registering 81 total tackles on defense, including 46 solo stops, nine for losses, a quarterback sack and hurry. Because he snagged five interceptions during a breakout junior year, opposing quarterbacks shied away from throwing in his direction.
Still he had one interception, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries on his way to being named the Georgia Sportswriters Association (among others) Class AAAA defensive player of the year.
But Hoff says all of that only is possible because of the kind of effort Brown put into his career on the field and in the classroom.
“We’re really proud of him, because we realize all these things happened to him because he worked hard,” Hoff said. “That’s the number one thing we look at with him. His work ethic transcends athletics. He’s done a great job in the classroom, a great job on the field as a leader, and that all stems from how hard he works. None of this comes to you unless you’re working hard.”
Brown carries a 3.8 grade point average and plans to major in criminal justice and forensic psychology at Gardner-Webb. He knows that for all he’s accomplished, it’s going to take a different level of work to achieve on the collegiate level. But he credits Eastside as a school and football program for equipping him with the tools to make that happen.
“Being here has really built me into a better man. It really did,” Brown said. “It prepared me to handle big off-the-field and on-the-field tasks. And I became a better person on and off the field because of Eastside, this coaching staff and everybody here.”