Donnell Brown trotted onto the forest green turf at Ohio Stadium, seeing, hearing and feeling an environment nothing like he’d ever experienced before.
The stadium was filled with nearly 105,000 fans, a slight uptick from the usual 1,500 attendees at St. Francis (Pa.) home games, where Brown spent his previous four seasons of college football.
“When I was at St. Francis, I never visualized myself actually [playing Ohio State],” Brown said. “I felt like I was watching on TV.”
Brown certainly didn’t play like a bystander.
On a third-and-16 in the first quarter, Brown bounced off an Ohio State lineman, grabbed quarterback Kyle McCord by his right shoulder pad and flung him to the ground. As Brown flexed toward a sea of scarlet-clad fans to celebrate his first sack of the season, a small meeting room nearly 270 miles away erupted with cheer.
St. Francis, an FCS program, was on a bye. Defensive linemen on the team spent their free Saturday watching their former teammate play the biggest game of his life.
“I think our guys still look up to him,” St. Francis defensive line coach Thomas Rogish said of Brown. “He set the standard that we will accept nothing but what he has been able to bring to the table.”
Those feelings are reciprocated by Brown, who considers his St. Francis teammates family and Rogish a second grandfather.
“Once somebody is like real invested in you, then … you’d do anything for them,” Brown said.
St. Francis was the only school to believe in Brown coming out of high school. He had no choice but to return the favor.
Brown began his high school football career on Riverdale Baptist’s junior varsity team, where he made an impact at multiple positions. However, as has been a theme throughout Brown’s football life, he capitalized when given a chance as an edge rusher.
As a sophomore, Brown unexpectedly found himself on the field for a varsity game against Bishop McNamara, lined up against former Terp and current Pittsburgh Steeler Spencer Anderson.
He recorded two sacks against one of the state’s best offensive linemen, earning himself a spot on varsity for the rest of the year.
“I wouldn’t say that I was always like the best player on the field … but I always just lasted longer,” he said. “The work you put in is always gonna show up later.”
Being a 6-foot-3, 235-pound sophomore, Division I programs took notice. A verbal offer from Kentucky turned heads and jumpstarted Brown’s recruiting process.
Soon after, he took visits to big-name schools like Penn State, Virginia Tech and Maryland. Brown always made sure to bring his high school teammates along, hoping the visibility would get them an offer as well.
“Donnell gonna crack the door open and let everybody else run through,” Brown’s father, Alex, said.
Despite the visits, Brown was not offered a scholarship, one reason being the weight he shedded playing basketball. While it stung, it also fueled his desire to succeed. Not pursuing football was never an option, and Brown intended to make the most of every opportunity.
Brown chose the only place fully committed to him — St. Francis — and moved away from home, ready to prove himself yet again.
“Everybody else like, they kind of faded back or they were trying to offer me half-scholarships,” Brown said. “But [St. Francis] said, ‘Nah we want you. We’re gonna give you the full scholarship. We’re gonna rock with you.’”
Playing time did not come immediately for Brown, who arrived on campus last on the depth chart. St. Francis almost always redshirts its true freshmen, and Brown was no different. It didn’t matter that he was dominating on the practice field.
“He didn’t like it at all, but lived with the idea that this is the way it’s gonna be,” Rogish said. “He played on the scout team a lot against our varsities and everything, and, gosh, they couldn’t get plays off whenever he was in there.”
His patience was tested yet again when St. Francis elected to forgo his sophomore season due to COVID-19. But it turned into a lesson for Brown. He no longer looked at St. Francis as a pipeline to the FBS; he wanted to cherish every moment.
“You’re not gonna be here forever,” Brown remembers telling himself, “... so you gotta make an impact while you’re here now.”
He never stopped training during the two-year hiatus. Once he was finally unleashed onto the field, Brown wreaked havoc.
As a redshirt freshman, Brown recorded 46 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and one forced fumble, earning a spot on the All-NEC second team.
In 2022, Brown was named NEC Defensive Player of the Year, leading St. Francis to its first league championship since 2016. He tallied 48 total tackles, a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and two touchdowns.
“We was always close to getting it. It’s like here at Maryland, where we might start fast, we might not finish strong. We really wanted it, but we just didn’t end up on the other side,” Brown said. “And then last year, we really set ourselves apart because we actually bought in and did the little things … Everybody was just trying to work together to one common goal.”
“He was a dominator. He was a man playing with boys at times,” Rogish said. “And the nice thing is, he was humble as heck … [he never said], ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me.’ He was always a team player.”
Brown’s impressive play meant he had a decision to make: stay at St. Francis or continue to chase his dream elsewhere. After weeks of inner conflict, Brown ultimately chose the latter.
“You gotta take opportunities when it’s time, because this is my redshirt junior year, so I ain’t had that much time to keep messing around trying to keep building an empire at St. Francis,” Brown said.
When it came time to choose his next home, Brown picked a school that passed on him the first time around. He knew Maryland needed players like him.
Just like he did before, Brown made the leap to the next level look effortless.
In nine games, he has two interceptions and two forced fumbles for Maryland, recording a sack in three of the last four games.
“I think you’re starting to see the skill that we expected, and he’s become a guy that people have to gameplan with,” Maryland head coach Mike Locksley said. “Yes, he played on the FCS level, but as I’ve found, there’s a ton of players that played FCS football that have the ability as they develop.”
It’s rare for FCS players to transfer into the Big Ten. More than 1,000 FCS players entered the transfer portal this past offseason and only 16 cracked a Big Ten roster.
It’s even rarer for someone to match Brown’s production.
Playing professionally is Brown’s ultimate goal, but he’s only concerned with doing what he has his whole career: making the most of the opportunity in front of him.