TEMPE, Ariz. -- Levi Brown is at a crossroads in his career.
His salary cap figure will increase from 9.4 million this year to 16.9 million in 2012, the final year of his deal. The Cardinals cant and wont pay that much, raising the possibility that Sundays game against the Seahawks will be the offensive tackles last in a Cardinals uniform unless the two sides can negotiate a new deal for the lightning rod of the offensive line.
But this isnt a story about Browns future. Its not a story about his Cardinals past or Arizonas decision to draft him with the fifth overall pick in 2007. Its a story about a man few outside the franchise understand or know, a patient, open, intelligent, low-key, soft-spoken and grounded man whose life is perfectly balanced above his size 17 feet -- even if critics of his pass-protection skills disagree.
"Hes the kind of guy you want your sister to date, Cards center and close friend Lyle Sendlein said. You try to surround yourself with people like that because hes such a down-to-Earth, good person.
That description has been a constant throughout Browns life.
"There was a big fanfare around town when he got drafted so high, said Dave Hudak, Browns prep coach at Granby High School in Norfolk, Va. Everyone thought hed spend all his money and get big, flashy things, but when I saw him a few months after he got drafted, he was driving the same old car he had in high school.
"It was a 1997 Toyota Avalon," Brown said. Not as big as the Avalon is today."
The sight of it made Hudak smile.
"I dont know if youve ever seen the kids movie 'The Incredibles,'" he said. Seeing Levi in that car reminded me of that little car Mr. Incredible had to squeeze into when he went to work. It was funny, but if you knew Levis parents, it made perfect sense. They raised him the right way.
Brown was always self-motivated as a kid. He starred in baseball and basketball but was too big to play in youth football leagues. He asked to enroll in -- and then excelled in -- a demanding international baccalaureate program in high school.
"It was just another challenge, he said. Ive always felt I needed to challenge myself to see what Im made of."
Brown earned a B.A. in Labor and Industrial Relations from Penn State in three and a half years, then earned a second degree in psychology because he only needed three more psych classes to complete the major, so he figured, "Why leave it hanging out there when you can finish?"
While the rest of the Cardinals were wondering about the future of the NFL this spring, Brown was balancing his workouts with plans for the future.
"During the whole lockout, he was working on his master's (degree) while I was getting good at Call of Duty, Sendlein said. "Hes a smart guy -- a really smart guy. People need to know that about him.
Brown rarely got into trouble as a kid, but when he did, he listened to the advice of his parents and altered course accordingly.
"I know Im his mom, so Im partial when I tell you what an easy kid Levi was to raise, said Browns mother, Dianna. "But I have a daughter, too, and when we sit down to talk, she never takes from our conversations what she should, so keep that in mind.
Brown was always a big kid. When youre on your way to being 6-foot-6, 324 pounds, it doesnt happen overnight.
He was taller than all his teachers, Dianna Brown said. I used to pray, 'Oh, Lord, I hope this child stops growing or life is going to be tough.
He didnt, but that proved to be a blessing when Penn State offered him a scholarship. After converting from defense to offense -- a move he was reluctant to make -- Brown became a two-time All American and a projected first-round NFL talent.
"Levi was a very complete player who had the skill set in both areas: run blocking and pass protection," said Bill Kenney, Brown's offensive line coach at Penn State. I know hes taken some criticism in the latter area, but to tell you the truth, most observers -- whether its fans, reporters or even some coaches -- have no idea on any given play whether Levi Brown has performed or not performed. Its just the nature of the position. Most people simply dont have the knowledge to assess it.
Browns subdued demeanor has led to the misperception that hes not passionate about football. He vehemently disagrees.
"I didnt start playing football because I thought I was going to make a lot of money, he said. "Its definitely a huge benefit now, but thats not why I play the game. I play it because I love it. I love doing it every day. I love everything about it.
"Sometimes things dont go as well as you want and youre not having as much fun doing it, but that happens. Thats life. You roll with the punches.
Brown has absorbed more than his share of punches because he hasnt met the expectations accompanying his draft status. He's been a starter since joining the team, but his lone Pro Bowl honor came as an alternate in 2009, and he is constantly reminded by fans and reporters that he is not Adrian Peterson, the successful Minnesota running back taken behind him in that 2007 draft.
Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt is only concerned with the team player hes seen this year.
"Hes done the job that we drafted him to do, and thats be a good pass protector and a force in the run game. Hes been very physical, Whisenhunt said. "Whatevers happened to get him to this point really doesnt matter. Theres been a lot of pressure on him because of where he was drafted. Young players sometimes take a little bit longer to get going, but if you ask a lot of our opponents, if you ask people who watch this game, 'How has Levi played this year?' Hes played well for us.
Brown said he hasnt had any discussions with the Cardinals yet about restructuring his contract.
"At this level of football, money plays a huge roll in decisions being made, so Im prepared for whatever happens, he said. I would love to be here, but if its not in the cards, its not in the cards.
If he does move on, Brown said he will embrace the new challenge and never begrudge his critics.
"People always doubt you, and you feel like you need to prove them wrong, Brown said. "Thats kind of how its been with me, but thats alright. Thats just my life.
"Criticism is what comes in this business. Theres no sense in shutting it all down and blocking people out. Thats not who I am."