Tennessee Titans players Zach Brown and Marc Mariani volunteered to travel around Tennessee meeting and greeting a state that needed no introductions.
Brown and Mariani signed autographs Thursday evening at O’Charleys as part of the Titans’ annual caravan, and recalled their first memories in the state beforehand.
Brown was productive last year as a rookie linebacker out of North Carolina.
“After I got, like, the first three games under me, I started to roll,” Brown said.
He made 93 tackles, including 5.5 sacks. And Brown returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns.
Of course, Brown made an interception at LP Field before he was a Titan. He intercepted Tennessee’s Tyler Bray in the 2010 Music City Bowl. It was one of three interceptions Bray threw in UNC’s controversial 30-27 double-overtime victory that left some Vols fans throwing objects at the Tar Heels players.
“I said, ‘Yo, Tennessee’s got some crazy fans,’” Brown said, “because I was just sitting on a bench and a bottle just comes flying by my head. I was like, ‘Well, time to go down where the Carolina fans are sitting at.’ It was something different.
“So when I got here, I was like, ‘I’ll tell you one thing: if Tennessee don’t got not nothing else, it’s got a crazy fan base.’”
Actually, Brown took an official visit to Tennessee when he was being recruited, but said North Carolina was closer to home (Columbia, Md.).
Mariani’s first encounters in Tennessee also came when he was in college, although his experiences weren’t triumphant. Mariani played in two national FCS title games in Chattanooga when he was at Montana.
“I took two trips down here to Chattanooga to play in the national championship, but went 0-for-2,” Mariani said. “It hurts me. We got beat by Richmond and we got beat by Villanova.”
Football is king at the University of Montana, and a dream come true for Mariani, a Havre, Mont., native who initially walked on with the Grizzlies.
“Missoula’s a blast,” Mariani said. “We have a pretty special thing going on up there. It’s fun. … My senior year we played App State in Missoula in the snow. It was beautiful.”
East Tennessee State lost a quarterfinals game in that snowy stadium in 1996. Mariani was happy to hear ETSU is bringing football back, and said ETSU’s where his physical therapist, Casey Carter, went to school.
Mariani, a Pro Bowl return specialist following the 2010 season, is still recovering from a leg injury he sustained in last year’s preseason. He returned a kick 98 yards for a score and took a punt back 87 yards for a TD during his Pro Bowl season, and he says he’s still recovering from the injury.
“I’m not far off,” he said. “What kind of separated me as a football player was that last 5-10 percent, you know. So that’s where I’m at. I’m back to running around. I’m back to catching balls and running routes, but now I’ve got to get that last five percent or 10 percent in.
“I’ve done a lot of work to get to this point, but I’ve got a lot of work left to do. I know there’s a struggle left, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Mariani said he ran a 4.42 40 when he was healthy. He then pointed out that the 6-foot-1, 242-pound Brown ran a 4.37 at his pro day when he was UNC. Brown once set a 60-meter indoor record (6.72) at UNC.
“The dude is so fast,” Mariani said. “He’s phenomenally fast. When you’ve got a guy that fast and athletic, you can do a lot of things with him.”
Brown smiles when asked about 40 times that might be tough to match at the moment.
“The last time I ran a 40 was for a job interview,” he said.
It helped make for a fast transition. Brown, who credited former Tar Heels coach Art Kaufman with helping prepare him for the NFL, returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a win against Jacksonville.
“It was a great game and I helped the team win,” Brown said. “For me, it was like, ‘Hey, we won.’ It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I got a pick.’”
Mariani’s smile and tone suggest Brown could be exceptional.
“His ceiling is far from reach,” Mariani said, “and they’re gonna keep coaching him like crazy, because he’s got a lot of potential.”
Brown could be a microcosm of the Titans, who revamped their offensive line via the draft and free agency after floundering to a 6-10 record in 2012. Tennessee is 15-17 since Mike Munchak replaced Titans icon Jeff Fisher, but Mariani sees the potential for a return to the proud heights reached under Fisher.
“There’s a new electricity in the building,” Mariani said. “We actually have a pretty much new, revamped coaching staff, not to mention the acquisitions on the O-line and the defense. (Receiver) Kevin Walter’s a veteran guy. We’ve brought in some leadership there to kind of help us out. And we had a phenomenal draft.
“All those things put together is telling me that we’re ready to win now. So there’s definitely a new energy over there, and we’re working hard to get to where we need to be.”
Brown and Mariani were obviously in their element meeting fans.
“It’s exciting … and everybody can know what you look like with your helmet off,” Brown said.
Indeed, there are no bottles flying at Brown these days.