‘Always locked in’ to Auburn, Derrick Brown sets NFL record

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Former Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown (95). (AU Athletics)

AUBURN, Ala. – After tying the Carolina Panthers’ record for most tackles by a defensive lineman last season with 67, Derrick Brown entered the 2023 season with the goal of breaking it.

Brown, as he’s done consistently since arriving at Auburn in 2016, exceeded even his own high expectations.

He not only smashed the franchise record, Brown broke the NFL record, finishing his fourth professional season with 103 tackles.

A 10-tackle performance vs. the Bears in Carolina’s ninth game gave him 49 for the season, well ahead of the pace needed to set the Panthers’ record with eight games remaining.

With another double-digit outing against the Saints on Dec. 10, Brown blew past the Panthers’ franchise record and set his sights on Christian Wilkins’ NFL record of 98, set in 2022 with the Miami Dolphins.

“I’m way over the mark now,” Brown recalled thinking at the time. “Now I have a chance to hit a hundred. Going into that last game at 96, it was one of those things where I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get it,’ but at the beginning of the game, it felt like they were doing everything in their power to keep me from getting it.”

Brown beat a Tampa Bay double-team on the record-setting tackle, No. 99 on the season.  

“It just develops that way sometimes,” he said. “I don’t even really pay attention to it anymore. I’m just trying to get to the ball at that point.”

He finished with seven tackles in the game, including his second sack of the season, to set the record at 103.

“I knew I had to be close,” Brown said. “I tried not to think about it because I know if I do, it’s not going to happen.”

Originally named as an alternate to the Pro Bowl, Brown received a message from an NFL spokesperson that he’d been selected to represent the Panthers in Orlando, Florida, where he helped the NFC win bragging rights in the Gridiron Gauntlet events of sled pushing and tug of war. 

“Maybe she sent it to the wrong person,” Brown thought when he first received the good news, later confirmed by the Panthers’ PR staff. “I was super excited about it.”

Selected by the Panthers with the seventh overall pick in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Brown has already played 66 NFL games over four seasons after starring at Auburn from 2016-19.

“I feel like I was just in college yesterday but now I feel like I’m old,” said Brown, a unanimous All-American as a senior in 2019. “My son, Kai, is 5 years old now and my daughter is 3. I’ve been out of college for a while. I had Kenzey my rookie year and my son was born my junior year.”

At home or on the road, Brown stays true to his school, following Auburn football games each Saturday.

“Always,” he said. “If we’re playing at home, I’m home by the time the game starts and I’m yelling at the TV. If I’m on the road, I’m following along on the play-by-play score on ESPN. I’m always locked in.”

In the Panthers’ locker room, which player’s alma mater wins on Saturday is a big deal, especially among the SEC alums.

“If somebody’s team wins and your team loses, they’ve got the upper hand that day,” Brown said. “We watch college football during the day and we’re in the hotels on Saturday night, so it always becomes a match.”

The Lott IMPACT Trophy and Senior CLASS Award winner at Auburn, Brown has continued his commitment to community service as a professional; he was the Panthers’ nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2022, one of the NFL’s highest honors. The Derrick Brown Foundation hosts holiday parties for children in Charlotte among other events, and Brown conducts free football camps and awards scholarships in honor of his grandparents to students in Sugar Hill, Georgia.  

“It’s been awesome,” Brown said, crediting foundation partner Mike Nattis for turning Derrick’s ideas into reality. “We meet at the beginning of the year, and I throw out a bunch of crazy ideas, and in my head I’m thinking it may not work. Then months or days later, Mike comes back to me and says, ‘Okay, I’ve got it set up. Let’s go ahead and pick a date.’”

Brown watched with approval as Hugh Freeze put his stamp on Auburn’s program in his first season as head coach.

“I think the program is headed in the right direction,” Brown said. “They had Alabama on the ropes at the end of the season. I’m excited to be around it.”

I appreciate (the fans) and all their support. I’m excited to hopefully get back down soon. I’m excited for this 2024 Auburn football team to go out and make their mark.

Auburn fans can expect to see DB on the Plains when his schedule allows.

“I appreciate them and all their support,” he said. “I’m excited to hopefully get back down soon. I’m excited for this 2024 Auburn football team to go out and make their mark.”

It was at Auburn, early in Brown’s senior season, when one play forever changed his perspective after chasing down a screen against Kent State.

“I got hit in my chest,” said Brown, who was diagnosed with a bruised sternum. “I’ll never forget that pain of sitting down on the table. It was one of those shock moments. The pain was excruciating.”

Five years later, that moment still motivates Derrick Brown.

“I told myself I would never take the game for granted again,” he said. “Sitting in that position, not knowing what was going to come about of that, to this day I’ve never forgotten that. I try to play as hard as I can because of it because I know at some point it’s going to end, and I would like to end it on my terms.

“As long as I work hard, show up every single day and stay focused, I’m able to do that.”