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Ducks' Brown continues to rebound

EUGENE — It was much worse than it looked.

Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown stepped on the foot of a teammate on a goal-line play at Utah in November 2014. Propelled forward, he came down awkwardly and his knee gave way.

"It felt like a noodle," he said.

The very fact that the television broadcast did not show the injury on replay was an indication it was pretty bad. But even when Brown awoke in severe pain as the ambulance rushed to the hospital, he had no idea.

Later, he was told that blood had stopped flowing to his lower right leg, which raised the possibility of amputation.

"It was like 2 a.m. in the morning and the doctor said, 'We have to get you into surgery.' And I was like 'No, I'll be OK,'" he said. "The guy said basically, 'If you don't get surgery now you won't be able to play again, let alone walk again normally."

Three surgeries and months of rehab later, Brown is currently in the process of what once looked like one of the most unlikely of comebacks. He's in spring camp with the Ducks with the hope of playing again this season.

"The story is there," Brown said. "Now I've got to finish the story."

The injury came just as the 6-foot-6 Brown was coming into his own at tight end. After playing in 12 games as a freshman, he started in five games as a sophomore, finishing the 2013 season with 10 receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

He had 25 catches for 420 yards and six touchdowns in 2014, including a TD catch in the game against the Utes before the fourth-quarter injury. It was the most receiving yards at the position in three seasons.

The 51-27 victory over Utah clinched Oregon the Pac-12 North and a spot in the conference championship game. The Ducks would go on to play in the first College Football Playoff, losing in the title game to Ohio State. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy that season. Brown himself was named to the Pac-12 first team.

But Brown was back home in Ohio, wondering if he'd ever play again. He had extensive ligament damage.

He was immediately struck by the outpouring of support. A class in New Mexico wrote him a letter, guys overseas in the military reached out, he said. And because he was in bed, he read every message.

The words inspired his comeback.

"Throughout the process I got so much fan mail from people who had the same injury — a kid who got his leg amputated in North Carolina, another kid who came back and was playing, so many people looking up," Brown said. "I can show a pathway. I can show when you get this adversity and people are saying you can't do something — you can do it."

He redshirted last season, inching his way back to form. This spring, he is still not 100 percent as he rebuilds his leg strength — but he's getting there. A GPS device monitors how much he's doing in practice so he isn't overly taxed.

Offensive coordinator Matt Lubbick, who was promoted from wide receivers coach on New Year's Day after Scott Frost was hired as head coach at Central Florida, said they're bringing Brown along cautiously.

"As a coach it's a good problem to have, we've got a lot of good skill players, we've got four backs that have proven they make plays, we've got three tight ends, and four or five wideouts," he said. "You can only have 11 people on the field at the same time. So it's a work in progress."

Two of the guys Brown was playing with at tight end back in 2014 are still with the Ducks, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis, who are now seasoned veterans. So the competition for playing time is going to be considerable.

But Brown, who now has an angry scar running down his right leg, isn't thinking it's him against them.

"The point that I'm at now, I'm focusing on my strengths and trying to get better, just working," he said. "I'm competing against myself, not against anybody else. I look around, and if I keep getting better, it's fine. I can't compare myself to other people."

Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown, left, catches a touchdown pass against California during a game in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2014. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS