KNOXVILLE -- A vast majority of minor league baseball players have "that moment."
University of Tennessee defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, a former farmhand of the Chicago Cubs, knows exactly what "that moment" is. He interrupted the reporter asking the question after Wednesday's practice.
"It's when you realize, 'I'm not going to make it [to the big leagues],'" Joseph said.
That moment is often one of the worst times in a baseball player's life. Most enter the minors with aspirations of playing in the show, and far too many fail to cultivate solid backup careers.
But Joseph and one of his players -- 22-year-old freshman safety Brent Brewer -- were different.
Joseph, a former honor-roll high school student who turned down academic scholarships from Ivy League schools to play baseball at Northwestern State in Louisiana, had a college degree and several options after leaving baseball in 1998. He coached high school baseball and football at his alma mater, New Orleans-area Archbishop Shaw High School, and ultimately latched on as a football graduate assistant under Les Miles at LSU before working under head coach Derek Dooley at Louisiana Tech and then Tennessee.
Brewer, a second-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2006, was also a major college football prospect coming out of Sandy Creek High in Tyrone, Ga. He committed to play football for Florida State before getting drafted so high in baseball -- a no-brainer, financial decision in most cases.
"Our situations were different, yet similar," Joseph said.
Neither man could hit a breaking ball well enough to play baseball at the highest level, so neither advanced past the Class AA level. But baseball wasn't either man's only option in life.
"That was my goal, to make it to the major leagues and be a superstar," Brewer said. "After realizing that wasn't possible, it really was disappointing."
But the backup plan -- playing college football at the highest level while getting a free education -- wasn't all that bad.
"I always knew from high school that if I got drafted, I could come back and play football," Brewer said. "I had a heck of a four years, made it to AA and after that fourth year, I was kind of second guessing. I wasn't having that much fun.
"I just wanted to come back to school, get my education and play football."
Joseph wishes so many of his former minor league teammates had similar options -- or any options, for that matter.
"So many times, a high school guy gets drafted for a little money -- but not a lot of money -- and he's out of school for four or five years, and he has no idea how to make a living," Joseph said. "He's got his high school diploma, his signing bonus and that's it."
But not Brewer. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound athlete chose UT over several other high-profile programs and enrolled in school this summer.
Dooley, Joseph, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and graduate assistant Peter Sirmon -- a former NFL linebacker who coaches UT's safeties -- had some concerns about Brewer, but his athleticism and maturity were known commodities.
"After you talk to him for about two days, you realize that you're dealing with a grown man who understands what it takes to succeed," Joseph said. "He's very mature beyond his years, ... and athletically, the sky's the limit for that guy."
Said Wilcox: "You see in his preparation and his practice and how he handles his business off the field, that he's very mature. He's been a professional. That's been good for our team and for that defensive back room."
Added Sirmon: "He has a level of maturity that you'd love to see every freshman coming in would possess. He's a professional athlete, and he shows up every day to work hard, and he's accountable for himself."
The worries were whether Brewer could handle the academic workload after four years away from school, and how quickly he could bounce back into football shape and understand the scheme.
Academic reports have been unanimously positive.
"Nothing but glowing remarks from every professor, every academic support person we have," Joseph said.
Football shape? That was a problem late in preseason camp, when Brewer and his coaches admitted he "hit the wall," mentally and physically.
"You don't do as much running, and also the pounding on the body is less (in baseball)," he said. "You really don't lift weights in baseball, things like that. I'm just getting back into the groove."
Coaches credited Brewer's past with helping him overcome those hurdles. Perhaps only basketball compares to professional baseball's daily grind, and a level head is needed to manage the schedule.
"That's the battle," Sirmon said. "If you can't get up for Saturdays, you're in the wrong sport. But it's the other days that are the difference, and he's done a nice job of staying consistent, and I think that's why we've seen him progress as fast as he has.
"It takes some time, but he's basically on schedule right where we thought he'd be. Around week 6 or 7, we hoped to start getting some production out of him, and he's been very consistent and very thorough and preparation."
Brewer made his biggest contribution in last Saturday's loss to Alabama. He didn't collect a tackle in special teams work the first six games, but he entered the Bama game early and often on defense, finishing with six stops and a quarterback hurry.
He'll probably play an even bigger role Saturday at 17th-ranked South Carolina, considering the highly questionable status of sophomore cornerback starter Marsalis Teague. The Vols might move sophomore safety Prentiss Waggner to cornerback in some situations, and Brewer is the primary backup at both safety spots.
Coaches already consider Brewer a plus player against the run -- the player admits he's "a lot stronger than some of the kids" in the college game -- but he was out of position a few times in pass coverage against Alabama, and that'll certainly be something to keep an eye on against the Gamecocks.
"He's made some mistakes like any freshman would," Dooley said. "But he's a talented, mature guy, and I'm glad we have him. He was a good pickup, and he's going to be a good player."
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