As an early-entry junior in the 1996 NFL draft, there was no mistaking the potential upside of play-making defensive end Tony Brackens. But to cash in at the next level with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the University of Texas standout would have to distance himself from the million-dollar question: How could someone who spent much of his young life working tirelessly on the family's cattle ranch in Fairfield, Tex., possibly earn a reputation for being a slacker?
"The perception clearly followed him into the NFL," said Western Michigan head coach Gary Darnell, Brackens' defensive coordinator at Texas. "Believe me, he could be fun and aggravating at the same. Part of that is because Tony plays with the heart of a kid. Some days, he would be out on the field like a young Bambi, jumping around and wreaking havoc all over the field. Others days, he would frustrate you because he just didn't go as hard."
Firmly entrenched as one of the NFL's top all-around defensive ends following a trip to the Pro Bowl last season, the 6-4, 270-pound Brackens turned the million-dollar question into a $38.1 million windfall. That was the bottom line on the six-year deal Brackens inked in late August, one that included a $6.5 million signing bonus.
"It's like the old [Johnny Carson] Carnac skit," Darnell says. " 'Who's going to be making $38 million five years after being in the league?' I was telling people this was going to happen the minute Tony declared for the NFL. It was a no-brainer."
Escaping the pre-draft concerns about his allegedly poor work ethic proved somewhat more complex. After recording seven sacks his rookie season, despite starting only one game, Brackens terrorized opposing offenses for the first half of his sophomore campaign. He would finish the season with 14 tackles for losses, six forced fumbles and seven sacks. However, Brackens was a non-factor in the final six games of the season, the result of a high-ankle sprain that severely hampered his effectiveness.
The following year, another ankle sprain cost Brackens the first four games of what proved to be a forgettable season. With criticism of his play and questions about his motivation and durability, the self-effacing Brackens turned a deaf ear and rebounded in 1999 with the defining season of his career. He set a Jacksonville record with 12 sacks to go with 10 tackles for losses, 15 quarterback pressures and a personal-best 76 tackles.
"You don't see many guys like him come into the league," Jaguars defensive line coach John Pease says. "He's like a racehorse. He's got those wild eyes and he's champing at the bit."
Though now among the highest-paid defensive linemen in the league, Brackens remains true to his Texas roots, spurning a high-profile lifestyle for one with which he's more at home. Brackens owns an 1,800-acre ranch, with 200 head of cattle, right next to his parents' spread.
Asked recently what he enjoys about cattle ranching, the reserved and private Brackens offered an insight into his philosophy both off and on the field.
"You don't have to deal with a whole lot of different personalities, or guys not pulling their load," Brackens said. "It's up to you. It's up to the individual. I do like that."