Tuskegee defensive back Justin Hannah has signed a free-agent deal with the Cleveland Browns on Monday, according to a Tuskegee press release.
You might remember Hannah as the defensive MVP from the previous two Tuskegee-Morehouse games played at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium. In both games he had pivotal interceptions run back for either a safety or touchdown. In 2008, he even ran up into the stands to hug his mom after taking a pick back for a touchdown.
I asked him why, when he ran back an interception for a safety on a Morehouse two-point conversion attempt and yet another pick-6 in 2009, he didn't run up into the stands again. His response:
"Coach ( Willie Slater ) made sure I didn't do that again. After all the running I had to do for that last year, I didn't even want to."
No word on whether or not his mother felt a little slighted that year, but I think she forgot about it when her son held up a second defensive MVP trophy that day.
Also of note was who Hannah credited in the press release: Ramone Nickerson, a former Central-Phenix City, Tuskegee and Columbus Lions player and current Tuskegee assistant coach. Here's Hannah on Nickerson's role in getting him to the NFL level.
"Coach Nickerson did a tremendous job of preparing me for the next level. He helped me understand how to get up when you fall and that you’re not always going to be the best player. He taught me to be humble and well-grounded."
Here's the full press release, chocked full of details on Hannah and the deal:
Tuskegee, Ala. – (April 26, 2010) – All-American Justin Hannah is poised to continue the Golden Tigers’ tradition of NFL defensive backs after signing a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Hannah will arrive in Cleveland Thursday for minicamp, which begins Friday, and set out to follow in the footsteps of Frank Walker, Drayton Florence, Roosevelt Williams, Dimitri Patterson and Terrance Stringer – former Golden Tiger defensive backs who in recent years were drafted or signed NFL free agent contracts.
“It’s good knowing I’m an NFL player now,’’ Hannah says, adding that while he had hoped to be drafted, signing as a free agent isn’t a huge disappointment. “I was able to choose a team best suited me rather than being drafted in a late round and being stuck on a team that might not have needed me.’’ Even though all 32 NFL teams bypassed Hannah during the draft, he was by no means overlooked. Teams were in constant contact with his agent throughout the three-day draft, and the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland all contacted him minutes after the draft ended Saturday night.
Hannah says he chose Cleveland because he thinks it is the best fit for him.
“I feel I can go in and play right away,’’ Hannah says, adding that he was surprised that the Browns called because they hadn’t shown much interest in him before the draft.
Hannah says the 49ers and New York Giants were the teams that showed the most interest in him before the draft. But when he talked to the Browns, it was clear they had done their homework.
“They seemed to know more about me than the other teams,’’ he says.
The Browns are a young, rebuilding team with a relatively new coaching staff – Eric Mangini is in his second year at the helm and Mike Holmgrem was hired as team president in December – and they need defensive help.
The Browns were 29th in pass defense in 2009, allowing 244.7 yards a game; 29th in interceptions with 10 and 31st in total defense, having given up 389.3 yards a game. Eric Wright and Brodney Pool were the team leaders with four interceptions each. Pool, a free agent after the season, signed with the New York Jets last month, leaving a big hole in the Browns’ secondary.
The Browns took Florida cornerback Joe Haden in the first round, Oregon safety T.J. Ward in the second round and Nebraska safety Larry Asante in the fifth round. They also acquired cornerback Sheldon Brown in a trade with Philadelphia earlier this month.
Hannah was a four-year starter at cornerback for the Golden Tigers. However, Browns coaches have told him they plan to use him at corner, safety and as a nickel back. He says that is appealing to him because it will give him a greater opportunity to get on the field. In spite of the presence of the higher profile draftees he will compete against, Hannah is undaunted about his chances of earning a roster spot.
“I look at it as we all are on one field for one mission,’’ he says. “In spite of your draft round or status, we’re all NFL players. The best man will get the job.
“I believe in the underdog. I believe in being the person not always talked about. I believe in the person who gets the job done silently. I believe in the Ninja and the lion philosophy. The Ninja is known for quietness and agility. The lion doesn’t say much until it’s on its prey. You don’t have to talk about it, just handle your business. When you get there you have to take care of business. That’s what this process is about – the person getting the job done.’’
Hannah may not have been as widely publicized as the Browns’ draftees. But he has some impressive credentials in his own right. In addition to being a 2009 Sheridan All-American, he was a three-time first team All-SIAC selection, named to the 2009 Daktronics All-Super Region 2 Second Team, he was the honored as the SIAC Player of the Year by the Washington, D.C., Pigskin Club and the SIAC Defensive Player of the Year by the 100% Wrong Club of Atlanta.
He says he is well-prepared, thanks to Golden Tigers assistants Joseph Carter and Ramone Nickerson, who were his position coaches for two years each.
“I had great coaches at Tuskegee,’’ Hannah says. “Coach Carter helped me understand the game better. He prepared me to be a college player. My biggest asset is wanting to (do well). Coach Carter saw in me a person who wanted to learn and grow and was willing to do any and everything it took to be a better athlete and person. We grew together.
“Coach Nickerson did a tremendous job of preparing me for the next level. He helped me understand how to get up when you fall and that you’re not always going to be the best player. He taught me to be humble and well-grounded. ‘’
Hannah also says Tigers safety Jeremy Obie, his partner in the Golden Tigers’ secondary for four years who called defensive signals, was instrumental in his success. Hannah had 16 career interceptions and always seemed to be around the ball. He says that was because Obie made sure the Golden Tigers were in the right defense.
“All of those interceptions should have gone to him,’’ Hannah says. “He made several checks to put us in the right position to make plays. I owe it all to him for putting me in position.’’
- Chris White