ST. LOUIS — Long before the tears, there was the dream.
It’s a little before Jerry Brown’s junior season at Vashon High in 2004, and the player has a message for his coach. It’s more than a year before the two-time Public High League defensive MVP earns a team-high 97 tackles and 13 sacks as a senior. It’s long before the St. Louis native turns down Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma and signs with Illinois, where then-coach Ron Zook once considered him a possibility for the Outland Trophy.
Before wearing Fighting Illini orange, before stints in the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League, before working to keep a career on the field alive, there was a vision.
“Coach,” Vashon coach Reginald Ferguson recalls Brown telling him, “I’m going to make it to the NFL.”
“Jerry,” Ferguson said, “I believe so.”
“Yeah, I am.”
“If you make it to the NFL, I’m going to retire your jersey. I’ll be ready. I’m going to do it.”
The memory is one of many from Ferguson that tumble from the phone Tuesday, each painting a portrait of someone who was humble and committed to recalling where his career began. The past helped create Brown’s future. His ties to Vashon remained strong.
“To me, that’s the key to coaching — not the wins or losses, but the development of young men,” Ferguson says now. “As he grew, our bond continued to grow. No, we didn’t talk all the time. But at certain moments in his life, he allowed me to share it with him. And that’s what made it special.”
We’re a collection of life moments. Each experience molds us, shapes us and makes us through trial and triumph. We leave a trail of memories through the years, the flashes of joy and hardship from each stage becoming our legacy once we’re gone.
That’s why this loss is hard to grasp for some who knew Brown at Vashon. He died in a horrific one-vehicle accident early last Saturday, when, according to police, his Dallas Cowboys teammate and nose tackle Josh Brent flipped a 2007 Mercedes sedan after driving faster than the 45-mph speed limit on a service road in Irving, Texas. Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter. Brown was 25. He should have had more time.
It’s hard to fathom the loss of someone who had so much more to give. Brown was a dreamer, a practice-squad linebacker who had signed with the Cowboys on Oct. 24 after the Indianapolis Colts cut him following a five-month stay, a player who was far removed from the spotlight and cackles reserved for stars such as Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.
He had appeared in one game in his NFL career, a loss to the New York Jets as part of the Colts in Week 6, after spending most of 2011 and parts of this year bouncing between the Jacksonville Sharks (AFL), Hamilton Tiger-Cats (CFL) and San Antonio Talons (AFL). He was trying to make it.
That attitude was an extension of Brown’s Vashon career. Often, he looked for ways to maximize the talent within his then-6-foot-4, 260-pound frame. Once, in his sophomore season, the Wolverines were without a left offensive tackle. He volunteered to fill the role.
“Coach, I’ll play there,” Ferguson recalls Brown telling him. “I just want to win, coach, and do what I can to help the team.”
That was fitting. Brown wasn’t without fault — academic issues forced him to leave Illinois’ program before the 2009 season — but his legacy at Vashon is one of a gentle giant who played with controlled rage. Jarvis Nabors, the Wolverines’ former quarterback, recalls Brown being one of the largest and most skilled players on the field as a freshman. Stephon Hayden, a former linebacker at the school, recalls a time when Brown crunched two opponents while blocking on a kickoff return. One was left sobbing. “I’m going to make it to the NFL… I’m going to make it to the NFL…”
“He had a tough mind, and he worked hard,” Hayden says. “For all he went through going from Vashon to Illinois … then having to work hard through the AFL, that’s not an easy road to take. That takes a lot of perseverance and a lot of mental toughness. That’s just the kind of person he was. You let him get on the football field, and he was going to do his best. There was nothing that was going to shake him. There was nothing that was going to intimidate him.”
Long before the tears, there were the grins.
Shortly after Brown signed with the Colts as an undrafted free agent, he called Ferguson to share the news. He said he would make the most of his chance. His vision never was to be a career practice-squad player or an inconsistent talent. This was his focus: I’m here. I’ve received this opportunity. My goal is to reach the field.
“I’m just excited that you made it,” Ferguson recalls saying then.
The moment was poignant, a reward for years of work. Both had believed in the destination, though the journey included more than a few forks in the road. After graduating, Brown had returned to Vashon on occasion to visit Ferguson and share his path with students. He told them about the places he’d been, the players he’d met and the sacrifices he’d made to chase his goal. He told them never to abandon a dream.
“Jerry Brown was so close to people, because he grew up with them,” Hayden says. “They were more than just teammates. They were like his family members, which is a unique situation. Vashon was like one big family atmosphere. Jerry Brown was such a positive person that he was a guy you wanted to stay in contact and root for.”
And that’s what some did, recalling a big personality who touched others in a larger way.
“You knew he was going somewhere,” Nabors says. “You knew it. He made it.”
He did, though his climb ended too soon. Brown dreamed of reaching the NFL, and he was brave enough to take the first steps of a walk of a lifetime. There’s sadness now, but for much longer, he’ll show his Vashon family it’s OK to believe.