Player’s death 13 months ago casts shadow over restoral of Tabor-McPherson game Saturday
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — She doesn’t want to talk.
Not about this. Not here. Not now.
“How did you get this number?”
I’m calling about Brandon Brown …
“How did you get this number?”
I was talking with the president at Tabor College …
“How did you get this number? Did someone give you this number?”
No. It’s listed, ma’am.
You explain that this is a story about the fallout from Brandon Brown, the former Tabor College football player killed in a 2012 brawl that involved football players from McPherson College, a local rival. You explain that you’d like to ask family members how they’re doing, more than a year after his tragic death. How they’re coping heading into the Saturday that Tabor and McPherson — two tiny, private Kansas universities — will meet on the football field for the first time in two years. You say you’re just calling to give Brandon’s loved ones a voice.
“Well,” she says, softly. “I would like to go through the mother. And I will follow her directions.”
You say you understand. You repeat your name and your affiliation. You thank her. She says she will have someone call you back.
Well, could I …
Then she quickly insists that she has nothing more to say, and begins hurrying you off the phone, the verbal equivalent of pushing a stranger out the front door.
But could I …
But I need to …
With that, she hangs up.
And as you put down the smart phone, it suddenly sinks in: She never even gave you a chance to leave a number.
Brown has been gone more than a year, leaving behind a loving family, two children, and a trail of cherished memories clouded by rage and grief. There are multiple stories and layers and shades of awful in this story, but there’s also one overarching consistency: 13 months after the incident in question, and more than six months after it went to trial, few of the principals want to talk much about it.
Tabor’s football staff defers any comment to athletic director Rusty Allen and president Jules Glanzer. McPherson athletic director Doug Quint defers comment to university president Michael Schneider.
Players on all sides are off-limits. Coaches say they don’t want distractions. School officials say they don’t want a circus.
Besides, they’ve already lived through one already.
The headline grabs your eye and won’t let go. The details grab your guts and twist them uncomfortably.
When Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel shows up at the University of Texas and tries to crash a party, we click on the story and we chuckle and we share. But what happened on Sept. 16, 2012, is the flip side of inter-campus football exchanges, the seedy underbelly of what can transpire when too much alcohol and too much testosterone get tossed into the same pot and stirred like there’s no tomorrow.
In this case, the pot is stirred by, of all things, a “FOR SALE” sign. There was an off-campus party, and Tabor linebacker Ilai Eteaki, so the narrative went, was accused of throwing the aforementioned sign through the front window of a duplex.
A witness told the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle last fall that he saw Eteaki fight with another man, then flee. Brown, a defensive tackle at Tabor who had played with Eteaki at Santa Ana (Calif.) College and had also transferred to the small Kansas school, was near the fracas, but not a part of it — until someone allegedly sucker-punched him. Reports said two or three men began stomping on the 6-foot-2, 280-pound lineman and then pummeling him as he lay on the ground.
Eventually, an ambulance arrived and airlifted him to a Wichita hospital. Brown died six days later from blunt-force trauma to the head, with acute alcohol intoxication a contributing cause.
“This is what they describe in what we do as a once-in-a-career type of experience,” Schneider says. “Things happen on college campuses, as you can imagine, but something like this, to have that kind of scale, to get that type of attention, no, I’ve never seen anything like that happen.”
Tabor and McPherson are roughly 30 miles apart, nestled in central Kansas, about an hour north of Wichita. Same size (approximately 600 or so students, annually), similar missions. Tabor was chartered by the Mennonite Brethren Church, McPherson by the Church of the Brethren leaders.
In fact, it was Tabor’s profile as a small, Christian school that had, in part, attracted the 26-year-old Brown to transfer in, some two time zones from his home in Sacramento, Calif., in order to finish his degree. The Bluejays’ football success was another enticement: During the third week in October 2012, Tabor was in first place in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference and ranked 22nd nationally in NAIA Top 25.
The Bluejays were slated to play McPherson on Oct. 20. After consulting with officials at the league and internally, Glanzer and Schneider mutually agreed to cancel the contest.
“There was an ongoing investigation,” Glanzer says now. “It was so raw. We were fearful that in the heat of the battle, we would wind up with something worse happening. If one person (was) doing something wrong or a personal foul (happened) that erupted into a melee of some kind. We just looked at it as so raw.”
Because of the cancellation, Tabor wound up finishing a half-game out of first place in the KCAC standings.
“It was a costly decision for us,” Glanzer says. “But I’m convinced it was the right decision at that time.
“The family was our No. 1 concern. And Brandon was our No. 1 concern.”
A McPherson football player, 20-year-old Alton Franklin of Dallas, was eventually charged with second-degree murder. Prosecutors alleged that a teammate, DeQuinte Flournoy, had held Brown down during the skirmish.
The case went to trial in early April. Accounts shifted. Others changed. Some witnesses say they saw Brown and a Tabor teammate with a knife. It wasn’t clear who threw the first punch, and Franklin never admitted that he struck Brown. After two hours of deliberation, Franklin was found not guilty.
“That was very difficult for me, at that point, and for all of us,” Glanzer says. “But that’s what happened. Live with the (decision) and move on.”
So they do. Gingerly. Glanzer says he remains close with Brown’s family in California. They sent Christmas gifts to his children last year and plan to do the same for this upcoming one.
Brandon’s ex-teammates are 6-1 overall, 4-1 in the KCAC, ranked 11th nationally. Same as it ever was.
“So we’re just trying to look at it as another game on the schedule,” Allen says. “It might have been more difficult to do that a year ago, which is why we decided not to play it.
“This year, I really feel we’ve moved past it and we look forward to the competition … but the same time, on campus, (the tension is) not there on the surface now. And we’re moving on. Time has brought healing and hope.”
Schneider says McPherson changed its student code of conduct for all athletic programs, making it uniform from sport to sport. A Sports Illustrated.com story last year reported an open-premises liability lawsuit against the school, alleging that former Bulldog football players and at least one assistant coach were involved in a 2009 bar brawl “that left four people (three of them women) in need of medical attention.”
Schneider says there was an internal review of McPherson football following Brown’s death, and that he found no cause for further concern, no evidence of a program running amok.
“I think I would characterize it as I think we’re just a little sensitive to it,” he says. “But we’ve moved on the best we can. And I think the best sign is that we’re going to play a football game on Saturday. I think that’s a positive.”
Formal tributes, formal memorials, will be restrained: There will be a prayer at McPherson before the game, a ceremony that will feature Glanzer and Schneider sitting together, mourning together, in unison.
“And I think it’s good representation in moving forward in that we’re going to have a game,” Schneider says. “So I don’t think there will be a problem there.”
At least, he hopes. According to a report in the Hillsboro (Kan.) Free Press, at a Tabor-McPherson volleyball game Sept. 11, some McPherson students chanted “Where is Brandon?” during the contest.
Both presidents have subsequently denied that assertion, but the damage across social media was done. Old wounds got torn open again, salt at the ready.
From California to Kansas, it’s still raw. Just because there was a verdict doesn’t mean there was closure.
“I mean, I’ll put it this way: It was something horrible that happened and affected our student body that, you know, just breaks my heart that this happened,” Schneider says. “And a week after Brandon Brown died, we had a beloved student who was actually a member of the tennis team who was killed on a bike ride.
“We just had a lot of tragedy. So in situations like this, you don’t get closure. It’s a healing process. And I know we’re still going through it.”
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.