Posted: Friday April 22, 2011 10:58AM ; Updated: Monday April 25, 2011 8:56AM
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What happened to Reggie Brown? (cont.)

By Michael Brick, Special to SI.com

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A freak hit in a 1997 game, left Reggie Brown motionless and unable to breathe.
A freak hit in a 1997 game, left Reggie Brown motionless and unable to breathe.
AP

Against long odds, the new teenage parents muddled through. The father performed golf course maintenance; the mother served pizza and tried to go to school. They moved to the nearest midsized city, Austin, where he acquired training and employment in security. She applied for work at Texas Instruments, was turned away, worked at a furniture store for six months, applied again and got the job. They never married. They broke up, reunited and broke up again, living together for reasons of finance. The father died just this past Labor Day, a heart attack at age 54. The mother's still at TI or whatever it's called now.

Along the way they raised two healthy, successful and college-educated sons, setting few athletic expectations. The mother had run some track; the father had entertained the notion of organized basketball only until it required a haircut counter to his sense of freedom. Weekday afternoons in the St. John's section of East Austin, where boys played street football corner to corner, Reggie mostly watched from the carport.

"At first he needed a lot of encouragement," says Robert Ryan, who was a grade ahead in school. "He'd always say, 'I got to watch my brother, I got to watch my brother.'"

Coaxed into street ball, Reggie learned the game quickly. The older boys urged him to go out for the freshman squad at John H. Reagan High, no place for casual commitments. Across Texas, the Raiders command tones of reverence for a run of three state championships, a dynasty to stand alongside Abilene, Odessa Permian, Southlake Carroll and few others. Though decades past their prime by the close of the 1980s, when declining enrollment forced the school from the top division, the team still posed a formidable threat around the district. They'd never suffered a losing season. Reggie stood 5-4, 140 pounds. He'd never worn a uniform.

"You sure you want to play football?" his father asked.

Reggie was sure. The freshman coach was less so. Reggie started on the line. That summer he grew half a foot, lifted weights and came back 180 pounds. On a bad weather day, the coaches turned the varsity, jayvee and freshman football squads loose in the gym, a chaotic scene with basketballs bouncing off six hoops. Reggie jumped up and dunked one.

"That's amazing, man," the varsity coach, Dennis Ceder, remembers saying. He turned to the freshman coach and asked what position Reggie played. The freshman coach kind of looked at the floor.

"Isn't he a guard?" Ceder asked.

The freshman coach said he was.

"Offensive guards don't stuff basketballs," Ceder said. "That kid there is an elite athlete. I want you to switch him to a skill position now."

So Reggie became a tight end for awhile. He kept getting bigger, kept getting stronger. Come track season he liked to throw discus and the shot put, but his football coaches saw promise in his speed, so he ran relays and sprints. He benched 340 pounds, power-cleaned 300 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds, numbers his coach would be able to recite off the top of his head decades later.

"Reggie was the only guy [I had] that ever made it to the NFL, and that was the best team I ever had, so it's easy to do," Ceder says. "He was the best natural athlete that did everything we told him to do, both in the classroom and in the weight room."

Off the field, Reggie prayed with his teammates and dated the same girl for years.

"He didn't really do anything but the sports," his mother says. "He had a girlfriend, but they didn't go anywhere, maybe to the movies once in a blue moon. He wasn't the type to go out with the guys either, like teenagers do."

The Raiders fielded two powerful defensive ends and a dazzling option quarterback named Louis Hickman, who led team prayers from a Bible he carried around in his bag. Hickman was being recruited by Colorado, where they ran the Power I, but some scouts ordered tape from Reagan just on the strength of its history.

Reggie's first recruiting letter came sophomore year, from Texas Tech. The next season, 1990, Coach Ceder broke up the wishbone offense, looking to take advantage of Hickman's versatility at quarterback. He made Reggie right halfback, the lead blocker, an assignment with a lot to remember. Right Colorado, Right Arkansas, Left Texas -- Reggie moved among 15 different starting points depending on the formation. He had a head for it.

Behind his lead, Hickman picked up 1,000 yards rushing that season. So did the fullback. So did the tailback. "It was almost unfair, like a man playing against boys," Ceder says. "Just a devastating blocker."

As the season drew to a close, the Raiders faced the Chaparrals of Westlake High, an ascendant program bound for multiple state title runs, including a championship in 1996 with Drew Brees at quarterback. But on the opening kickoff this Thursday night in November 1990, with both teams undefeated, all eyes were on Reggie Brown, the first defender downfield.

"He was so fast, and big too," Ceder says. "He went down there and busted the wedge and just nailed the dude. I'll never forget that kickoff."

Reagan won 14-3, finished the season undefeated and advanced to the third round of playoffs. The next year Hickman was named preseason all-state. Running behind Reggie, the seniors came back expecting to compete for a title, the first for Reagan in two decades.

And then, in 1991: Against archrival L.B.J. High, Hickman went down with a devastating knee injury. Reggie didn't watch sports on TV and didn't know what an ACL was, but he heard a boy in the locker room crying, "It should've been me."

For Hickman, the recruiting calls stopped. He tried writing about football for the school paper, ended up working for a soda distributor. The team went 5-4-1.

Reggie, who started on offense and defense senior year, made 90 tackles and 37 sacks. Then he put on a tux and took his girlfriend to prom. The annual published a picture of him talking on the phone, with the caption: "Senior Reggie Brown, who made the all-district football team, received nightly calls from college football coaches."

Over offers from Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, Reggie accepted a $35,000 scholarship from Texas A&M, an hour's drive east.

He spent graduation night at the bowling alley, a lock-in party for kids who wanted to stay clear of drugs and booze. Looking back on his high school football career, he'd later say: "I always wanted to be a dependable person. If there was tackling to be done, everybody could relax; I was over there."

*****

Watch closely; these next pictures are in motion. The effect can be disorienting, even deceptive. To millions of casual sports fans, the specter of sudden death on the football field primarily conjures this vague memory: It's the late 1990s. There's a big game on, nationally televised. The hits are getting rough, enough so to prompt remarks from the announcers. And suddenly a player is down, knocked out, spread-eagled on the turf. He does not get up. He does not move at all. The stadium music cuts out. The fans fall silent. Players gather around, trainers push through. The eerie calm exposes a collective unease. No one wants to say it: A line may have been crossed.

 
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