What happened to Reggie Brown? (cont.)
"Well, we are back and there is an awfully scary situation going on. Reggie Brown is down ..."
It's late on a Sunday afternoon in 1997, four days before Christmas. The Lions are playing the New York Jets. Only the winner will advance to the playoffs. Lions running back Barry Sanders is trying to surpass 2,000 yards rushing, a feat matched only twice in the history of the league. People are watching, 77,264 of them inside the Pontiac Silverdome and millions more on NBC. From the broadcast booth, we can hear Dick Enberg and Paul Maguire.
"... And several of the Lions players ran to the locker room to get ..."
Kerrie Patterson is not watching. She's the only girl Reggie's dated seriously since his high school sweetheart. They met at A&M, where he filled out at 6-2, 241 pounds and just kept getting better at football. He started all four years, a first-team All-Southwest Conference linebacker with 172 tackles, 90 of them as a senior. She was a couple years younger, trying to make the basketball team behind an All-America guard. "You know what you're capable of doing," she remembers him telling her. "You love the game. Control what you can control."
When the Lions signed Reggie in the first round of the 1996 draft, Kerrie stayed in school.
"I just knew we were going to break up," she says, "but we didn't."
She made the basketball team, so she's on her way back from a tournament in Anchorage of all places, heading to Detroit for Christmas break. If the Lions lose, she's planning to ride home to Texas with her boyfriend; if they win she'll stick around for a playoff game. She's heard Reggie talk about stingers before, so she's not too worried when she calls her dad from a layover in Newark and he says there's an ambulance on the field.
"... Get the emergency personnel ..."
Robert Ryan is not watching either; the Marine Corps has him deployed overseas, where he receives letters and press clippings in the mail from Reggie, the boy who made good at football.
"... From EMS ..."
Liz Brown is watching on TV from her house in the suburbs, the one Reggie bought. She and the older Reggie have finally split up for good, now that she has another place to live. The baby of the family, Michael, nearly a decade younger than his big brother, is playing football in the backyard. He's been talking about going out for the freshman squad next year. She can't get over how much he looks like Reggie, who used to hide bruised ribs from her back in high school. She was never much for sports, but she went to all the A&M home games and some of the away ones in Texas too. Now she's picking up the phone to call the 303 area code operator, see if she can find out the closest hospital to the stadium they've got up there in Detroit.
"And Bobby Ross is out on the field. The orthopedic doctors are out there."
Coach Ceder is watching on TV with his own sons. They've followed Reggie's career together. Nobody expected him to go so high in the draft until the combine, where his speed (4.43 hand time, 4.39 fully automatic) put him in demand against the new style of passing offense. Ceder's seen injuries before, broken bones and ligament tears and concussions. This one doesn't look like much in the replay NBC keeps showing. He can see Jets running back Adrian Murrell take a handoff on a draw and head into the line, where the 291-pound nose tackle Luther Elliss grapples with 300-pound left guard Lamont Burns, who falls back onto Reggie, who's moving in to make the tackle. An ordinary play with ordinary hits, but Reggie's still not getting up. Maybe he's paralyzed. It happened some years back to Mike Utley, another Lion. It happened to Dennis Byrd, another Jet. "The only thing that's not worth playing is that injury," Ceder will say. "It is the darkest place in football."
But at this moment, an even darker place comes into view: Reggie could die. By every indication available from the images broadcast all across America, he already has. Ceder's never told his sons this, but he'll be glad when they're done playing football. Only three things move him to tears and now he's turning to the third, just like at the start of every season, when he prays: "Take care of my team."
"Reggie Brown is lying motionless."
There, on the 30-yard line, on TV, he stops breathing. He slips into a coma. His lips turn blue. Some of his teammates kneel to pray. An ambulance carries away Reginald Dwayne Brown, age 23. Barry Sanders gets his 2,000th yard. The Lions win, 13-10.
One last picture, this one untaken. A scene from ordinary life, winter 2011. Twelve miles east of Austin, the eighth grade basketball players on the B team at Manor Middle School warm up in their home gym, making unsuccessful attempts to touch the bottom of the net. In come their parents, working class people in jeans and ballcaps with siblings in tow. In come their cheerleaders, a foot apart in height, one on crutches. And in comes their coach, dressed in khaki slacks and a red polo with the insignia of the Fighting Mustangs. He walks sturdily, hands in his pockets, watching the warm-ups. He examines a row of plastic chairs. First he adjusts their spacing. Then he counts, waving an index finger. Then he removes two. Satisfied, he assembles his team.
"Play hard, on three," he calls. "One two three."
Nobody pays him much attention, including his players. Some of their parents know the story of how he came back to life, the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the steroid injection and the surgery to fuse the vertebrae in his neck. In columns and retrospectives, it's always told with the same theme: Enough to change your way of thinking about sports.
"Only his football career ended," reported Texas A&M: Where Have You Gone, a 2004 book for nostalgic alums. "The rest of his blossoming life has just begun."
On the way down court a boy trips over his own feet. An uncontested inbound pass misses its target three feet away. From the sidelines the coach shouts instructions on such matters as switching to defense after a turnover.
He's on his feet the whole game, fired up, working hard, competing, being dependable. Maybe we all saw something different in those images of a life slipping away on the field back in the 1990s, but sports never came to an end. Not in America and not even for Reggie Brown. Not even football. Grateful to be alive is one thing, unwilling to take that risk another. After rehab he joined a Ford management training program arranged by the owner of the Lions, but every summer he went up to Oklahoma for a football camp run by an old teammate. He talked to young players and their boosters, hitting the same themes the sportswriters used.
"The biggest thing is I'm still alive," he told the Greater Austin Sports Foundation in 1998. "I can still see the sunshine."
Manor's winning 13-0 at the start of the second quarter. The cheerleaders call, "Hey hey, whaddaya say, let's go Mustangs!"
"No fouls!" the coach shouts, trying to keep one eye on his 9-year-old son, who's standing back by the wall. Little Reggie's a mischievous one, slow to respond to orders concerning the placement of remote control vehicles at home, where the entryway is cluttered with athletic gear. His mom, Kerrie, has been coaching college basketball since her own playing days. Her man stood by her when he joined the NFL; she stood by him when he left on a gurney. They married in 2000. Little Reggie started with baseball but asked to play football soon enough. His Dad e-mailed another dad, who asked him to get involved. Reggie coached defense the first year and the whole team ever since. All he ever told Little Reggie was no quitting.
"Rebound!" he calls. He coaches football for the middle school too, which is why he's here with the B team for basketball season, making sure all the kids get a chance to play. Up 20-1, he picks a starter to pull, seemingly at random. The cheerleaders perform their halftime dance, lose interest and leave the gym.
"Hands up," he calls. "Hands up!"
Running and gunning to the final buzzer, the Mustangs win 48-14. Reggie Brown shakes hands with each of his players, then each of the opposing players and then the referee. He turns his attention to Little Reggie, whose grandmother admires him so. She's still not much of a sports fan -- when her younger son was playing for the Giants last year she'd invite over the older one, who always seemed to know what the players were going to do just by the way they lined up on the field -- but she keeps her team picture of Little Reggie framed in the living room of her house in the suburbs, right across from the one of his uncle in the Super Bowl. When she shows it off she says: "He's got baseball, then basketball, then turn around when football season comes, because it's nonstop."
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