What happened to Reggie Brown?
Reggie Brown was living his dream until one play changed his life forever
On the day Barry Sanders surpassed 2,000 yards, Brown lay motionless on field
Brown recovered and would walk again, but his football career was over
AUSTIN, Texas -- Football paid for this house. It is a fine house, nothing ostentatious, set back from the highway in the suburbs northeast of Austin. The front door opens onto 2,890 square feet of living space, centrally air conditioned and spread over two stories with an attached two-car garage, two-and-a-half bathrooms, an open porch and a fireplace. On the living room wall, prominent as you walk through the front door, Elizabeth Brown has framed a photograph of her younger son, Michael Johnson, an action shot capturing the height of his promise.
In the photograph, taken February 3, 2008 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., Johnson is 23 years old, 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, a rookie playing safety for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. He is standing on friendly terrain, not more than two hours by car from his collegiate home of Tucson, where he made 107 tackles, intercepted five passes and recovered two fumbles as an Arizona Wildcat. He has been drafted into the National Football League in the seventh round, but his career is off to a strong start. He has forced a fumble playing against the Dallas Cowboys in his first professional appearance, proven himself a reliable pass defender and made 36 tackles in the regular season.
His team is losing by four points to the undefeated New England Patriots, who beat these same Giants in the final game of the regular season. The Patriots received the kickoff to begin the third quarter, driving 22 yards on two plays to their own 43-yard line. Needing three more yards for a first down, quarterback Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass to running back Kevin Faulk on the right side of the field. On the next play, one minute 48 seconds into the second half, Brady has just completed a pass to Faulk, this time on the left side of the field, where he is covered by the Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell. Here it is plausible to imagine Faulk, even at the advanced age of 31, turning upfield, running 52 more yards and scoring a touchdown to expand the momentum and point differential in favor of the Patriots. Just the previous year, after all, Faulk made a 43-yard touchdown reception. Mitchell is playing on a sprained knee.
But instead the sequence ends here, with Faulk wrapped up in the arms of Johnson who is soaring over the shoulders of his teammate to make the tackle at the moment the shutter clicks. The Giants defenders secure an upset victory proclaimed one of the most thrilling in the history of American sport. There are parties like you wouldn't believe. The players parade up Broadway on floats, accept keys to the city and attract enough confetti to require snowplows. Johnson earns the starting free safety position over a new first-round draft pick. The next season he vindicates his coach's confidence, making 72 tackles, intercepting two passes (on consecutive possessions, no less) and sacking a quarterback for a 13-yard loss. He signs copies of his Super Bowl photograph, including one for his mother.
And then, in 2009: A groin pull, declining statistics. The Giants sign two other safeties just in case. In September 2010, two games into his fourth season, Johnson falls to the injured reserve list with a herniated disc. The New York Post is not kind: "He's done for the season and, in the last year of his contract, likely done with the Giants, considering he fell from grace this year and was no higher than the fourth safety."
So Johnson goes off for rehab and good luck to him, but his tradeoff is the kind we have come to accept with unblushing conviction. Yes, football tells young men lies. It is true that children get older. It is true that the strain of repetitive motion wears down knees and elbows, necks and spines. It is true that knocks upside the head will leave you sad and dumb and forgetful and maybe diapered.
It is true, too, that earthly rewards accompany each step of the way. It is true that proud parents shout from the Pop Warner sidelines, true that high school cheerleaders with bare legs smile and true that no-show college majors come with luxury dormitory accommodations. It is true, if you are good and lucky and work hard, that signing bonuses preface million-dollar salaries. True that football can identify men who are tough: leaders, not sissies. Perhaps most resoundingly, it is true that a well-turned play can leave a man, as Irwin Shaw has written, "smiling, breathing deeply but easily, feeling wonderful, not tired."
And if all that is not enough, it is even true that each of us is going to die some day, crossing the street or sleeping in bed, true that what lies beyond is the province of faith and true that our relations will stay behind for a time and then join us too, whether or not we ever play a down.
True all, true and known. Accepted.
Still, some say this peculiar American bargain will face the ultimate test. Some say it will come soon, a reckoning unseen in the modern era of sophisticated padding, sports medicine and liability litigation. Some say football is going to mortally wound a man right in front of us, dispatch him with one awful stroke and leave us all to answer for what we've done from our comfortable chairs in front of our high-definition television screens with our cheese-stuffed crusts arrayed like a million cheap funeral banquets. Some say the specter of sudden death on the turf will finally and inexorably turn us away from the violent core that makes all those other things about football true.
But then, remember: Liz Brown has another son. An older son. The one who bought this house.
Let's inspect another photograph, kept back in the bedroom outside the view of casual guests. This one is posed, a traditional portrait in a smaller frame, with no autograph. It shows a young man in the uniform of Texas A&M University, No. 46, cradling a football in his muscular forearm. From this angle only the front of his jersey is visible, but the young man shares his mother's last name. At the time of his birth she was 17, living in Killeen, Texas, the daughter of a soldier at Fort Hood. To qualify for obstetrical care, she was made to understand, the Army hospital required an unmarried girl of her circumstance to bestow the surname of an eligible military relation. She used her father's, Brown. The Army took no such interest in the assigning of first names, so she named her son after his own father, Reggie.