Murder of football player in Kansas shakes town, raises questions
In mid-September, Brandon Brown was beaten to death outside of a house party
Tabor is one of several small religious school in rural area that emphasize sports
Importing athletes from inner cities raises questions about priorities of the schools
Three days after Brandon Brown's death, Tabor College held a memorial service at a Mennonite Brethren church near the school's campus in Hillsboro, a central Kansas town of fewer than 3,000 people. The church's sanctuary is simple but modern, with vaulted beige ceilings, fern-green detailing and, above the altar, twin screens onto which hymn lyrics are projected. The upholstered pews were filled with students from Tabor, where Brown, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound redshirt junior defensive lineman from Sacramento, Calif., had attended classes for less than a month before he was beaten unconscious around 4 a.m. on Sept. 16 outside a house party in the nearby town of McPherson. He died in a Wichita intensive care unit six days later. That same day, McPherson police arrested one suspect in the fatal assault: Alton Franklin, a Dallas native listed as a 5-7, 178-pound linebacker on the preseason roster of rival McPherson College.
The first 10 rows of the sanctuary were reserved for members of the Tabor football team, who looked somber and uncomfortable in their button-up shirts and khaki slacks. Both Tabor and McPherson compete in the NAIA Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) -- though in the case of football that name is misleading, since a majority of the conference's players hail from outside of Kansas. Athletes from Texas and California account for nearly half of Tabor's football roster, and as many of its players hail from Harlem and the Bronx as from Nebraska or Missouri. With the presence of these burly young men, the audience at the memorial service represented more racial and ethnic diversity -- black, white, Hispanic, Samoan -- than this isolated Mennonite prairie town saw in its first 100 years of existence.
After a prelude of piano music, Tabor's president, Jules Glanzer, took the podium, made some opening remarks and read from the Book of Psalms. The head football coach, Mike Gardner, followed with a brief statement thanking the community for its support, and a professor of communication, Aleen Ratzlaff, shared some stories about Brown's time as a student at the college. All three speakers appeared shaken by Brown's death and sincere in their sorrow, but their recollections betrayed the awkwardness of eulogizing a person they didn't know very well. Brown was, apparently, a nice guy, a respectful student, a gentle spirit. He had a great sense of humor and was well liked by his friends. He had transferred to Tabor from Santa Ana (Calif.) College and had two young children back in Sacramento. At Santa Ana he'd put football before his studies, but in coming to Tabor he'd hoped to get his life on track, to be the father he needed to be for his children. The screens above the altar displayed a roster photo of Brown standing at the edge of Tabor's football field, midday sun glowing on his dark brown skin, an affable smile on his face. Without pads, his cornflower-blue Tabor uniform sagged in the shoulders, though it was stretched tight at his belly. Obituaries had noted that he was 26 years old, but in that picture -- with his shaved head, trimmed beard, bulky body and tired-looking eyes -- he could have passed for 36.
Brown's memorial service took on a new energy when a man named Rusty Allen strode to the front of the sanctuary wearing a brown suit, a blue tie and a wireless ear-set microphone. With the cadence and gravitas of an old-time country preacher, he urged the students to be better brothers and sisters to each other, pointing out that tragedy can bring people closer together. After 20 minutes of waxing inspirational, Allen announced it was time to get "real and honest," and his message began to take on a tinge of anger. He didn't vent his ire at the McPherson College football player accused of beating Brandon to death, nor did he express indignation at Tabor's football coaches for recruiting a 26-year-old father of two to play defensive line at a $22,000-a-year denominational college 1,600 miles away from his children. Rather, Allen was angry about a different type of recruiting concern. "If you were to die today," he posited, "and you stood before God, and he asked you the question, 'Why should I let you into heaven?', what would your answer be?"
Despite his ministerial bearing, Allen is not a preacher; he's a college administrator who in August 2011 was appointed head of Tabor's newly created Department of Enrollment Management and Intercollegiate Athletics. That sports and enrollment have been mashed into a single administrative unit at Tabor College is telling, since a majority of its students compete on at least one of the school's 17 sports teams (which include bowling and competitive cheerleading). In 1947, an item in the campus newspaper of this theologically conservative Mennonite Brethren school warned that "many schools are perverted in sports, because that is their major enterprise." Now, 65 years later, Tabor's press releases celebrate athletics as a strategy for attracting new students. Tabor's 120-man football team alone accounts for 20 percent of the campus population and plays its home games in a recently constructed $5.8 million stadium with enough seats for every adult resident of Hillsboro. In terms of raw roster numbers for all sports, Tabor, a school of 613 undergraduates, has as many varsity athletes as 19,385-student Kansas State University.
After the service, I drove onto the 25-mile stretch of U.S. 56 that Brandon Brown traveled the night he was beaten into unconsciousness. As a boy I used to ride down this road with my father, who told me how German-speaking Mennonites came to this region from the Ukraine in the 1870s, bringing with them a breed of hard red winter wheat that transformed the black prairie soil of central Kansas into America's breadbasket. Dad worked as a biology professor at Friends University, a KCAC school in Wichita, and when I would look out across the fields and marvel at the synchronized movements of the blackbirds-hundreds of them, darting like big schools of fish in the sky -- he'd point out that blackbirds often fly in mixed flocks. What at first glance seems to be a swarm of blackbirds, he said, might also contain cowbirds and starlings, all of them seeking out autumn grains and roosting together as they prepared for their seasonal migration.
When I reached McPherson I drove past the McPherson College campus to the house where police, after responding to a late-night noise complaint, found Brown lying unresponsive in the yard. The house, a duplex at 438 North Carrie Street, had a balding grass lawn, weathered white paint and a large sheet of plywood nailed over what used to be the front door.
Whenever the details of a crime are scarce, the event takes on a heightened brutality in the imagination. According to media reports, the altercation that ultimately killed Brown may have lasted 45 minutes before police were called to the scene. The most serious traumatic injury was to Brown's lungs, which suggests he was stomped on after he'd been beaten to the ground. How someone as small as 19-year-old Alton Franklin could, acting alone, have inflicted so much damage on Brown is difficult to envision.
That Brown was in McPherson in the wee hours of a Saturday morning is easier to imagine, since Hillsboro pretty much shuts down after dark. Tabor had defeated Haskell Indian Nations University 56-7 in a home game that evening, and by the time the team was out of pads and showered it was probably pushing 11 p.m. McPherson, a town of 13,000, has three downtown bars popular with college students, and Brown and a few teammates -- including Ilai Eteaki, a linebacker who'd transferred with Brown from Santa Ana -- likely made the 30-minute drive from Hillsboro aiming to blow off steam and mix with other young people at Hank's or Shaggy's or City Limits. Around closing time, it's possible that Brown and Eteaki were invited to (or caught wind of) a house party on North Carrie Street, a block from the McPherson College football field. According to the police witness list, at least a half-dozen players from the McPherson football team were at the party, as were a pair of girls from the McPherson track team.
As I stood in front of the house, a kid walked past in a red McPherson College hoodie and a plaid ballcap. His face hardened when I asked him about the plywood nailed over the front door. "They say the guy pulled a street sign out of the ground and smashed it through the glass when they wouldn't let him back into the party," he said.
"Which guy?" I asked.
"The guy who died. They threw him out of the party, so he comes back with a street sign and tries to smash the front door in." The kid paused, glared. "What pisses me off," he said, "is how everyone keeps talking about this, and nobody's talking about what happened to Paul."
It took me a moment to realize he was referring to Paul Ziegler, a 19-year-old McPherson College tennis player from Pennsylvania who was struck and killed by a car while riding his bicycle north of town the day after Brown died. Ziegler, the son of a McPherson alumnus, had come to the school partly because of its traditional affiliation with the Church of the Brethren, a peace church that shares Anabaptist roots with the Mennonites and the Amish. In many ways Ziegler and Brown represented how athletic programs at the small colleges of central Kansas have shifted over the years. Half a century ago, most out-of-state athletes at schools like McPherson and Tabor were people like Ziegler: Brethren or Mennonite kids who'd known about these colleges since childhood and who considered sports secondary to denominational education. These days, the out-of-state athletes on KCAC rosters are more often like Brown (and Franklin), young men who probably had never heard of these distant Kansas campuses until they spoke with athletic recruiters.
Ironically, the sporting rivalry between Tabor and McPherson has never been that intense. Traditionally Tabor's biggest KCAC rival has been Bethel College, 25 miles south of Hillsboro, a school affiliated with a more liberal sect of Mennonites. McPherson has never had a clear rival save perhaps for Bethany College, 16 miles north of McPherson. Of the 10 KCAC schools, Tabor, Bethel, Bethany, Sterling and Kansas Wesleyan all lie within 40 miles of McPherson. With the exception of Kansas Wesleyan, all of these colleges are in towns of 15,000 or fewer residents, and each has an enrollment of around 600 students. Most have recently renovated or newly constructed stadiums, and all boast large football rosters dominated by out-of-staters.
In the days that followed Brown's death, I visited each of these small-college towns, talking to alumni, boosters and retired or late-career coaches, professors, athletic directors, presidents and trustees. Many of them admitted that what happened to Brown in McPherson could have happened in any KCAC college town at any point in the past 20 years. The biggest surprise, some said, is that it didn't happen sooner.
One week after Franklin's arrest, police arrested a second suspect: DeQuinte Flournoy, listed on McPherson's preseason roster as a 5-9, 330-pound sophomore offensive lineman from Dallas.
How the small colleges of central Kansas came to host so many big-city student-athletes is a story rooted in the religious idealism of late-19th-century prairie settlers; the rise of professionalized sports culture and the fall of rural populations in the mid- to late 20th century; and the stopgap economics of trying to keep small denominational colleges alive in the early 21st century.
Most of the schools that later came to be a part of the KCAC were founded in the wake of the land boom that brought more than one million settlers to Kansas between the end of the Civil War and 1890. In one remarkable three-year period, 1886 to 1889, various Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Brethren and Lutheran synods founded Kansas Wesleyan, Sterling, Bethel, McPherson and Bethany colleges in four adjacent counties. Intercollegiate football debuted a few years later, when a squad from Kansas Wesleyan traveled to Lindsborg and defeated Bethany 48-0.
The early days of small-college football in Kansas reflected national trends and controversies. When Friends University in Wichita dropped its football program in 1907 amid national concern over gridiron deaths, students staged a mock funeral in protest. (Friends reinstated the sport in 1912.) In 1915, a Kansas Wesleyan coach defended the violence of football in the school yearbook, noting, "The real dangers of football are two in number -- if the winning of the game is more important than building character, and if it is made the all-important purpose of the college man's life." Team recruiting tended to take place on campus, though occasionally coaches went to the train yards and recruited railroad men to beef up their rosters.