SI Vault
Barbara Heilman
April 03, 1961
Sports have become the weapon with which the Jesuit fathers and Franciscan sisters of St. Stephen's Mission in Wyoming are waging a battle for their Indians. The fight is going well but, as in other battles, not without some losses
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April 03, 1961

Farewell To Shannon Brown

Sports have become the weapon with which the Jesuit fathers and Franciscan sisters of St. Stephen's Mission in Wyoming are waging a battle for their Indians. The fight is going well but, as in other battles, not without some losses

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The flat Wyoming country between the Wind and Little Wind rivers and the Wind River Range is bleak in winter. The sagebrush patches the snow and the tumbleweed is caught disconsolate in the fences as the land rolls somberly back until it achieves the beauty of the mountains. This is the Wind River Indian Reservation, and it takes 100 acres of it to support a horse.

"No water," said Father Kurth as we lurched along the winter-rutted roads on a tour of the reservation. "Only one family out of 25 even has a well—the rest have to come to the mission for water. It's about 125 feet down. Our well is big, and we had to go down 500. Costs about $5 a foot to sink one, depending on the width. Some of the Indians wash their clothes in the irrigation ditches and hang them along half a mile of barbed-wire fence to dry.... I've never known how they got them off again," he mused. "All in one piece, I mean. There's where Shannon lives." He pointed, and I could see the house a long way down the little side road, mean and boxy, like all the Arapaho houses in the flatlands. I couldn't see the rusty frame of the abandoned three-year-old car, or the outhouse or the dogs, but they probably were there. For the next few miles I watched the sides of the road and looked into passing cars, hoping for Shannon Brown on his way home, but he eluded me again.

He was not my business any more, strictly speaking. I was visiting St. Stephen's, a small Indian mission, to find out something about the mission teams as such. St. Stephen's Father Torres had written us:

"Last year our high school teams lost only one contest in the three sports in which they compete. Unlike many parochial schools, we do compete in league competition against public schools. The one defeat was a 14-13 loss to the state football champion. Our basketball team was undefeated in 28 games, winning the state final game by a 71-55 score over a team that had won 25 straight. The track squad also won the state championship, and this year our football team...."

Straight achievement, duly respected. But about Shannon the letter had said:

"...might be the Indian angle. A good example is Shannon Brown. This boy has been an All-State basketball player for two years and is one of the greatest in the history of the state. And yet he quit school this year with his third and greatest All-State season undoubtedly coming up. He is a real paradox.

"On the court he is poised far beyond the average high school athlete. He has never played a poor game in an important situation. Last year in the state final before over 10,000 fans in the Wyoming U. field house he scored 30 points, rebounded beautifully and generally demoralized the opposition. Yet he is so shy off the court that it took him about a year to get to the point where he would speak extended sentences to one of his teachers.

"Once he split his trunks in a game and walked off the court without calling time, without saying even a word to his coach. When the coach noticed we were playing with only four men he looked down at the far end of the bench and there was Brown, looking straight ahead. 'Shannon, for heaven's sake what are you doing off the court?' All Brown did was point stoically at his seat. That's all he would do when the coach questioned him further. Finally one of the other boys on the bench told the coach what had happened. Brown was rushed to the dressing room for a quick change, for to play without him is like Cincinnati playing without Robertson. The coach waited. He waited. Finally he asked one of the fathers to please see what the holdup was. Shannon was seated immobile in the dressing room. His explanation: there were no more white trunks with red trimming left. Only white with no trimming. If he put these on, the people would notice that he was different and would guess that he had split his pants. Father had to run to the laundry here at the mission, sew his pants and run back again, and then Brown went back into the game.

"Yet the Wyoming press writes of him only in superlatives (the dancer-graceful Indian, the fabulous Shannon Brown, the much-discussed Brown, etc.) and, as I have written, besides his remarkable accuracy his forte on the court is his poise. His failure to return to school this year was almost the death of his coach, but it was only one of a long series of harrowing experiences. The coach is a 28-year-old named Bill Strannigan who tells anyone who will listen to him, without a trace of jokefulness, that Shannon has made him prematurely grey. For one thing, Shannon likes to break wild horses. For another, up until last year, Strannigan never knew him to show up for a game more than 10 minutes before the beginning...."

Shannon had looked out at me from innumerable newspaper clippings, solemn and shy under his astonishing hair—brushed back on the sides, forward in front, in a sudden and complex swoop, his own invention and particular pride. He was 6 feet 2 and except in the action shots was shy up and down every inch of it.

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