CB Brown thrives through adversity

Updated: December 31, 2013, 7:37 PM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tammy Walker-Brown and her husband, Tony Brown, tried to teach their children not to run from adversity. Former star athletes at Texas Tech, Tammy and Tony embraced challenges and wanted their kids to do the same.

The Browns didn't just preach the lesson. They lived it.

In September 2005, as Hurricane Rita battered southeast Texas, the family of six retreated from Beaumont, Texas, to their old home, still unsold 160 miles inland to the west in Bryan.

For two days, Tammy and Tony refused to activate the water supply.

They used the electricity and enjoyed cover from the storm. But the Browns wanted daughters Sojourner and Bealoved, son Tony II, and little Gracey, a cousin of the older children whom the family absorbed as their own at 5 weeks of age, to understand strife.

So the kids carried water to the house in buckets.

"Life isn't easy," Tammy said. "When a roadblock came up, we wanted them to know how to step over it."

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Miller Safrit/ESPNNo. 11 recruit Tony Brown has thrived in spite of tragedy thanks to a strong family support system.
Sixteen months ago, major adversity struck as the elder Tony suffered a stroke after a preseason football film session with his son at Beaumont's Ozen High School. Forty-two at the time and the picture of fitness and strength, he lay in a coma for nearly three months.

Tony remained hospitalized in Houston and Beaumont for more than 10 months and still struggles to speak more than a few words at a time. He cannot walk; the muscles on the right side of his body remain severely constricted as he awaits surgery in 2014 to remove a calcium deposit in his hip.

More adversity arrived on Tuesday, in fact, as young Tony, a 6-foot, 196-pound cornerback ranked No. 11 in the ESPN 300, went down with a shoulder injury during practice for the Under Armour All-America Game. He remains hopeful to play in the all-star event; regardless, setbacks don't stop this family.

And the elder Tony plans to sit among his family at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., for his son's much-awaited college announcement during the Under Armour Game at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN.

His father's condition profoundly impacted young Tony, also an elite sprinter and world-class hurdler who plans to run track in college. He made official visits to Ohio State, Alabama, Texas, USC and LSU, navigating the recruiting process without the once-expected aid of his father, adviser and coach.

"He was the dad who was always there for me," Tony II said. "He showed me how to do my first pushup. He was my coach my whole life. I attribute so much of my success to what my dad taught me."

The incident sharpened the younger Tony's already intense focus. It brought him closer to his mother and sisters, made him more appreciative of his surroundings and his athletic gifts.

That's what adversity can do.

"He needed a couple of trials," Tammy said of her son. "The strength he's showing right now, that's going to help him get over the top."

Tony II, even as his father lay motionless in a hospital bed, heard his words more clearly. He paid better attention to the advice ingrained in his mind.

Before the incident, he was making bad decisions.

"I needed to grow up," he said. "I was acting childish. I was getting in fights. I got mad real easily. My dad always said it would come back to haunt me."

The fighting has stopped, he said.

Last spring, he argued a few times with Ozen football coach Keeath Magee, who urged Tony II to take it easy -- skip an occasional spring football practice -- to keep his body fresh for track.

A fierce competitor, young Tony would have none of it.

"It is truly remarkable," Magee said, "to see every single day what he deals with and how he handles it. I've probably learned as much from Tony Brown this year as he's learned from me."

Tony II, according to those close to him, long ago embarked on a mission to prove his greatness in football and track. This adversity has only strengthened his resolve.

On the inside of his left forearm, he placed a tattoo with his father's initials -- TMB I -- and a Tasmanian devil. The elder Tony tattooed the same devil to his right leg during his college career as a defensive back in Lubbock, a sign of his blazing speed.

Before every football game and track meet, young Tony rubs his tattoo.

As for his son's announcement on Thursday, which enticed Tony to leave the state of Texas for the first time since his stroke?

"Dare I say it will be emotional," Magee said. "It will be a commencement of sorts as the end of this process."

                                                       * * *

The stroke hit on Aug. 26, 2012, in the evening before the first day of young Tony's junior year. He finished watching film in the coaching offices with his father, the newly promoted Ozen defensive coordinator, and Tony II left the room to lift weights. 

Minutes later, he found his dad seized on the floor. Tony tried unsuccessfully to talk. A blood vessel had ruptured in the left hemisphere of his brain.

[+] EnlargeTony Brown
Joy Kamani for National Scholastic Athletics FoundationIn addition to being one of the nation's top football players, Tony Brown is also an elite-level track star.
Those first three months were especially tough. Tony II rarely visited his father.

"Him being the guy that he was, seeing him with the tubes and being so skinny and the scar on his head where they had to do surgery," young Tony said. "I hate it. I hated to see him like that."

He poured his energy into football and rarely spoke of his father. Fellow defensive back Jamal Adams (Lewisville, Texas/Hebron), also set to announce his college choice on Thursday, said he's never talked to his friend to discuss the situation.

"I've heard some stories," Adams said, "but not from Tony."

Tony II, for this article, talked extensively about his father. Tammy, his mother, said she's happy for him. It's therapeutic for young Tony to share the story, she said. It's part of the healing process.

"I always ask why," Tony II said. "But my mom tells me to go back to my faith -- that everything happens for a reason. I know it makes me feel obligated to be successful for him. It drives me."

Tammy said she hoped the story of her husband, whose doctors told the family his stroke was likely caused by coaching stress and elevated blood pressure, would encourage others to monitor their health.

Tony came home to Beaumont last summer. He had lost 50 pounds.

Tammy, the girls' basketball coach at Ozen, nurses him daily. She carries a large bag of his medications on trips outside their home and set a hospital bed alongside the mattress that they shared.

In October, Tammy took him to an Ozen road game against Vidor (Texas) High. She parked his wheelchair on the field so her husband could see the game well. The stroke also damaged his vision. At halftime, the elder Tony suffered a seizure.

He was rushed from the stadium by ambulance as Tammy urged Magee and the other coaches to keep the Ozen players in the locker room until he was gone. She didn't want her son to see that.

"We're coming from the ground up," Tammy said. "What he's done so far, we're really proud of him. But it's going to be a long process. Our lives have always been so fast. We measure everything by how fast we go in this family. Recovery from a stroke is measured in months and years. We had to learn how to run a marathon after being sprinters."

                                                         * * *

Young Tony talks of his mother's strength with reverence.

"She's never really shown any weakness," he said. "For her to go through the things she went through, she's my hero."

With Sojourner away in college at Rice and Bealoved at LSU as a freshman on the track team, Tammy maintained a tiring schedule in the three months before her husband was transferred to Houston.

Once the kids were in bed, Tammy joined her husband at the hospital to sleep. She rose at 5:30 a.m. to get home and restart the routine.

"I'm not superwoman," she said, "but I'm telling you, God gave me strength I didn't know I had. I was never tired. My children needed for one of us to be OK. They needed some sense of normalcy. "My son needed to see that I was strong. I think it will affect his life later."

It already has.

"There have been a lot of times that he could have very easily said, 'My dad's not well. I give up,'" said Magee, the high school coach. "But he's been the exact opposite."

Tony II smiles at the thought of announcing his decision in the presence of both his parents. He said he's envisioned this moment for years, watching others before him on TV in this game, though he couldn't imagine the experience without his mom and dad in attendance.

"My focus and drive," he said, "it comes from my parents."

Though he collected some 30 scholarships offers and graduated a semester early in order to run track and participate in football practice this spring, Tony II also sought academic- and citizenship-based scholarships.

Remember, his parents taught him never to take the easy route.

On a scholarship-application essay, he posed a question: What's more difficult, to lose a father you never knew, or to love a father who's there every step of the way and then lose him?

Surely, it's the latter, he wrote.

Every day, another small piece of Tony Brown's father returns. Thursday is a big day.

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