Family carried Brown through the hard times

Thanksgiving at Willie B. Jefferson's house in Henderson, N.C., won't officially begin until the circle.

With the feast sorely visible and the scent of heavenly food impossible to ignore, Jason Brown and nearly three dozen family members will hold hands. In turns, they'll give thanks. For some, it's a measure of perseverance and temptation.

Starting with Willie B., who turned 87 in July, everyone old enough to talk will share something for which they are thankful. Some will be brief, no doubt eyeing the vast quantity of food spread on the picnic tables in the backyard.

Some will give testimonials. Tears might be shed, and probably some laughter.

The food is worth waiting for. So is the communion.

"The firmest foundation you can have is in your family. Their love is unconditional," Brown said, audibly excited at the thought of going back home to see his parents, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. And Willie B.

For the past four years, Brown has made the trip from Chapel Hill to Henderson as often as he could. One of the primary reasons he chose to play football for the University of North Carolina was the proximity to home, and his mother.

Brown, a 6-foot-3, 312-pound senior center, broke every weightlifting record in the UNC football program during his time (including a bench press of 475 pounds and squat of 768 pounds), but he's not ashamed to admit he's a mama's boy.

For that, all of Brown's teammates should be thankful.

Without Deborah Brown, who knows if Jason would have had the strength, weightlifting feats aside, to help build a foundation for future success at UNC. He played his first game as a true freshman in 2001 in a 41-9 victory over Florida State, but the highlights were rare after that.

There were seasons of 3-9 and 2-10 when he was a sophomore and junior, including a 2-14 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference. As a junior, Brown learned how little it meant when, after an 0-3 start to the season (including a 37-0 rout by the Seminoles), he got word that his older brother, Lunsford, had been killed in Iraq.

Brown drove home to be with his family the day after a loss at Wisconsin, but he was back at football practice by the next Tuesday and in the starting lineup against North Carolina State four days later.

"When I wanted to stay with my family, my mother said, 'I think the best thing for you to do is go back down to Chapel Hill and be with your other family,"' Brown said. "To tell you the truth, that is what was best. Looking back, I know that's what my brother would have wanted me to do.

"Sometimes the best thing to do is not to sit there and sulk, because you sit there in your own misery -- it will eat you up inside."

And if Brown ever felt sorry for what was happening in the Carolina football program, he didn't dwell on it. He worked harder in the weight room and on the practice field, urging classmates to do the same.

Last spring, the seniors took a leadership course and Brown recognized he could be a more vocal source of strength to his teammates, not so unlike the strength he finds at home.

"There was a lot of trial and error in our football team the last few years. We lost a great senior class my (freshman) year of 2001, and lost almost all of our leadership," Brown said. "We had a lot of young guys in the dark, not knowing what to do."

This season, that began to change. There were games when abandoning hope would have been easy. There was a 32-point loss to Virginia, a 34-0 loss at home to Louisville, a 22-point loss at Florida State and a 30-point loss at Utah.

Remarkably, Carolina followed the loss to Virginia with a victory over Georgia Tech and the losses to Louisville and Florida State (in consecutive games) with a victory over rival North Carolina State. After the loss to Utah came a stunning home-field victory over then-No. 3 Miami.

"After that Virginia loss (on Sept. 11) -- a compete embarrassment -- we could have said, 'Uh, you know, we got our butts whooped,' but that's not been our focus this year," Brown said. "Our focus has been about being positive, upbeat and going at practice with tremendous enthusiasm all the way around from beginning to end to ensure that we have the best possible chance for success."

The Tar Heels won three of their final four games, the only loss a three-point setback to ACC leader Virginia Tech, and will be going to a bowl game for the first time since Brown's freshman season.

A modest achievement, but so much better than how Brown might have left the program. He's convinced his senior class will pass on lessons in leadership to players who will help Carolina continue its climb back to respectability.

Deborah Brown is convinced the lessons her son got at home have been passed along, too. She moved the family back to Henderson in 1983 from Washington, D.C., where she had worked for the federal government.

Jason's father remained in Washington and commuted to Henderson when he could. Deborah raised her three children with plenty of help from her father, Willie B., while also running for the local school board.

She served on the board for 12 years, then was elected to the Vance County commission in 2000. She was re-elected for another term on Nov. 2.

"What we're saying to our children, and our young people, you wonder if some of it is getting through, but then you see and hear them repeat and say things you have said and it kind of makes you realize, 'Oh, they were listening. They were paying attention,'" Deborah Brown said.

When Jason graduates in communications, he'll first take a shot at an NFL career, where he hopes the notoriety helps in his personal goal of opening a non-profit center for inner-city youth.

He doesn't rule out the possibility of following his mother's lead into politics, where he believes his family background could have a wider influence.

Whatever happens, Brown knows it started at home with his mother ("The wisest person I know," he said). Deborah Brown said it started with her father, Willie B. Jefferson.

On Thursday, they'll all be standing in a circle, holding hands and giving thanks. Willie B. first.

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.