ESPN 300 defensive back Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen) is a mama's boy through and through. His mother, Tammy Walker-Brown, will tell you so without hesitation.
But there isn’t a voice on this earth that resonates more with Brown than his namesake father’s.
That’s precisely what has made the last year of Brown’s life the most difficult of the 17 he has lived: the silence.
His father suffered a stroke before the first day of the 2012-2013 school year. He could no longer speak.
After the stroke came a five-week long medically induced coma. Once the medicine stopped, he stayed in a coma for another six weeks.
All the while, silence. Still to this day, silence.
Silence through the most important and eventful year of Brown’s young but incredibly promising career.
Not only is Brown one of the most sought-after recruits in the country, with football royalty such as Mack Brown, Nick Saban and Les Miles in hot pursuit, he’s also one of the top hurdlers in the world. He’ll represent the United States at the 2013 Pan American Junior Athletics Championship in Medellin, Columbia, from Aug. 23-25.
Just last week, Brown's father moved back into their home for the first time since the stroke. He will be screaming in spirit as his son competes against the world’s best. It’s about all he can muster for the time being.
Tony Brown Sr. will gain the ability to speak again, his doctors say. When he does -- they say speech is often the last thing to return to a stroke survivor -- he’ll be able to commend his son for conquering the past year with dignity and perseverance.
Coping with a stroke
The events that would alter the course of Brown’s family happened, not surprisingly, with the younger Brown in the weight room and the elder Brown, then Ozen’s defensive coordinator, in the coach’s office game-planning for the 2012 season opener.
“One of the coaches came out and said I needed to call my mom,” Brown said. “I walked in to where they were and he looked like he was just passed out. His eyes were open and he couldn’t talk. We didn’t think it was anything serious. He didn’t eat anything for breakfast that morning, so I was thinking maybe he needed some sugar.”
But Brown’s mother, the Ozen girls basketball coach, told him differently.
“Strokes are major,” Walker-Brown said. “The only assurance that I could give Tony is that it happened for a reason, a reason we can’t explain. I think that his dad’s silence, his dad’s voice, had rung in his ear for a long time. For it to just stop ”
It was a painful reality that took Brown a while to grasp.
“The first couple of weeks, I felt like my dad was in the other room,” Brown said. “It’s hard. That’s how my mind copes with it. It didn’t really hit me until I saw him in the hospital.”
Brown Sr. bled in the left hemisphere of his brain, which controls the right side of the body and also speech and language abilities. He underwent surgery to relieve blood from that side of the brain and was then placed into the medically induced coma.
“It was like you were watching a movie,” Brown said of his father. “I’m looking at my dad and he was always in shape. He lifted with me a lot of times. So to see something like that happen to a guy like my dad, it took me a while to realize that even happened. I’m still grasping it right now. It’s going to be a while for him to get to how he was, but I know, at least, that he’s going to get to how he was.”
Considering he’s cut from the same cloth as his son, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Brown Sr. will find the inner strength to return to his old self.
His son, after all, is a fierce competitor.
Important to be first
Brown’s third-grade teacher didn’t realize who she was dealing with.
She requested a parent-teacher conference with the family to ask the parents to make it clear to Brown that it was OK to finish second.
Wait. Excuse you?
“We both looked at each other and were at a loss for words because we didn’t hold the same beliefs that she had,” Walker-Brown said. “He has to be the first to answer the question, first to answer the math problem.”
First to cross the finish line. First to compete in drills. First to get to the weight room. First to arrive at the track. First in everything. It’s just in Brown's nature.
That mentality has led to an abundance of success, particularly on the track the past few months.
In February, during the indoor track season, Brown clocked the fastest high school time in the nation in the 60-meter hurdles with a 7.76-second blur at the Simplot Games in Pocatello, Idaho.
At the state championships in Austin in May, Brown took home gold in the 110-meter hurdles in a Texas Class 4A record time of 13.4 seconds. He finished second in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.53. Gatorade named him the Texas Boys Track & Field Athlete of the Year.
Brown's success earned him a spot at the Pan American Junior Athletics Championship in Columbia. It’s the biggest sporting event of his life.
“I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am. I get a chance to represent my country through track,” said Brown, who will find out in a few weeks whether he’ll also run the 4x100 relay in addition to the 110-meter hurdles. “Not many 17-year-old kids can say I am going out of the country to represent my country. I’m as excited as if it is the Olympics. I want to go and show that I can compete internationally. I can’t explain how excited I am.”
What has seen from Brown’s track exploits is the success he has achieved. What’s not is the work that it took to get to this point. It’s taxing.
June was supposed to be the month that he started focusing on his recruitment. He planned to take trips to various schools to narrow things down.
Instead, he spent every week attending a national track meet. North Carolina. Iowa. Puerto Rico. Then there was The Opening in the first week of July, which he only had one week to prepare for.
“I try not to think about how hard it is to do the things that I do,” said Brown, whose older sister, Bealoved, has signed a track scholarship with LSU. “I just go out there for that day of work and make sure you are getting better that day. I can’t take a day off because someone is always taking a day on and it might show up in a track meet. It is very strenuous.”
That doesn’t even include the constant prodding by college programs for the No. 27 recruit in the ESPN 300. This is exactly where his father’s voice is missed.
Recruiting voice missing
Brown Sr. has seen the ways of recruiting through the lens of a coach and as a player. He was a defensive back for Purdue and Texas Tech in the late 1980s.
That expertise was supposed to come in handy for his son. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to weigh in.
“It’s affected me greatly because my dad was a guy that if I ever had questions about anything, he was the guy who would help me,” Brown said. “He’s been through all the facets of the recruiting process as a coach and a player. He was there.
"So not having him there, I felt like someone that didn’t have that extra backbone to help. It’s really just been me and my mom.”
Walker-Brown has done her best. She played basketball at Texas Tech from 1988-91, so she knows a thing or two about recruiting. But it’s just not the same as it would be if her husband could chime in.
“The decision will be harder knowing that I won’t really have his input in my decision and his verification in my decision,” Brown said. “It will really be me now. I wish he was here to help me with my decision, but I can’t do anything about it.”
His decision, one of the most hotly debated in the country, won’t come until the end of his football season. As for which schools he’ll be choosing from, he isn't so sure.
“I won’t have any top schools until either the start of the season of until I start to take my official visits,” he said. “I mean, I definitely want to enroll early and will choose a school by the end of the season.”
The schools that figure to factor heavily are LSU (his first offer), Alabama, Texas, Florida State and Texas A&M.
“LSU was my first offer, so I am definitely liking them a lot,” he said. “I definitely like Alabama a lot. It almost doesn’t get any better than Coach [Nick] Saban. But I like Coach [Jeremy] Pruitt at FSU. I like Coach [Marcel] Yates at A&M. I like Coach [Kevin] Sumlin. I like their track program. I like FSU’s track program. I could go all day naming coaches I like.
“That’s why I like to keep it open because I don’t want to burn any bridges. I don’t want people saying, 'Well, he said this was his favorite and that was his favorite.' Nah, that burns bridges and I have the utmost respect for anybody that takes the time out to recruit me. I’m just loving the love."
Brown has conversations with his father as if he’s expecting him to answer back.
Keep it as normal as possible, the doctors say.
One day, fingers crossed, Brown Sr. will respond.
For now, Brown has to live with a nod of his father’s head or a tap on his arm. Both give him the greatest satisfaction.
“I definitely talk to him every day as if he can respond,” he said. “Hopefully one of these days he’ll be talking regular and say, 'I’m here, Tony.' "
Father and son will have a lot of catching up to do.