HILLSBORO — The Tabor College community came together Tuesday for a memorial service for football player Brandon Brown, reflecting on Brown’s life while still dealing with questions surrounding his death.
Brown was found shortly after 4 a.m. on Sept. 16 just blocks from the McPherson College campus after police responded to a disturbance call. He had been beaten and was unconscious. Brown died at a Wichita hospital on Saturday night after being taken off of life support. He was 26.
The memorial service was held at Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, a few blocks from the Tabor campus. Brown’s family was taking his body back to his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday and did not attend.
“This tragedy has the potential to bring us closer,” said Rusty Allen, Tabor’s vice president for intercollegiate activities and enrollment management. “We should consistently look out for each other.”
Tabor football coach Mike Gardner and Tabor president Jules Glanzer also spoke at the service. A slideshow of pictures of Brown with his teammates and two young children – a 3-year-old boy and a 7-month-old girl – was played along with a song that teammate Josh Murphy wrote to commemorate Brown, entitled “Holding Back Tears.”
Brown, a redshirt junior defensive lineman, transferred to Tabor from Santa Ana (Calif.) College, a two-year school.
“I am thankful, grateful and blessed to have Brandon Brown as a part of our football family, even if it was for a short time,” Gardner said.
A McPherson College student was arrested in the case on Saturday and charged with aggravated battery. The charge was amended to aiding and abetting murder in the second degree after Brown died, leaving two communities, just 26 miles apart, reeling.
Alton Franklin, 19, is being held in McPherson County Jail on a $500,000 bond. He played football for McPherson in 2011 but was thrown off the team last month by first-year coach Pete Sterbick.
“I arrived in the spring, and he was on our team. (Franklin) came back in fall, and as a new coach we had new rules on accountability,” Sterbick said. “He didn’t fit into what we were doing as a staff, and we dismissed him in August.”
Sterbick attended Tuesday’s memorial service, along with McPherson College president Michael Schneider. Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference commissioner Scott Crawford, Friends football coach Monty Lewis and Southwestern football coach Ken Crandall also attended.
Tabor canceled classes from noon to 6 p.m. on Tuesday in order for students to grieve and spend time together.
“The next step is going to be the first one, which is trying to heal from this,” coach Gardner said. “Everybody mourns loss differently, everyone grieves differently. I’ve encouraged our kids to try to find peace with this, within themselves.”
While Brown was still on life support, Gardner met with the McPherson College football team to deliver a message.
“I wanted simply to let those guys know, that through all of this, we still love them, and we would forgive,” Gardner said. “I wanted them to know that we were praying for forgiveness. That we were simply trying to put the pieces together and make sense of all this.”
Potential witnesses in the case listed on a court document include four current members of McPherson’s football team and a player from last season’s roster. Also listed was current Tabor football player Ilea Eteaki, arrested on suspicion of battery to a police officer three blocks away around the same time Brown was found face-down in the street.
Eteaki was also a teammate of Brown’s at Santa Ana.
With the possibility of more arrests on the horizon, all parties have preached the need for peace, but braced for the possibility of more bad news in what’s been classified as an ongoing investigation by the McPherson Police Department, McPherson County Sheriff’s Department and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
“The natural thing to do is to retreat, but we’re trying to come together,” Schneider said. “It’s important for the students, for the faculty and staff.”
McPherson moved its football game against Friends on Saturday up to 1 p.m. from 7 p.m. to allow for more security. Extra security patrols on campus have also been brought in for Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Most of the student body – Schneider estimated 75 percent – lives on campus. Franklin lived on campus at the time of his arrest. He has since been suspended from school.
“I trust the McPherson Police Department, I trust the police chief,” Schneider said. “If there’s any reason for me to believe there’s someone on my campus that will make it unsafe, I will take immediate action.”
Sunday, McPherson was rocked by another tragedy when sophomore tennis player Paul Ziegler was hit by a car and killed while riding a bicycle just south of McPherson.
A makeshift memorial was set up for Brown in Harnly Garden, on the middle of the McPherson campus, and for Ziegler on the tennis courts, where broken tennis rackets framed a sign that read “We Miss You Paul.”
In the trees all around campus, blue and gold streamers – Tabor’s colors – blew in the wind.