MANHATTAN — Mother and father were in pain. Their first-born child had just died from sickle-cell anemia, a disease they passed on genetically, and they didn’t know what to do.
They desperately wanted to be parents again, but the thought of losing another child was unbearable. Their first died before the age of 2. No way could they endure that again.
As carriers of the sickle-cell anemia trait, future heartbreak was a risk. So they faced a difficult choice. Ultimately, they decided to have another child. Only this time they would hold nothing back. They would give it all they could and prayed it was born healthy. They even had a name picked out for a boy.
This time, they insisted he would be named after his father. Somehow, they knew that would help.
Sure enough, Arthur Brown Jr. was born free of disease.
• • •
The story behind Brown Jr.’s name is so important that his father’s voice cracks as he tells it.
It explains everything about him, his faith and the strong connection he feels with his family.
“He was a miracle,” Brown Sr. says 22 years later.
The son’s perfect health convinced the parents to give him a brother, Bryce. When he, too, was born disease-free — neither of them carry the sickle-cell trait — emotions ran wild.
“They are the blessings of all blessings,” Brown Sr. said. “They completely defied the odds.”
Today, Arthur Brown is one of the best linebackers in the country and the star of Kansas State’s defense. He has made 67 tackles, grabbed two interceptions and is in contention for national awards.
He has always been talented. His speed and strength and work ethic made him a top recruit. He had his choice of colleges.
As a senior at East, Brown decided he would attend Miami, a tradition-rich program in a vibrant city by the beach. It was all he thought he ever wanted. Thing is, he accomplished next to nothing while there. He made 17 tackles in two seasons and was quickly labeled a bust.
It wasn’t until he transferred to K-State and reconnected with his family that his game and life blossomed. And it wasn’t until he was brave enough to embrace his full name that the Wildcats became national-championship contenders.
Brown is quiet by nature. His teammates long ago nicknamed him “The Judge,” because he prefers to speak through actions. But the family culture at K-State slowly changed him.
“They cracked my shell,” Brown now admits.
So much so, that he finally asked for something he had long desired. Last summer, after being too shy in high school and too isolated at Miami, he asked if he could wear his full name on the back of his jersey.
K-State’s response: Of course.
He now takes the field with the letters “A. Brown Jr.” on his back.
“That made me so happy,” Brown said. “I have always wanted to play with my full name on my jersey. It’s a great way to honor my father and my whole family. But, for whatever reason, I never asked. I was afraid they would say no. I guess I just feel at home here. It turned out to be a really simple thing.”
• • •
Nothing brings out the best in Brown like feeling at home.
His father can attest to that.
When Brown left for Miami, his family was happy. Though it was tough to see him go, his father thought the distance between them could help Junior mature.
“When you leave and go into an unfamiliar place it does one of two things,” Brown Sr. said. “It makes you grow up and become more responsible. Or it can cause you to regress and not be successful. I wanted him to have the option to find his way and become the young man he wanted to be.”
Brown Jr. felt both sides of the experiment.
His younger brother Bryce, a running back who now plays in the NFL, briefly committed to Miami, too, and it seemed like everything was going to work out. But when Bryce switched his commitment to Tennessee, the family was spread too thin.
Brown’s father, who works for Command Composites in Wichita, recalls visiting him “three times at the most” while he was at Miami. It was simply too far away.
Brown Jr. doesn’t like talking about Miami. Special-teams duty didn’t treat him well, and he didn’t live up to his potential. But his time away helped him mature. It prepared him for his return to his home state, and made him realize the value of family.
“It taught him a lot of life lessons,” Brown Sr. said. “It helped shape and mold him into the man he is today.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to watch him struggle.
Father and son talked on the phone when they could, but that wasn’t enough. Family friend Brian Butler occasionally flew to Miami and watched him practice. That was nice, but he couldn’t see anything wrong with him on the football field. He thought he was the best linebacker on the team, which raised the question: Why wasn’t he playing?
Maybe it had to do with his priorities. Looking back, he didn’t choose Miami for the right reasons. Butler remembers asking Brown then what it would take for him to consider a nearby college.
His reply: A beach.
“He really wanted to be in warm weather,” Butler said. “That was at the top of his list.”
Or maybe time would have taken care of the problem. He was in line to start as a junior. But Brown’s family didn’t want him to wait that long. They could tell he was homesick. They urged him to transfer.
“We started to recognize things that were going on with him emotionally,” Brown Sr. said. “It came to a point where we felt we couldn’t be supportive being so far away. He grew up under a support system that was there for him all the time. It had nothing to do with football. It was based all on where we felt he was as a young man, developing. We felt like he needed to be closer to his family.”
Father even convinced Bryce to transfer from Tennessee to K-State, too. Both moves created national headlines, and brought unwanted attention to the Brown family when Tennessee refused to grant Bryce a release, but they were worth it. The whole family was together again. After a year off per NCAA transfer rules, the Brown brothers would reunite on the football field.
First, they moved into an off-campus apartment with fellow Wichitan Chris Harper. They were two hours away from their parents. Brown loved it.
He visited his family several times a week and made new friends. His dad still drops by unannounced all the time.
“He’s so close,” Brown Sr. said. “It feels like a drive across town.”
Not even a year off and the mid-season departure of his brother could make him second-guess his decision. Brown could have entered his name in the NFL Draft after helping K-State reach the Cotton Bowl last year, but he wanted to stay – badly.
“Unfortunately, Bryce got to the point where he no longer wanted to play college football,” Brown Sr. said. “He lost that love and desire, but Arthur didn’t.”
Not by a long shot. Teammates were so impressed by Brown that some said he was the best linebacker in the Big 12 before he played his first game. Now he is a captain and a fan favorite.
Everywhere he goes in Manhattan, people ask for a picture or his autograph. Usually he gives them more.
“He stops and has conversations,” Butler said. “He treasures everyone in and around the program.”
• • •
About an hour after K-State defeated Texas Tech to improve to 8-0, coach Bill Snyder was on his way to his office.
As he opened the doors to K-State’s football complex, he spotted Brown’s father standing in the lobby.
“Bless you A.B.” Snyder told him as he shook his hand.
“No, bless you Coach Snyder,” Brown Sr. replied. “Thank you for all you’ve done.”
Ever since Brown Jr. met Snyder while on a recruiting visit, they have learned from each other. The first time Brown was recruited, he considered more than 20 schools. The second time, he was sold right away.
“It seemed like Kansas State picked me,” Brown said. “It was a great opportunity for me and my family. I have watched Coach Snyder and seen how he operates as a coach and how passionate he is. He cares so much. I’m thankful. He helped me grow.”
In turn, he has helped K-State’s defense. Snyder wishes he had more time left with him.
“He is a tremendous player,” Snyder said. “But he is a far better person. He is awful strong with his faith. He is a humble young guy and helps us in a lot of different ways. He has opened himself up to his teammates in a leadership role. He did it because he cares about his teammates, even though it was out of character for him.”
• • •
Chris Cosh will always remember the sounds.
Whenever the South Florida defensive coordinator, who coached Brown for two years at K-State, would head to his office after practice, he could hear the faint sounds of shoulder pads hitting training sleds.
The first time he heard them, he went to his window to see what was going on. No one was supposed to be on the field. But there was Brown, then a member of K-State’s scout team while he sat out his transfer year, pounding away.
“All the lights are off and Arthur is still down there going at it,” Cosh said in a phone interview. “The thing I admired about him was the way he brought people together. Everyone else saw that. After a while, we had lots of kids staying after practice.”
Cosh could go on. He says he has coached two elite linebackers in his career. The first was Dana Howard, who won the Butkus Award at Illinois and played in the NFL. The other is Brown.
“He’s a giver,” Cosh said. “That’s the best word to describe him. He gets more excited in other people’s success than his own.”
When Cosh started coaching him, he realized he had those leadership qualities. Only problem was, no one had ever asked him to lead.
The transition took some time. But Cosh pushed him. Sure, he was quiet, but that could change. Cosh reminded him he could be the best linebacker he ever coached … if he became more vocal.
Challenge accepted. The year before he took the field, the Wildcats couldn’t stop a straightforward run. Now they have the 36th-ranked defense in the nation.
“He changed that defense,” Cosh said. “There is no better person in football than Arthur Brown. I’m not one to throw around compliments, but I can’t say enough good things about him.”
• • •
It’s hard for Brown’s father to imagine his son used to be shy. He is willing to talk about anything now.
“He is a lot happier now,” Harper said. “This is what he wanted.”
Outside of football, he enjoys cooking, watching obscure movies and playing the piano. He is also deeply religious. Recently, he has shown skills as a carpenter.
For years, Brown Sr. thought his son would earn a living with one of those skills. He was always quiet and made good grades — just a normal kid. It wasn’t until high school that he realized football might be his future.
“He was more into school,” Brown Sr. said. “That’s where his focus was. I saw him doing something musical. He really likes that. He has a voice. He can sing.”
Football didn’t became a priority until he viewed it as his ticket to college.
His parents didn’t know if they could afford to send him to school. Brown’s father never played organized football, opting to get a job at Pizza Hut as a teenager to help support his family.
Brown helped his family by pushing himself on the football field, even though he had other interests. That attitude hasn’t changed now that he is projected to be an early-round draft pick.
“It’s a dream,” Brown said, “but it’s not my focus.”
His focus is helping K-State win its first Big 12 championship since 2003, and possibly playing in its first BCS championship game.
Such possibilities seemed impossible 22 years ago when mother and father made their decision. Then again, they didn’t seem likely when he was at Miami, either.
Now that he is reunited with his family, is wearing his full name and is part of a team that truly cares for him, nothing seems out of reach.
He is finally comfortable enough to be himself.
“He is at home,” Brown Sr. said. “Kansas State is no different than being in Wichita, sitting in the living room at our house. He is so close. The feeling of this place, just the whole dynamic of it and the people, he appreciates it. He has broken down his shield and allowed people to see him for who he really is.”