Gary Brown's Great Life Was Predicted by What We Learned About Him in 1989.
Yesterday, Gary Brown, former Penn State, NFL player and NFL and college coach, lost his battle against cancer. Our hearts go out to his family and friends and the community of Williamsport—a place he took such great pride in as his hometown.
One aspect of Gary’s college career is something I should have written about while was still alive. But far too often time runs faster than even our best of intentions. It is a story that earned him the undying respect of Joe Paterno, a respect born of one player’s commitment to the team above self.
He had a great eight-years pro career as a running back. He was a respected and beloved running back coach in the NFL and at Wisconsin.
But all we ever really needed to know about the kind of person, player and coach Gary Brown would become we learned at Penn State in 1989.
Gary was beginning his junior year at Penn State after being Penn State’s leading rusher in 1988. As the fall of 1989 approached, All-American Blair Thomas was finally returning after blowing out his knee in December of 1987.
It is important to know some things about Gary Brown at that time. In the 1980s his alma mater Williamsport High and State College High often ended the season against each other in football. There was not a lot of love between the two teams.
Gary was a legend; in Williamsport he was loved, at State College High….not so much. His high school coach Tim Montgomery and State College High Coach Ron Pavlechko were college teammates at Penn State, which added to that rivalry. So everyone in Happy Valley knew Gary was a dominant running back and a speedy track guy.
Back then every great player in the state was targeted by Penn State, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pitt and even Ohio State and Michigan. Eastern football was at a high point. From 1976 through 1988 three different eastern independent teams (Penn State, Pitt, West Virginia) played for the National Championship 6 times in a 13-year span winning the title three times. In addition, Syracuse finished undefeated in 1987. By comparison the next closest "conference", the SEC won two and shared one national title in that span.
So, with all that as background, Gary Brown coming to Penn State was no sure thing. But he did.
After that 1988 season, it became clear that Blair Tomas would return in 1989. Making for a crowded and talented running back room. Blair Thomas was an All-American and first-round pick. But in that room also were future Pro-Bowl RBs Sam Gash and Richie Anderson, as well as future pro Leroy Thompson. Add Gary into that mix and you had five pros in one room.
In the late summer of 1989 Joe Paterno made a decision to move Gary to defensive back rather than have him get limited playing time at running back. At defensive back his athletic ability and football sense could help the team. Joe promised to move Gary back in 1990 once Blair had graduated.
Needless to say, that was not the dream that Gary had for his Penn State career. It certainly wasn’t an idea that made his heart sing. After a few days he accepted his role, grudgingly at first, but he prepared and learned the defense and became an excellent player.
His locker #2 was right next to my locker #3 that year, so we talked about it, a lot. What I loved about him was that Gary respected me first and foremost a fellow teammate. But on occasion, after Joe had done some yelling here or there, he’d ask me with a laugh “Jay, man…what’s with your Pops?”
Those conversations were a front row seat to see the maturity and selflessness he used to attack this career twist. He could have pouted all year, he could have left, he could have done any number of things that weren’t positive. But he didn’t.
There were others on the 1989 team who’d been recruited to play one position but then play another. Linebacker Andre Collins came to Penn State as a safety, offensive guard Dave Szott came to Penn State as a defensive tackle. They too made moves, but those were moves made to put them into the best position for what would be long NFL careers.
But Gary’s move was far more visible, and one that was done to help the team, not his draft status. That move required Gary to have to publicly swallow some of his pride for a year.
He took a leap of faith to trust his coaches. He did what he was asked to make the team better. He did it all full speed. And once he got going, he did it every day with a smile.
Above all what remains most was his smile. And never was that smile more vivid than what would be the biggest play of his defensive back career at Penn State.
Late in a wild Holiday Bowl against BYU, the Cougars trailed 43-39 and were threatening to win the game behind the arm of Quarterback Ty Detmer who’d already passed for over 500 yards.
With j57 seconds remaining and BYU just 38 yards from the game winning touchdown Gary was sent on a safety blitz. He beat Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Mo Elewonibi, got to future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Ty Detmer, stripped the ball and ran the last fifty-three yards for the game-clinching TD.
That memory, forged by a man who gave a full season to help his team, is forever etched in the minds of those who witnessed it.
And Gary was smiling all the way.