RICHMOND, Va. -- Duane Brown’s shiny red and black Jordans left an imprint in the uneven mud where his kitchen used to be.
“Damn, it’s crazy,” Brown said, standing in an empty lot in his old neighborhood.
This lot used to be his childhood home. He still owns the property -- he bought it years ago to relieve his parents of the financial pressure of having a mortgage. Then he bought them a new, nicer house in another part of Richmond and had the old, deteriorating house torn down.
All that’s left now is grass and mounds of mud soft from recent rain, a portable toilet, a massive dumpster with cardboard boxes peeking out of the top, gravel where his driveway used to be and an old shed lined with gas cans.
When the Texans traveled to Richmond for joint practices with the Washington Redskins, it was a homecoming for the Texans’ left tackle. Brown’s childhood home, though no longer standing, was less than 30 minutes from the hotel in which he stayed for the week. Driving a relative’s car, Brown took me back to that part of his life and to a place that stirs his own nostalgia.
“That’s the dream for anyone, unless you were really well off [growing up], to be able to buy your parents a big house and one day retire them,” Brown said on the way there as we drove down Broad Street, Richmond’s main road that connects seemingly every part of town. It connects the Texans’ hotel, where Brown is staying this week, to Brown’s old neighborhood.
Driving past a Carrabba's Italian Grill, a Whole Foods, a Wells Fargo bank branch and a Cadillac dealership, Brown recalled he always stuck to this road. The highways confused him when he was a teenager. He made a left on Bethlehem Road to find the lot on the corner of Harrison Street.
“The kitchen area was right in front,” Brown said. Then he pointed a bit further back to the dining room, to the left to his parents room and the back right of the lot where he and his brother stayed. They had two floors, but the second one was filled with things his father gathered -- a full rack of bowling balls and some furniture among them.
Then there was the yard stretching in front of the shed that is the only structure still standing on the property. Brown had no interest in opening the shed, lest wildlife emerge. Their Rottweiler, Herschel, had a cage on that side of the house.
“We named him after Herschel Walker,” Brown said with a reminiscent chuckle. “My dad did.”
Worn patches of grass still dotted the property. They played basketball there on a variety of portable courts. There were pick-up football games too.
“We always messed up the grass,” Brown said, and then they’d have to move closer to the street.
Most of the time people don’t recognize him in Richmond -- unlike in Houston, where the two-time Pro Bowl left tackle conjures stares, whispers and autograph seekers. But here, in his old neighborhood, a man in a black truck drives by, an inevitability. The man waves at first and continues, then reverses to ask about Brown’s family.
Brown gets back in the car and drives around the corner to Erskine Street, where he and his friends used to play. One day, a car coming out of a nearby power plant hit him when he was nine years old. He flew from his bike and into a nearby front yard where he landed on one knee.
Continuing to drive, he turned absentmindedly, suddenly realizing he had started toward his old school, Hermitage High School, without even realizing it. He follows through and drives to the school, turning in past a set of tennis courts over a series of speed bumps that used to send his car airborne when he was driving over them. He drives back to the locked-up football stadium.
To the right is a music building that declares, “Home of the Marching Panthers.” Brown played saxophone in the band and competed with it. That saxophone is still somewhere in his parents’ house, and he thinks about bringing it back to Houston sometimes.
Houston has become Brown’s home. He was drafted by the Texans in 2008, then signed a six-year, $53.4 million extension in 2012 that should keep him in the city long-term. Houston is where he realized his dreams, but Richmond is where his journey began.