This story appears in the Sept. 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
SOMETIMES JASON BROWN'S HANDSHAKES last a beat longer. It doesn't happen often. Brown, the Rams center, shakes a lot of hands -- those of fans, reporters, sponsors, marketers, anyone who wants a minute. Today, after an August practice, a group of soldiers dressed in fatigues and holding cameras and Sharpies waits to meet the team. Brown enters the line, filthy and wet, with dried blood on his knuckles and grass stuck to his limbs. Other Rams quickly cycle though the soldiers. After a decade of wars, most athletes have the routine down: grip, pump, pose, thank the "real heroes" for "keeping our country safe" and move on. That's not how Brown operates. He extends his right hand to the first soldier in line, an Air Force vet who's in his 20s. "It's an honor to meet you," the soldier says. Brown's left hand secures the troop's shoulder, and he smiles. "Thank you for your
service," he says. Before Brown releases his grip, he spends a moment looking into the soldier's eyes, and his mind slips very far away.
A FOOTBALL TEAM is not a haven of worldly perspective. Most of the guys in the locker room are perfectly aware that their work is insignificant compared with that of those who fight wars. But to do their jobs, to keep from losing focus, they have to bury this awareness, the same way New Yorkers learn to walk past the homeless on their way to work. Football, after all, is an instrument that helps both players and fans forget about the real world.
Jason Brown's problem? Football only makes him remember.
On the surface, Brown has much to celebrate. At 28, he's one of the NFL's best centers on a young, playoff-ready team. He's in the third season of a five-year, $37.5 million contract, which drew him away from the Ravens in 2009. At 6'3", 328 pounds, he is stout with a low center of gravity, but he's also lithe enough to pull on runs and smart enough to read fronts and coverages.
Plus, Brown has great teeth. His wife, Tay, whom Jason married before his junior year at North Carolina, is a dentist. To his teammates, Brown is known as a good man, a man of God, a man whose deep voice and ruffled beard earned him the nickname Chef, after the character from South Park. But he's perhaps best known for flossing. Brown brings a bag of floss picks to meetings, and the linemen analyze video to the snap and pop of tartar-stained nylon. "They've got the best dental hygiene on the team," says running back Steven Jackson.
All in all, as he prepares for his seventh season, Brown can't quibble with the life football has
given to him. "You want your cup to overflow," he says as he sits on a bench near the Rams' practice fields. "My cup is causing a flood."
Yet it's a life that has often confused and embarrassed him. As a college freshman, Brown was sitting in lit class on 9/11 when the first plane hit. Class broke. Brown ran to a TV in time to see the towers collapse into soot. His first thought: That Deucey was about to get after the attackers.
At the time, Jason's older brother, Lunsford Bernard Brown II, known as Deucey to the family, was stationed in Germany in Army intelligence. A year later, he was off to Iraq, just as his three uncles had been to Vietnam and his grandfather to World War II. Deucey had been in the military since he was 18, and Brown had learned not to worry much about him. Even after the country entered into war, he trusted that everything would be fine. Sometimes Deucey's e-mails sat unreturned as Jason dived into football, trying to crack the Tar Heels lineup as a freshman backup tackle. The following year, Brown moved to center and started all 12 games for UNC. As a
junior, he was preparing for his 16th straight start when the phone rang.
It was Sept. 20, 2003, and Brown could tell immediately that his mom, Deborah, sounded off. But he wasn't sure if that meant she had good or bad news. "Did you win the lottery?" he asked.
"No," she said.
Then he knew. "It's Deucey, isn't it?"
"Yeah, baby," she said. "It's your brother."
In the middle of the night in Iraq, a mortar shell had hit his battalion outside Abu Ghraib prison. Deucey, by chance, absorbed most of the shrapnel. Army reports concluded that by doing so, the 27-year-old likely saved the lives of 11 other soldiers. But Deucey died, survived by his wife, Sherrie, and infant daughter, Amber. He never met his baby girl.
Months before his death, Deucey sent his little brother an e-mail, which Jason never answered. Hopefully I come back and catch one of your games. Did I tell you that I was playing 2003 NCAA College Football and ... it had your number, height and weight and your position? I was so happy that I told all my boys ... I love you bro and am
so proud of you.
That e-mail crosses Brown's mind as he looks across the Rams' practice fields, a few minutes after shaking all those soldiers' hands. Why are people so proud of someone who can hike a football well? He has always struggled to make sense of his fortune, to reconcile the adulation heaped on football players with the thanklessness of being a soldier -- of being Deucey. Brown's eyes redden and his cheeks turn blotchy. Suddenly he's crying the same way he sweats: big, relentless beads that stay alive past his chin as he recalls how Deucey used to tickle little Jason until he peed himself, and how he could draw the funniest cartoons. "My brother is a hero," Brown says. "Nothing I'll ever do will compare to his honor and sacrifice and impact. He saved lives. I wear a size 16 shoe, but I've got big shoes to fill."
As Brown talks, teammate Mardy Gilyard approaches and interrupts: "Hey man, you in the middle of something?"
"I think I broke my rib. This one ..."
Brown turns to the receiver and just listens. It never occurs to Gilyard that there might be a more significant matter than this injury -- not within the gates of a football facility. Gilyard leaves a minute later and Brown begins again. "I question how much attention is given to football," he says. "But it's tough. It's a huge machine that I'm benefiting from."
He first grappled with this conflict a few days after Deucey's death. Jason's mother told him to return to practice. She wanted him to handle death as if it were a road game, to block out all distractions. It wasn't easy, of course. Later that week, he read a local headline that said, "U.N.C. Starting Center's Brother Killed in Iraq." Deucey's name was mentioned early in the story, but the rest discussed whether Brown would be able to play that Saturday against NC State. Brown did play, then returned home to Henderson, N.C., to bury Deucey on the family property. After that, he went back to practice for the next game. Always another game, another season, his awareness buried. The next year, it was on to the draft. The Ravens picked Brown in the fourth round, and it seemed as if he had made it. But as Tay says, "He didn't allow himself enough time to grieve."
That came to haunt him in the NFL. America's obsession with the game hit Brown as hard as a nose tackle. During Ravens practice, Brown would see visiting soldiers stand alone on the sidelines as thousands of fans yelled for player autographs. It just didn't make any sense to him. "I'd question if people's priorities were in order," he says.
At night, with Tay back at UNC's dental school, Brown would hit the clubs with teammates and see drunks drive and born-agains make it rain. "I learned there's no correlation between celebrity and integrity," he says.
It wasn't long before Brown was staying alone at home with Bear, his rottweiler. He spent hours online, doing his own investigation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. He grew so distrustful of the government after the failure to find WMDs that in darker moments, he questioned whether the war was for oil and if 9/11 was an inside job. "When it hits your family, you have questions," he says. "Questions that no one could answer. Once things started to add up, I became more enraged."
When he'd sleep, Brown had a recurring dream. He was an adult but seated in the warmth of his childhood home. The front door opens and it's Deucey. Brown runs to him and says, "Where have you been? We thought you were dead." "No," Deucey says, "I'm not dead." They hug, then Brown would awaken, soaked in sweat, arms wrapped around himself in the darkness.
During one practice, Brown's coach screamed, "Drop your balls and make the call!" He was stunned. Questioning his manhood -- after he had buried his brother?
As much as his family and friends wanted football to become an outlet for Brown as a rookie, it didn't happen. The game was never important enough to him. His coach at the time, Brian Billick, sensed that the lineman was
struggling with his brother's death, so he cut him some slack. But in the NFL, slack lasts only so long. As Billick says now, "We still had jobs to do." During one practice, Brown didn't yell his line calls loud enough and Billick blew up at him: "Drop your balls and make the call!" Brown was stunned. Questioning his manhood -- after he buried his brother, after all the trips he made to see his niece? Still, Brown dared not tell anyone on the team about his feelings; that's the kind of admission football players do not make. He even kept his feelings from Tay and his parents. "I was ashamed," he says, "and they were proud of me."
So he prayed about it and simply decided to do his job and do it well. After sitting most of his first season, Brown started 12 games at left guard in 2006 and all 16 in 2007. At first, he struggled to pick up assignments. Sometimes left tackle Jonathan Ogden would push aside his man, then push aside Brown's man, then return to pushing aside his man. But after Brown converted to center as part of a line reshuffling in 2008, he needed only 16 games to become the most coveted free agent at his position. As more defenses switched to 3-4 fronts, a premium was placed on centers like Brown who were sharp enough to set pre-snap blocking schemes and tough enough to jam nose tackles. On the first day of free agency in 2009, the Rams inked Brown to be exactly what
coach Steve Spagnuolo calls him now: "the cornerstone of our line."
In St. Louis, Brown was no longer alone with his thoughts. Tay had finished school and moved in, along with their 14-month-old son, JW. As a husband, Brown realized that he could open up to Tay. As a father, he realized "he could be a role model," Tay says. As a provider, he took pride in paying off Tay's student loans and comfort in knowing that he can one day afford to put Amber through college along with his own kids. (In May, the Browns added a daughter, Naomi.) And as a player, Brown embraced football's irony: It means so little, yet it can mean so much. In successfully taking care of the small stuff, like a line call, he knows he earns a platform to do the big things. Brown is a USO spokesman and collects annual $1,000 donations from every lineman for a
scholarship fund that helps children who have lost a parent in combat. Last season, he won the Rams' Walter Payton award for his community service. "When I'm done playing football," Brown says, "I need to leave with my identity intact."
But he still struggles when he is asked to meet with troops. He hates war and is careful not to thank soldiers for protecting our freedom; he maintains his doubts about the necessity of the Iraq War. But he loves helping troops, even if that means a handshake after practice. That's why he pauses for a moment to look into their eyes and imagine their world. Gunshots and mortar shells. Deaths caused, prevented or cried over. Then the soldier turns to the next player, and Brown moves on.
He can't stop the cycle. But he can slow it, one handshake at a time.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter: @ESPNmag.