'He was pure joy.' How Gary Brown made a difference at Penn State, beyond
The football teammate and forever friend made a point to see Gary Brown at the end, every Sunday.
Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith spent time with Brown just before he died on April 10. He was there in Williamsport the week before, too, when the former Nittany Lion two-way star and longtime running backs coach could still talk a bit, knew who he was.
Smith said he made the simple vow to visit because so many former Penn State players simply could not. He said Brown deserved that as much as anyone could.
These former Penn State teammates last true football moment together came in September, on opposing sides. They posed for a photo together before the Nittany Lions played at Wisconsin, where Brown coached this past season until cancer's return became too much.
"It was important for me to see him. I wanted him to know that I love him, that we're here to help him and support his family and he has his friends and support behind him," Smith said of these last visits. "It's important he knew that, important I got in front of him to let him know there’s so many people supporting …"
Penn State football fans old enough to remember will forever see Brown stealing the ball from Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Ty Detmer in the 1989 Holiday Bowl and returning it for the clinching touchdown. Typical Brown, it seemed. The man who made his football life from running the football and coaching others how to do it better switched to defense for that one year in college just because Penn State needed him there.
Brown always was smiling and lifting up everyone around him, from his days starring at Williamsport High to arriving at Penn State in the summer of 1987 to his career as a player in the NFL and then as a coach.
Smith has called him "the spirit of our class" at Penn State. College roommate and former Nittany Lion linebacker Andre Powell, from York High, called him one of his most influential teammates because of his positive outlook on everything.
No matter that cancer took Brown's father and then afflicted his daughter and kept coming back for him. After it returned again early in 2020, during the beginning of the virus pandemic, he fought it back, once more, to coach again.
"He was pure joy, OK?" Powell said Monday from home in Naples, Florida. "He always kept that child-like enthusiasm and wonderment for the love of the game, for other people. That incredible smile, personality. It's hard to think he ever had a bad day, even in light of what he was suffering with for the last 10 years or so."
The Penn State football family also lost former running back and team captain Steve Smith last November, after his nearly 20-year battle against ALS.
Just like with Smith, Brown's fight against cancer mobilized his former teammates, which will stay with them forever.
"Gary continued to bring guys together," Powell said. "He could hang out with offensive linemen or bankers or young high school athletes. Gary was a connector. People will always have a piece of Gary with them."
The lesson is: "We've got to make sure we connect more with each other, love each other," Powell said. "Once again, Gary is helping to show us all the way and to enjoy life, man."
At Penn State, Brown grew from the backup to tailback Blair Thomas to the team's leading rusher to the one-year hero on defense. He always was a standout kick returner.
The Houston Oilers picked him in the 1991 NFL Draft and he played eight years in the league, passing the 1,000-yard rushing mark with the Oilers (1993) and with the New York Giants (1998).
He got his big coaching break with Rutgers in 2008 before coaching for a decade in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.