During a blazing hot afternoon on Sept. 1, 2011, John Brown stood isolated on a foreign football field – 40 yards from his teammates, 1,500 miles from his mother and a world away from the life he knew.
The Pittsburg State fans that made the trip to Spratt Stadium in St. Joseph, Missouri could identify their new punt returner by the No. 5 emblazoned on his jersey, but few knew the emotions stirring inside him.
The sophomore waited patiently for the ball to drop from the sky early in the first quarter, eschewing panic even as Missouri Western gunner Ben Jackson screamed down the field to deliver a big hit.
In one smooth motion, Brown caught the ball and skipped to the right to avoid Jackson’s grasp. He raced toward the far sideline, and after picking up three blocks, suddenly had room to run. One cut later, there was nothing left between Brown and the end zone. As his arms pumped with each stride, the realization sunk in.
When the Homestead, Fla. native arrived at the small Division II university two months earlier, he promised James Walker that the very first time he touched the ball, he would somehow score a touchdown. Eighty-four yards later, he had done it.
Brown leaped into the air as he crossed the goal line and thrust both forefingers to the sky.
“That,” he said in his mind, “was for you.”
James Walker and John Brown were half-brothers and full-time companions.
Walker reached the minimum 6-year-old Pee Wee football age requirement first, so 5-year-old Brown watched practice every day from the sidelines, then carried Walker’s equipment home.
They both loved football, even though Brown was slow and small as a kid, always the last pick by the neighborhood captains. During spring football after his sophomore season at South Dade (Fla.) High School, a coach told Brown – who was one of the Cardinals’ third-round draft picks a week ago -- he would never make the varsity the next year. After Walker was relayed the news, he encouraged Brown to switch schools to nearby Homestead, and then transferred over himself a year later so they could play together.
Brown became an All-Dade County performer while competing at defensive back, wide receiver and on special teams as a senior in 2007, which earned him a scholarship to Division II Mars Hill in North Carolina. Walker played well enough to continue his football career at MidAmerica Nazarene in Olathe, Kansas.
While others may have seen a pair of marginal talents at non-descript universities, as far as Walker and Brown were concerned, they were on their way.
“I remember when they were in high school, when they graduated, they said, ‘We’re both planning on going to the NFL so we can take care of Mom because she’s taken care of us,’” said Cassandra Bryant, Brown and Walker’s mother. “Both had plans.”
Walker returned to Homestead for summer break in 2010 following his second year of college. On the Fourth of July, he decided to go out with friends since he didn’t get to see them as much living in Kansas.
Bryant said one of Walker’s friends had been robbed the day before, which had escalated tensions in the area, and she and Brown pleaded with him not to leave the house. Walker assured his mom and brother he wouldn’t get into any trouble as he left for a Miami nightclub.
At 4:12 the next morning, Bryant got the phone call.
“His friends got into an altercation,” Brown said. “From what we were told, he was in the car while they were fighting. The dude ran up, shot him one time in the head and two times in the chest.”
“He did promise me he wasn’t going to get in any trouble,” Bryant said. “They told me he was in the passenger seat minding his own business when a big fight broke out.”
The news of the shooting traveled quickly through the community.
“I gave him a handshake and he said, ‘Be safe,’” Stinson said. “I told him, ‘Be safe.’ The next month or so my cousin called me and said, ‘Junior got (shot).’ So every time I came down I would ask, ‘How is Junior?’ I was pretty messed up (from the news).”
The bullet fragments from the headshot pierced Walker’s brain. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors put him on a breathing machine and tried frantically to save his life. On the second day, sensing there was nothing left to do, they asked Bryant if they could take him off the breathing machine.
“I asked them not to ask me that again,” Bryant said. “When God was ready to take him, they’ll take him.”
About two weeks later, Bryant entered Walker’s hospital room and didn’t see the breathing machine.
“He was breathing on his own,” she said. “It was kind of shocking to them to see that happen.”
For months, Walker remained in the hospital, breathing but unable to communicate. Academic issues forced Brown’s ouster from Mars Hill after one season, and he considered staying home to be near his brother after the shooting, but eventually decided to attend Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College in the fall of 2010. Brown didn’t make the football team’s active roster, but Pittsburg State noticed him during a practice and offered a full-ride scholarship.
On April 28th, 2011, Brown signed his Letter of Intent to play for the Gorillas. Hours later, he received the news that 22-year-old Walker had died.
“Just seeing him put up a fight, that’s what amazed me,” Brown said. “I guess his body just got tired. His body gave up.”
Bryant was crushed by the news of her son’s death, and she also worried about Brown’s well-being. She had watched people’s lives go into a tailspin after seeing a loved one die, and she thought Brown might decide to give up football.
“I got a (plane) ticket and brought him home, and he didn’t shed a tear,” Bryant said. “He was just silent. He is a real silent person when he gets emotional. I kind of worry (about him).”
Brown said he briefly considered quitting the game – especially when he was cut from the Coffeyville roster while his brother lay in a hospital bed – but instead decided to use Walker’s death as motivation.
“Looking at what he did, there was no way I could give up,” Brown said. “If he made it through (for nearly nine months), I believed I could make it through anything.”
Brown began his career at Pitt State in 2011, and the punt return for a touchdown was a harbinger of things to come. He led the team with 61 catches for 1,216 yards and 12 touchdowns, and became a Division II consensus All-American in 2012 and 2013.
In three seasons, Brown set school records in receptions (185), receiving yards (3,387) and touchdowns (34). He was invited to the NFL Scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, and performed so well that the Cardinals were confident in making him a third-round pick.
Still on the small side but now quite fast, the 5-foot-11, 179-pound Brown is expected to contribute at wide receiver and in the return game in 2014 – quite the leap for a player who never sniffed a Division I scholarship offer.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, a point to prove, since I was little,” Brown said. “They told me I wasn’t going to be able to play varsity. They told me I wasn’t going to start at college. And they told me I wasn’t going to make it to the NFL.”
Since Bryant, a single mom, supported her family with a job at B.J.’s Wholesale Club in Homestead, Brown would often spend hours alone with Walker in the hospital. While his naturally quiet disposition grew even more introverted during times of sadness, during those hours together, Brown had to talk, because he was the only one in that room who could do so.
One day, as Brown voiced his feelings to Walker, the topic turned to the football bond they had always shared. While their dreams of playing in the NFL together were over, Brown passionately promised he would still hold up his end of the bargain.
At that point, Brown said a tear rolled down Walker’s face as he tried desperately to mouth words to his little brother. It still bothers Brown that he couldn’t make out what Walker said, but deep down he probably knows.
The two had discussed this scenario so often, and Walker had always been so unwavering in his support, that, verbalized or not, there was little doubt Brown’s biggest believer sat right there in the bed next to him.
“Every day I wake up I hear him,” Brown said. “When I’m tired, when I’m working out and thinking about giving up, I can hear him in my head. It just pushes me to go even harder.
“We were so close. Couldn’t nobody break us apart. (His death) broke me down, but then I thought about it. It was like, ‘OK, I can do this for the both of us.’”