While spending some time with my mother-in-law over Christmas, I ran into one of our former players in Denver. At first glance I saw him only from behind, a mammoth of a man dressed unassumingly and holding the hand of this tiny little girl in pink cowboy boots. I didn’t really think twice figuring it was possibly a current player, added since my departure and probably someone who wouldn’t recognize me anyway.
An old friend
As I strolled out the door and across the parking lot I heard my name called. I turned to see the man standing in the doorway, hand still holding on to the little girl. “Ted, Ted Sundquist? Hey it’s Courtney. You probably don’t remember me but I’m Courtney Brown. I played for you a few years ago here in Denver.”
I hadn’t recognized the former #1 pick out of Penn State because of the beige slouch fishing hat that had covered most of his face when I passed him in the waiting area of the restaurant. My mind flashed for a second, “Remember Courtney Brown? How could you forget Courtney Brown?” Courtney had come to us in 2005 as one of a string of former Browns defensive linemen that also included Gerard Warren and Kenard Lang. The influx of the Cleveland defenders had many chuckling and calling us the Denver “Browncos”.
All-Time Nittany Lion
Courtney had been a much celebrated and ballyhooed first overall pick by Cleveland. He was a consensus All-American his senior season, collecting 1st team All-Big Ten honors, Big 10 Lineman of the Year, and Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. He was also Most Valuable Player in the Outback Bowl, his last game as a Nittany Lion. He measured and tested off the charts at the annual NFL Combine and was selected #1 in the 2000 NFL Draft. But Courtney’s career in Cleveland was maligned with injury and he never reached the potential so many had expected of him.
When his position coach Andre Patterson joined the Broncos, he was lobbied for hard by the former Cleveland assistant. Brown started 13 games for us in 2005, a season that reached the AFC Championship and the possibility for vindication of not only Brown, but a number of other former highly touted players that had tried to shake the “bust” moniker. Unfortunately the Broncos didn’t get past the Pittsburgh Steelers to reach Super Bowl XL and Courtney Brown would retire from professional football with only 6 seasons to his credit.
Now here’s the real story. I asked Courtney what he was doing with himself now that he was out of football. We stood in out in the parking lot, his little girl Maya clinging to the massive legs of the former college superstar. “I do missionary work in the Dominican Republic. I go there once a year. It’s a little slower than life in the NFL, but enjoy what I do.” Life’s experiences can be humbling by themselves, and certainly Courtney’s road through professional football undoubtedly didn’t take the direction anyone thought. But I had always found Courtney Brown to be a very humble and unassuming individual anyway.
He had found his purpose as both a father and as a missionary. He seemed genuinely happy. Though difficult for most fans and media to imagine, there are more Courtney Browns from the ranks of NFL than there are Jevon Belchers or Josh Brents. The face of former NFL players shouldn’t be represented by the latest DUI arrest, nor from those lucky enough to land “talking head” roles on some pregame or halftime TV show. The majority of former NFL players that I’ve contacted or followed are more like Courtney.
They’ve moved on from professional football to become excellent fathers, engaged citizens, community leaders, business owners, and yes, even missionaries. Pro Football’s life expectancy remains at just over 3 seasons for the average player. Yes, there are those that never fulfilled our expectations on the field, but they’ve more than made up for it off. You just don’t hear that part on Sports Center.
We should do more to cultivate this vast resource of high achieving, team oriented, and highly competitive individual. For some, it takes a while to find the path to which they’re called. The NFL does what it can to help guide players towards life after football, but for many it takes some time to accept the harsh reality that one career has ended so that another can begin. I encourage anyone who comes across the resume of a former NFL player to take a long look, not because they were a Colt, or a Raven, or a Jaguar, but because of what it took to get there and the lessons learned over that journey.
Life is about the people you meet and the relationships forged through various situations and scenarios along the way (like playing football). It was good to see Courtney Brown again.