Journey Brown thought it was going to be a run-of-the-mill meeting with Penn State football coach James Franklin that September day in 2020.
Several of Brown’s teammates had met with Franklin around that time as the Nittany Lions began preparations for the season after the pandemic delay, so he didn’t think much of it.
That all changed when he entered Franklin’s office and saw a crowd that included running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, trainer Andy Mutnan, director of player development Will Flaherty and members of the strength and conditioning staff.
Before anyone spoke, Brown thought he had done something wrong or that another person close to him had died because he had lost six relatives and a close friend since his arrival at Penn State.
“I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” he recalled. “I got a weird feeling in my gut. Then they broke the news to me. I thought they were joking, so I started laughing. I laughed in Coach Franklin’s face. I laughed in all of their faces.
“They kept telling me, ‘No, Journey, this is for real.’ ”
Brown had been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, following extensive COVID-19 testing. On the verge of stardom after a record-setting rushing performance in the 2019 Cotton Bowl, his football career was suddenly over.
Everyone in the room tried consoling him, but he wasn’t listening. He felt so good, the best he felt during his career. Two doctors in Franklin’s office tried to tell him that he would risk his life if he played because HCM is a thickening of the heart muscle that makes it harder to pump blood.
“There were a lot of emotions,” Brown said. “I started crying. I was angry. I ran outside and just kept yelling. Coach Franklin came from behind me and gave me a hug, holding onto me and telling me I was going to be OK. It was a hard time.”
Three years later, Journey Brown is doing much better and moving his life forward without football. He’s living with his fiancee in the Charlotte, N.C., area, where he’s training to become a pit-crew member for Trackhouse Racing, a top-flight NASCAR Cup team.
“I feel like it’s two different people,” said Dee Carroll, his girlfriend. “He’s just grown mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. He’s definitely not the same Journey and I mean that in a good way. He hasn’t changed for the worse; he’s changed for the better. He found a new purpose. His outlook on everything has completely changed.”
Brown spiraled into depression in the weeks and months after he was forced to retire. He locked his bedroom door, laid on the floor and stared at the ceiling for hours and sometimes days trying to come to grips that he could no longer play. He wouldn’t eat.
Carroll, Seider, Mutnan and his three roommates — Drew Hartlaub, Jonathan Sutherland and Jaden Seider (Ja’Juan’s son) — worried about him, of course, and would sit with him in his room in silence or lend a shoulder for him to cry on.
“It was a rough time,” Brown said. “Obviously I was in shock. People who really love me were around me. I was sulking and letting it marinate. I was being selfish. I still had a family. I still had a daughter (Aleigha). I still had to be a father. I still had to be a good boyfriend.
“I finally came to peace with it. I came to peace with the fact that it’ll never feel right that I’m not playing football and that I didn’t get to end it on my own terms.”
Brown had played football for as long as he could remember. He was a brilliant two-sport athlete at Meadville High School in northwestern Pennsylvania, rushing for 7,027 yards and 106 touchdowns and winning two PIAA track gold medals in the 100-meter dash.
He broke a 90-year-old state record when he scored an unfathomable 68 points in a 2016 football game against DuBois, yet he was considered no better than a three-star prospect. When he arrived at Penn State, Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders were among those running backs ahead of him.
“It wasn’t easy for him,” Ja’Juan Seider remembered. “He was a guy who felt like he got a scholarship late. He was nervous and had no confidence in himself early. The first time I was asked about Journey I said he was a track kid who was learning how to play football and that if he ever learned how to become a football player, it was gonna be scary.”
On top of his wavering self-esteem, Brown watched two aunts, an uncle, two cousins, a close high school friend and his grandmother pass away while he was at Penn State. Helen Leona Westcott, who helped her daughter, Buffy Brown, raise Journey, had been on his mind because of her failing health from the time he arrived on campus until she died in October 2018.
“The kid never had an easy go of it,” Seider said, referring to all the deaths. “There was just so much of it. It was heartbreaking. People don’t realize football gives us all an escape. We can escape the loneliness and the depression because we can go into the locker room with 125 brothers.
“It can give you four hours of peace when you don’t have to worry about anything else. When I lost my brother I was a rookie in the NFL. Football gave me something to keep my mind and body going. I think that’s what football gave Journey.”
With Barkley and Sanders in the NFL in 2019, Brown competed with Ricky Slade, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford at running back. He earned his first start against Pitt and rushed for 109 yards in a 17-10 win. Cain, though, became the Nittany Lions’ most productive back until he was injured against Michigan State.
Then Brown took over, rushing for 593 yards and nine touchdowns and a 7.6 per-carry average in the final five games, including 202 yards and two long touchdowns in a 53-39 victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.
“There were a lot of good vibes and good stuff going on that week,” he said. “I was in a very good head space. My body felt great. I knew it was going to be a good week and a good game because I can usually feel it in my gut.
“We knew that we were going to steamroll them. We had a lot of confidence. We knew there was a lot we could exploit. I go back and watch it here and there, not as frequently as I used to. It almost feels weird that it was me. It feels like yesterday and it feels like 100 years ago.”
The 5-11, 217-pound Brown was poised for the 2020 season with his 4.28 speed in the 40-yard dash and his power, which he showed on his first TD run in the Cotton Bowl when he broke four tackles. Great things were expected for him and Penn State.
“He could have been one of the greats at Penn State,” Seider said. “He was gifted, man. When you could run the way he did with that country strength and you start getting that confidence he was getting, it’s scary. His ability to jump-cut, stick his foot in the ground and get upfield as fast as he could and in the blink of an eye was unmatched.
“It’s a shame, man, because I think he was gonna have a special year, a magical year.”
Brown spent the 2020 season as a student assistant coach, but his heart and mind weren’t in it. He eventually had to drop out of school because he couldn’t concentrate on his classwork. Last fall, though, he was able to watch football on TV or at Beaver Stadium with Seider’s wife, Brandi.
“I’ll always love football,” Brown said. “I’ll always think I would be the best at football. I love watching the (NFL) draft every year. It hits home a little bit because I know it could have been me. It’s also easier to deal with when you have brothers who are living out your dream like Yetur (Gross-Matos), Micah (Parsons), Jesse (Luketa), KJ (Hamler) and the list could go on and on.
“I get to see them. I can call them at any time and live through them. It’s almost like I’m there.”
He now realizes how lucky he was that his heart condition was discovered before a tragedy occurred. He’s grateful to have his mother, his fiancee and his daughter, who lives in State College with her mother, in his life.
“Aleigha has changed my life,” he said. “She’s made me a better person, a lot more patient and a lot more understanding and forgiving. She’s done a lot for me. She’s my pride and joy, my baby. She’s been a real blessing. She makes it easier for me not being able to play football.
“Dee means a great deal to me. She’s the love of my life. She makes every day easier for me by always being there for me and loving me. She stuck with me. She never lets me slack. She reminds me that I’m more than a ballplayer.”
Source: Berkshire mont