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Necessary roughness

Averett University’s Nicholas Brown tackles own mortality

Averett University’s defensive tackle Nicholas Brown mixes it up with Methodist University’s Brent Gunter both teams’ USA South Conference opener at Frank R. Campbell Stadium. The Cougars won the game, 35–6, to move to 2–0 in the USAC. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Brown)

The mass on Nicholas Brown’s neck kept gaining in size.

Call it apprehension, stubbornness or the feelings of invincibility youth brings, the Averett University defensive tackle put off having the mass examined by a doctor for two months, despite pleas from friends and family.

Then came the start of Averett’s 2015 preseason training camp and the beginning of symptoms Brown could no longer ignore.

First came the dramatic weight loss (40 pounds during the Cougars 12-day camp) followed by fatigue and night sweats so severe, Brown had to change his bed sheets every other night.

The Averett football coaching and athletic training staffs took over from there, arranging an appointment for Brown with a specialist where samples were taken from his neck.

In November 2015, on Thanksgiving Eve, Brown received news that started him down a path most of us will never travel.

He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The gears came to a halt.

“I went numb to a lot of things,” Brown said. “My focus shifted from school and football onto what my life was going to become after treatments started and how everything was going to change for me.”

And change they did.

Brown no longer found himself with his teammates and friends at Averett, but in chemo and radiation treatments every other week and stuck feeling he was on an island.

“The isolation was the hardest part. Everybody in my family works or goes to school so when I was home, I was by myself a bunch,” Brown said. “It was hard having people there with me in spirit but not there to interact with on a daily basis. It made the changes in my life even more noticeable.”

With nothing in front of him but time, Brown found himself riding a physical and emotional rollercoaster.

The cost of a ticket?

Moments where Brown felt like his old self again only to be brought right back down by the effects of his treatments.

Making matters worse, Brown watched his family wanting to help him, while at the same time, knowing there wasn’t anything they could do.

“That was actually the hardest part, seeing them hurting for me like that,” Brown said, looking down at the floor. It’s the first time he’s been subdued during our interview.

Needing strength and guidance, Brown turned to the one constant in his life.

“I always knew God had my back even in the toughest of times,” Brown said. “I just put everything in his hands and let him go to work, and he got me through the hardest times.”

When it was all said and done, Brown underwent 12 treatments over a six-month period before receiving his clean bill of health. Even though he’s now cancer free, Brown realizes the lymphoma can re-rear its ugly head. However, it’s something he’s prepared for.

“I still live my life not knowing what’s around the corner,” Brown said. “I know now, though, that God will give me the strength to get through anything he decides to throw my way.”

Flashing his quick sense of humor, Brown also credits his mother, Marquel, and grandparents who in his words “didn’t know what to do but feed me and laugh.”

Not bad for a 21-year-old.

Even in chemo and radiation treatments, Brown keeps a smile on his face while repping AU (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Brown)

A metal gate shakes and rattles. Smoke sneaks into the North end zone at Daly Field. A tornado siren blares from the speakers at Frank R. Campbell Stadium in Danville, Virginia.

The siren is replaced by the menacing guitar lines — courtesy of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” — of Trick Daddy’s “Let’s Go” and a group of hungry young men burst through the gate and onto the field in front of a packed crowd decked out in a sea of white.

The Cougars are moments away from kicking off their 2016 season against Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) powerhouse, Hampden-Sydney College.

Despite giving up the game’s first two scores — including a 97-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff — the Cougars stay composed and outscored the Tigers, 38–14, the rest of the way on the way to a 38–28 victory.

When the on-field, post-game celebration dies down, the Cougars walk over to the home bleachers and sing the school alma mater — now a tradition after each win — and miraculously Brown is there singing with his boys.

“It was a surreal moment because there were times I thought I’d never make it back to the field with the strength I was at during my treatments,” Brown said. “That gave me a new appreciation for the game, and I was overtaken by being back with my team.”

The first road in Brown’s journey came in late December 2015 when the doctors placed a port in his chest, so they could inject the medicine directly into his bloodstream. The device also allowed doctors the opportunity to take blood samples, which they used to judge the progress of Brown’s recovery.

With the device firmly in place, Brown found his movements restricted. The days of heavy lifting and balancing weights on his chest were gone, replaced by machine work and body exercises.

While many people, myself included, avoid the gym at all cost, Brown found it therapeutic, going three or four times a week.

“It was good getting out of the house,” Brown said. “I’d go to the gym because I didn’t have anything else to do. It kept me from going crazy.”

While he remained optimistic, Brown also knew there was a chance he would never return to the field.

“I kind of started doubting my return near the end when they told me if the treatments weren’t successful that I would have to undergo more treatments, surgeries and transports, which meant a longer recovery,” Brown said. “But I had hope for a positive outcome and that fear was thankfully never realized.”

With the cancer gone, and the port removed, Brown got back to the mission at hand. Getting his body back in shape for his return to the football field. He returned to power lifting and began running to get his wind back for the Cougars’ 2016 preseason camp.

When asked what he’d say to those battling cancer, Brown replies, “Don’t ever give up, never quit, even when things get hard and you find yourself in all sorts of struggles, you’ve got to keep fighting. You have to get up, brush yourself off and start all over again so you don’t fall in the same way.

In the end, Brown hopes his story can serve as an inspiration to others.

“I just hope people reading my story can look at where I am now and see there is a better end in sight, and you can still come out on top and live life to the fullest,” Brown said.

Coming off the field after a series, Brown raises his helmet for a breather (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Brown)

In the 1986 comedy, “Club Paradise,” Jack Moniker (Robin Williams) teams up with reggae singer Ernest Reed (Jimmy Cliff) to open a tropical resort.

Frustrated with local eccentrics, pushy guests and crooked politicians and land developers, Moniker loses it, but is quickly calmed down by his girlfriend, Philadelphia (Ziggy) who says, “No man is an island, Jack.”

It’s a phrase to which Brown can relate.

“I visited Averett a couple of times while I was going through my treatments and every time I came back, I had people coming up and hugging me,” Brown said. “Then I’d go down to the field and it was boys being boys again. It made me realize Averett was where I wanted to be.”

Knowing Brown’s struggles, his teammates reached out to Averett’s Student-Athlete Athletic Committee (SAAC) for support. The committee came together, and the “De-Feet Cancer Marathon” was born.

The marathon consisted of 11 teams and over 70 participants braved the cold, windy weather to support Brown. Each team had sponsors pledge a dollar amount for each mile the team ran.

“It made me realize people cared a lot more than I thought,” Brown said. “I knew that people at Averett kind of knew who I was because I played football, but they really showed me they actually cared about me and wanted me to do well. It was good seeing that while I was really going through it.”

For Brown, the event served as another source of inspiration.

“When the “De-Feet Cancer Marathon” happened, I was starting my last four treatments so those were the hardest times because I knew I was almost done,” Brown said. “Seeing everybody coming together like that and rallying around me and my family was really cool.”

Brown with his mom at the hospital (Photo Courtesy of Nicholas Brown)

When Averett football head coach Cleive Adams took the reins four years ago, he and his staff set expectations of the team as soon as they arrived on campus.

Drawing from 1 Corinthians 13: 11–12, Adams and his staff established the “Be A Man” motto or what the team refers to as “BAM” to teach the players the importance of having character on and off the field. The philosophy consists of seven principles coaches believe will make the players responsible and productive members of society.

It’s a philosophy Brown fits into nicely.

Have a foundation of faith

In Adams’ opinion, Brown’s faith is what makes him a shining example of the “BAM” philosophy.

“Even when I talked to him when he was going through the hardest of times, he always had his faith,” Adams said. “He knew everything was going to be all right because God was in control.”

Give back

Adams has never known Brown to be without a job, and he makes sure to send a portion of his earnings back to his family in Chesterfield, Virginia, every month. But Brown’s giving doesn’t stop there.

Each Christmas, Averett and the Danville Boys & Girls Club team up to sponsor an Angel Tree Project designed to provide less fortunate kids in Danville communities with a proper Christmas.

While some of the students and student-athletes are shy about mixing it up with the kids, Brown is front-and-center, taking pictures and getting to know every child.

Compete in life

Brown is a blue-collared player who competes until the whistle and leaves his heart on the field and brings the same competiveness into the classroom. They are attributes that no doubt helped him get through his fight.

“He hates to get outworked or outcompeted,” Adams said. “He works his butt off to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Graduate from Averett

This is where Brown sticks out. When the senior criminal justice major walks across the stage in May, he’ll be one of few students who were responsible for bearing the financial burden of their education.

“It makes him a special kind of student-athlete, the kind you don’t see anymore,” Adams said. “He’s had to do everything on his own and it keeps him from taking things for granted.”

One of the first things I notice about Brown is his politeness. He answers every question with ‘yes sir,” which wins him over in my book, while making me feel old at the same time. He’s even gracious enough to laugh at the corny jokes I crack while setting up my phone and video camera.

And when he’s not laughing at my jokes, he’s cracking ones of his own, replying, “Crap,” with a broad smile and laugh when asked what was going through his head when he received his diagnosis.

However, when Brown takes the field, he becomes the defensive tackle every halfback or quarterback fears.

In a recent game against reigning ODAC champion Randolph-Macon College, Brown laid a hit on Yellow Jackets Tre Frederick that roughed up the R-MC standout back and resulted in a 3-yard loss and fourth down.

Not bad for a kid who not too long ago was fighting for his life.

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Davin Wilson

Davin Wilson

Freelance Sports Writer. Freelance sports broadcaster. Video producer. Wannabe comedian. Jack of All Trades. Mumbler of all words.