AUSTIN, Texas -- Football paid for this house. It is a fine house, nothing ostentatious, set back from the highway in the suburbs northeast of Austin. The front door opens onto 2,890 square feet of living space, centrally air conditioned and spread over two stories with an attached two-car garage, two-and-a-half bathrooms, an open porch and a fireplace. On the living room wall, prominent as you walk through the front door, Elizabeth Brown has framed a photograph of her younger son, Michael Johnson, an action shot capturing the height of his promise.
In the photograph, taken February 3, 2008 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., Johnson is 23 years old, 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, a rookie playing safety for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. He is standing on friendly terrain, not more than two hours by car from his collegiate home of Tucson, where he made 107 tackles, intercepted five passes and recovered two fumbles as an Arizona Wildcat. He has been drafted into the National Football League in the seventh round, but his career is off to a strong start. He has forced a fumble playing against the Dallas Cowboys in his first professional appearance, proven himself a reliable pass defender and made 36 tackles in the regular season.
His team is losing by four points to the undefeated New England Patriots, who beat these same Giants in the final game of the regular season. The Patriots received the kickoff to begin the third quarter, driving 22 yards on two plays to their own 43-yard line. Needing three more yards for a first down, quarterback Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass to running back Kevin Faulk on the right side of the field. On the next play, one minute 48 seconds into the second half, Brady has just completed a pass to Faulk, this time on the left side of the field, where he is covered by the Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell. Here it is plausible to imagine Faulk, even at the advanced age of 31, turning upfield, running 52 more yards and scoring a touchdown to expand the momentum and point differential in favor of the Patriots. Just the previous year, after all, Faulk made a 43-yard touchdown reception. Mitchell is playing on a sprained knee.
But instead the sequence ends here, with Faulk wrapped up in the arms of Johnson who is soaring over the shoulders of his teammate to make the tackle at the moment the shutter clicks. The Giants defenders secure an upset victory proclaimed one of the most thrilling in the history of American sport. There are parties like you wouldn't believe. The players parade up Broadway on floats, accept keys to the city and attract enough confetti to require snowplows. Johnson earns the starting free safety position over a new first-round draft pick. The next season he vindicates his coach's confidence, making 72 tackles, intercepting two passes (on consecutive possessions, no less) and sacking a quarterback for a 13-yard loss. He signs copies of his Super Bowl photograph, including one for his mother.
And then, in 2009: A groin pull, declining statistics. The Giants sign two other safeties just in case. In September 2010, two games into his fourth season, Johnson falls to the injured reserve list with a herniated disc. The New York Post is not kind: "He's done for the season and, in the last year of his contract, likely done with the Giants, considering he fell from grace this year and was no higher than the fourth safety."
So Johnson goes off for rehab and good luck to him, but his tradeoff is the kind we have come to accept with unblushing conviction. Yes, football tells young men lies. It is true that children get older. It is true that the strain of repetitive motion wears down knees and elbows, necks and spines. It is true that knocks upside the head will leave you sad and dumb and forgetful and maybe diapered.
It is true, too, that earthly rewards accompany each step of the way. It is true that proud parents shout from the Pop Warner sidelines, true that high school cheerleaders with bare legs smile and true that no-show college majors come with luxury dormitory accommodations. It is true, if you are good and lucky and work hard, that signing bonuses preface million-dollar salaries. True that football can identify men who are tough: leaders, not sissies. Perhaps most resoundingly, it is true that a well-turned play can leave a man, as Irwin Shaw has written, "smiling, breathing deeply but easily, feeling wonderful, not tired."
And if all that is not enough, it is even true that each of us is going to die some day, crossing the street or sleeping in bed, true that what lies beyond is the province of faith and true that our relations will stay behind for a time and then join us too, whether or not we ever play a down.
True all, true and known. Accepted.
Still, some say this peculiar American bargain will face the ultimate test. Some say it will come soon, a reckoning unseen in the modern era of sophisticated padding, sports medicine and liability litigation. Some say football is going to mortally wound a man right in front of us, dispatch him with one awful stroke and leave us all to answer for what we've done from our comfortable chairs in front of our high-definition television screens with our cheese-stuffed crusts arrayed like a million cheap funeral banquets. Some say the specter of sudden death on the turf will finally and inexorably turn us away from the violent core that makes all those other things about football true.
But then, remember: Liz Brown has another son. An older son. The one who bought this house.
Let's inspect another photograph, kept back in the bedroom outside the view of casual guests. This one is posed, a traditional portrait in a smaller frame, with no autograph. It shows a young man in the uniform of Texas A&M University, No. 46, cradling a football in his muscular forearm. From this angle only the front of his jersey is visible, but the young man shares his mother's last name. At the time of his birth she was 17, living in Killeen, Texas, the daughter of a soldier at Fort Hood. To qualify for obstetrical care, she was made to understand, the Army hospital required an unmarried girl of her circumstance to bestow the surname of an eligible military relation. She used her father's, Brown. The Army took no such interest in the assigning of first names, so she named her son after his own father, Reggie.
Against long odds, the new teenage parents muddled through. The father performed golf course maintenance; the mother served pizza and tried to go to school. They moved to the nearest midsized city, Austin, where he acquired training and employment in security. She applied for work at Texas Instruments, was turned away, worked at a furniture store for six months, applied again and got the job. They never married. They broke up, reunited and broke up again, living together for reasons of finance. The father died just this past Labor Day, a heart attack at age 54. The mother's still at TI or whatever it's called now.
Along the way they raised two healthy, successful and college-educated sons, setting few athletic expectations. The mother had run some track; the father had entertained the notion of organized basketball only until it required a haircut counter to his sense of freedom. Weekday afternoons in the St. John's section of East Austin, where boys played street football corner to corner, Reggie mostly watched from the carport.
"At first he needed a lot of encouragement," says Robert Ryan, who was a grade ahead in school. "He'd always say, 'I got to watch my brother, I got to watch my brother.'"
Coaxed into street ball, Reggie learned the game quickly. The older boys urged him to go out for the freshman squad at John H. Reagan High, no place for casual commitments. Across Texas, the Raiders command tones of reverence for a run of three state championships, a dynasty to stand alongside Abilene, Odessa Permian, Southlake Carroll and few others. Though decades past their prime by the close of the 1980s, when declining enrollment forced the school from the top division, the team still posed a formidable threat around the district. They'd never suffered a losing season. Reggie stood 5-4, 140 pounds. He'd never worn a uniform.
"You sure you want to play football?" his father asked.
Reggie was sure. The freshman coach was less so. Reggie started on the line. That summer he grew half a foot, lifted weights and came back 180 pounds. On a bad weather day, the coaches turned the varsity, jayvee and freshman football squads loose in the gym, a chaotic scene with basketballs bouncing off six hoops. Reggie jumped up and dunked one.
"That's amazing, man," the varsity coach, Dennis Ceder, remembers saying. He turned to the freshman coach and asked what position Reggie played. The freshman coach kind of looked at the floor.
"Isn't he a guard?" Ceder asked.
The freshman coach said he was.
"Offensive guards don't stuff basketballs," Ceder said. "That kid there is an elite athlete. I want you to switch him to a skill position now."
So Reggie became a tight end for awhile. He kept getting bigger, kept getting stronger. Come track season he liked to throw discus and the shot put, but his football coaches saw promise in his speed, so he ran relays and sprints. He benched 340 pounds, power-cleaned 300 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds, numbers his coach would be able to recite off the top of his head decades later.
"Reggie was the only guy [I had] that ever made it to the NFL, and that was the best team I ever had, so it's easy to do," Ceder says. "He was the best natural athlete that did everything we told him to do, both in the classroom and in the weight room."
Off the field, Reggie prayed with his teammates and dated the same girl for years.
"He didn't really do anything but the sports," his mother says. "He had a girlfriend, but they didn't go anywhere, maybe to the movies once in a blue moon. He wasn't the type to go out with the guys either, like teenagers do."
The Raiders fielded two powerful defensive ends and a dazzling option quarterback named Louis Hickman, who led team prayers from a Bible he carried around in his bag. Hickman was being recruited by Colorado, where they ran the Power I, but some scouts ordered tape from Reagan just on the strength of its history.
Reggie's first recruiting letter came sophomore year, from Texas Tech. The next season, 1990, Coach Ceder broke up the wishbone offense, looking to take advantage of Hickman's versatility at quarterback. He made Reggie right halfback, the lead blocker, an assignment with a lot to remember. Right Colorado, Right Arkansas, Left Texas -- Reggie moved among 15 different starting points depending on the formation. He had a head for it.
Behind his lead, Hickman picked up 1,000 yards rushing that season. So did the fullback. So did the tailback. "It was almost unfair, like a man playing against boys," Ceder says. "Just a devastating blocker."
As the season drew to a close, the Raiders faced the Chaparrals of Westlake High, an ascendant program bound for multiple state title runs, including a championship in 1996 with Drew Brees at quarterback. But on the opening kickoff this Thursday night in November 1990, with both teams undefeated, all eyes were on Reggie Brown, the first defender downfield.
"He was so fast, and big too," Ceder says. "He went down there and busted the wedge and just nailed the dude. I'll never forget that kickoff."
Reagan won 14-3, finished the season undefeated and advanced to the third round of playoffs. The next year Hickman was named preseason all-state. Running behind Reggie, the seniors came back expecting to compete for a title, the first for Reagan in two decades.
And then, in 1991: Against archrival L.B.J. High, Hickman went down with a devastating knee injury. Reggie didn't watch sports on TV and didn't know what an ACL was, but he heard a boy in the locker room crying, "It should've been me."
For Hickman, the recruiting calls stopped. He tried writing about football for the school paper, ended up working for a soda distributor. The team went 5-4-1.
Reggie, who started on offense and defense senior year, made 90 tackles and 37 sacks. Then he put on a tux and took his girlfriend to prom. The annual published a picture of him talking on the phone, with the caption: "Senior Reggie Brown, who made the all-district football team, received nightly calls from college football coaches."
Over offers from Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, Reggie accepted a $35,000 scholarship from Texas A&M, an hour's drive east.
He spent graduation night at the bowling alley, a lock-in party for kids who wanted to stay clear of drugs and booze. Looking back on his high school football career, he'd later say: "I always wanted to be a dependable person. If there was tackling to be done, everybody could relax; I was over there."
Watch closely; these next pictures are in motion. The effect can be disorienting, even deceptive. To millions of casual sports fans, the specter of sudden death on the football field primarily conjures this vague memory: It's the late 1990s. There's a big game on, nationally televised. The hits are getting rough, enough so to prompt remarks from the announcers. And suddenly a player is down, knocked out, spread-eagled on the turf. He does not get up. He does not move at all. The stadium music cuts out. The fans fall silent. Players gather around, trainers push through. The eerie calm exposes a collective unease. No one wants to say it: A line may have been crossed.
"Well, we are back and there is an awfully scary situation going on. Reggie Brown is down ..."
It's late on a Sunday afternoon in 1997, four days before Christmas. The Lions are playing the New York Jets. Only the winner will advance to the playoffs. Lions running back Barry Sanders is trying to surpass 2,000 yards rushing, a feat matched only twice in the history of the league. People are watching, 77,264 of them inside the Pontiac Silverdome and millions more on NBC. From the broadcast booth, we can hear Dick Enberg and Paul Maguire.
"... And several of the Lions players ran to the locker room to get ..."
Kerrie Patterson is not watching. She's the only girl Reggie's dated seriously since his high school sweetheart. They met at A&M, where he filled out at 6-2, 241 pounds and just kept getting better at football. He started all four years, a first-team All-Southwest Conference linebacker with 172 tackles, 90 of them as a senior. She was a couple years younger, trying to make the basketball team behind an All-America guard. "You know what you're capable of doing," she remembers him telling her. "You love the game. Control what you can control."
When the Lions signed Reggie in the first round of the 1996 draft, Kerrie stayed in school.
"I just knew we were going to break up," she says, "but we didn't."
She made the basketball team, so she's on her way back from a tournament in Anchorage of all places, heading to Detroit for Christmas break. If the Lions lose, she's planning to ride home to Texas with her boyfriend; if they win she'll stick around for a playoff game. She's heard Reggie talk about stingers before, so she's not too worried when she calls her dad from a layover in Newark and he says there's an ambulance on the field.
"... Get the emergency personnel ..."
Robert Ryan is not watching either; the Marine Corps has him deployed overseas, where he receives letters and press clippings in the mail from Reggie, the boy who made good at football.
"... From EMS ..."
Liz Brown is watching on TV from her house in the suburbs, the one Reggie bought. She and the older Reggie have finally split up for good, now that she has another place to live. The baby of the family, Michael, nearly a decade younger than his big brother, is playing football in the backyard. He's been talking about going out for the freshman squad next year. She can't get over how much he looks like Reggie, who used to hide bruised ribs from her back in high school. She was never much for sports, but she went to all the A&M home games and some of the away ones in Texas too. Now she's picking up the phone to call the 303 area code operator, see if she can find out the closest hospital to the stadium they've got up there in Detroit.
"And Bobby Ross is out on the field. The orthopedic doctors are out there."
Coach Ceder is watching on TV with his own sons. They've followed Reggie's career together. Nobody expected him to go so high in the draft until the combine, where his speed (4.43 hand time, 4.39 fully automatic) put him in demand against the new style of passing offense. Ceder's seen injuries before, broken bones and ligament tears and concussions. This one doesn't look like much in the replay NBC keeps showing. He can see Jets running back Adrian Murrell take a handoff on a draw and head into the line, where the 291-pound nose tackle Luther Elliss grapples with 300-pound left guard Lamont Burns, who falls back onto Reggie, who's moving in to make the tackle. An ordinary play with ordinary hits, but Reggie's still not getting up. Maybe he's paralyzed. It happened some years back to Mike Utley, another Lion. It happened to Dennis Byrd, another Jet. "The only thing that's not worth playing is that injury," Ceder will say. "It is the darkest place in football."
But at this moment, an even darker place comes into view: Reggie could die. By every indication available from the images broadcast all across America, he already has. Ceder's never told his sons this, but he'll be glad when they're done playing football. Only three things move him to tears and now he's turning to the third, just like at the start of every season, when he prays: "Take care of my team."
"Reggie Brown is lying motionless."
There, on the 30-yard line, on TV, he stops breathing. He slips into a coma. His lips turn blue. Some of his teammates kneel to pray. An ambulance carries away Reginald Dwayne Brown, age 23. Barry Sanders gets his 2,000th yard. The Lions win, 13-10.
One last picture, this one untaken. A scene from ordinary life, winter 2011. Twelve miles east of Austin, the eighth grade basketball players on the B team at Manor Middle School warm up in their home gym, making unsuccessful attempts to touch the bottom of the net. In come their parents, working class people in jeans and ballcaps with siblings in tow. In come their cheerleaders, a foot apart in height, one on crutches. And in comes their coach, dressed in khaki slacks and a red polo with the insignia of the Fighting Mustangs. He walks sturdily, hands in his pockets, watching the warm-ups. He examines a row of plastic chairs. First he adjusts their spacing. Then he counts, waving an index finger. Then he removes two. Satisfied, he assembles his team.
"Play hard, on three," he calls. "One two three."
Nobody pays him much attention, including his players. Some of their parents know the story of how he came back to life, the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the steroid injection and the surgery to fuse the vertebrae in his neck. In columns and retrospectives, it's always told with the same theme: Enough to change your way of thinking about sports.
"Only his football career ended," reported Texas A&M: Where Have You Gone, a 2004 book for nostalgic alums. "The rest of his blossoming life has just begun."
On the way down court a boy trips over his own feet. An uncontested inbound pass misses its target three feet away. From the sidelines the coach shouts instructions on such matters as switching to defense after a turnover.
He's on his feet the whole game, fired up, working hard, competing, being dependable. Maybe we all saw something different in those images of a life slipping away on the field back in the 1990s, but sports never came to an end. Not in America and not even for Reggie Brown. Not even football. Grateful to be alive is one thing, unwilling to take that risk another. After rehab he joined a Ford management training program arranged by the owner of the Lions, but every summer he went up to Oklahoma for a football camp run by an old teammate. He talked to young players and their boosters, hitting the same themes the sportswriters used.
"The biggest thing is I'm still alive," he told the Greater Austin Sports Foundation in 1998. "I can still see the sunshine."
Manor's winning 13-0 at the start of the second quarter. The cheerleaders call, "Hey hey, whaddaya say, let's go Mustangs!"
"No fouls!" the coach shouts, trying to keep one eye on his 9-year-old son, who's standing back by the wall. Little Reggie's a mischievous one, slow to respond to orders concerning the placement of remote control vehicles at home, where the entryway is cluttered with athletic gear. His mom, Kerrie, has been coaching college basketball since her own playing days. Her man stood by her when he joined the NFL; she stood by him when he left on a gurney. They married in 2000. Little Reggie started with baseball but asked to play football soon enough. His Dad e-mailed another dad, who asked him to get involved. Reggie coached defense the first year and the whole team ever since. All he ever told Little Reggie was no quitting.
"Rebound!" he calls. He coaches football for the middle school too, which is why he's here with the B team for basketball season, making sure all the kids get a chance to play. Up 20-1, he picks a starter to pull, seemingly at random. The cheerleaders perform their halftime dance, lose interest and leave the gym.
"Hands up," he calls. "Hands up!"
Running and gunning to the final buzzer, the Mustangs win 48-14. Reggie Brown shakes hands with each of his players, then each of the opposing players and then the referee. He turns his attention to Little Reggie, whose grandmother admires him so. She's still not much of a sports fan -- when her younger son was playing for the Giants last year she'd invite over the older one, who always seemed to know what the players were going to do just by the way they lined up on the field -- but she keeps her team picture of Little Reggie framed in the living room of her house in the suburbs, right across from the one of his uncle in the Super Bowl. When she shows it off she says: "He's got baseball, then basketball, then turn around when football season comes, because it's nonstop."