Three days after Brandon Brown's death, Tabor College held a memorial service at a Mennonite Brethren church near the school's campus in Hillsboro, a central Kansas town of fewer than 3,000 people. The church's sanctuary is simple but modern, with vaulted beige ceilings, fern-green detailing and, above the altar, twin screens onto which hymn lyrics are projected. The upholstered pews were filled with students from Tabor, where Brown, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound redshirt junior defensive lineman from Sacramento, Calif., had attended classes for less than a month before he was beaten unconscious around 4 a.m. on Sept. 16 outside a house party in the nearby town of McPherson. He died in a Wichita intensive care unit six days later. That same day, McPherson police arrested one suspect in the fatal assault: Alton Franklin, a Dallas native listed as a 5-7, 178-pound linebacker on the preseason roster of rival McPherson College.
The first 10 rows of the sanctuary were reserved for members of the Tabor football team, who looked somber and uncomfortable in their button-up shirts and khaki slacks. Both Tabor and McPherson compete in the NAIA Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) -- though in the case of football that name is misleading, since a majority of the conference's players hail from outside of Kansas. Athletes from Texas and California account for nearly half of Tabor's football roster, and as many of its players hail from Harlem and the Bronx as from Nebraska or Missouri. With the presence of these burly young men, the audience at the memorial service represented more racial and ethnic diversity -- black, white, Hispanic, Samoan -- than this isolated Mennonite prairie town saw in its first 100 years of existence.
After a prelude of piano music, Tabor's president, Jules Glanzer, took the podium, made some opening remarks and read from the Book of Psalms. The head football coach, Mike Gardner, followed with a brief statement thanking the community for its support, and a professor of communication, Aleen Ratzlaff, shared some stories about Brown's time as a student at the college. All three speakers appeared shaken by Brown's death and sincere in their sorrow, but their recollections betrayed the awkwardness of eulogizing a person they didn't know very well. Brown was, apparently, a nice guy, a respectful student, a gentle spirit. He had a great sense of humor and was well liked by his friends. He had transferred to Tabor from Santa Ana (Calif.) College and had two young children back in Sacramento. At Santa Ana he'd put football before his studies, but in coming to Tabor he'd hoped to get his life on track, to be the father he needed to be for his children. The screens above the altar displayed a roster photo of Brown standing at the edge of Tabor's football field, midday sun glowing on his dark brown skin, an affable smile on his face. Without pads, his cornflower-blue Tabor uniform sagged in the shoulders, though it was stretched tight at his belly. Obituaries had noted that he was 26 years old, but in that picture -- with his shaved head, trimmed beard, bulky body and tired-looking eyes -- he could have passed for 36.
Brown's memorial service took on a new energy when a man named Rusty Allen strode to the front of the sanctuary wearing a brown suit, a blue tie and a wireless ear-set microphone. With the cadence and gravitas of an old-time country preacher, he urged the students to be better brothers and sisters to each other, pointing out that tragedy can bring people closer together. After 20 minutes of waxing inspirational, Allen announced it was time to get "real and honest," and his message began to take on a tinge of anger. He didn't vent his ire at the McPherson College football player accused of beating Brandon to death, nor did he express indignation at Tabor's football coaches for recruiting a 26-year-old father of two to play defensive line at a $22,000-a-year denominational college 1,600 miles away from his children. Rather, Allen was angry about a different type of recruiting concern. "If you were to die today," he posited, "and you stood before God, and he asked you the question, 'Why should I let you into heaven?', what would your answer be?"
Despite his ministerial bearing, Allen is not a preacher; he's a college administrator who in August 2011 was appointed head of Tabor's newly created Department of Enrollment Management and Intercollegiate Athletics. That sports and enrollment have been mashed into a single administrative unit at Tabor College is telling, since a majority of its students compete on at least one of the school's 17 sports teams (which include bowling and competitive cheerleading). In 1947, an item in the campus newspaper of this theologically conservative Mennonite Brethren school warned that "many schools are perverted in sports, because that is their major enterprise." Now, 65 years later, Tabor's press releases celebrate athletics as a strategy for attracting new students. Tabor's 120-man football team alone accounts for 20 percent of the campus population and plays its home games in a recently constructed $5.8 million stadium with enough seats for every adult resident of Hillsboro. In terms of raw roster numbers for all sports, Tabor, a school of 613 undergraduates, has as many varsity athletes as 19,385-student Kansas State University.
After the service, I drove onto the 25-mile stretch of U.S. 56 that Brandon Brown traveled the night he was beaten into unconsciousness. As a boy I used to ride down this road with my father, who told me how German-speaking Mennonites came to this region from the Ukraine in the 1870s, bringing with them a breed of hard red winter wheat that transformed the black prairie soil of central Kansas into America's breadbasket. Dad worked as a biology professor at Friends University, a KCAC school in Wichita, and when I would look out across the fields and marvel at the synchronized movements of the blackbirds-hundreds of them, darting like big schools of fish in the sky -- he'd point out that blackbirds often fly in mixed flocks. What at first glance seems to be a swarm of blackbirds, he said, might also contain cowbirds and starlings, all of them seeking out autumn grains and roosting together as they prepared for their seasonal migration.
When I reached McPherson I drove past the McPherson College campus to the house where police, after responding to a late-night noise complaint, found Brown lying unresponsive in the yard. The house, a duplex at 438 North Carrie Street, had a balding grass lawn, weathered white paint and a large sheet of plywood nailed over what used to be the front door.
Whenever the details of a crime are scarce, the event takes on a heightened brutality in the imagination. According to media reports, the altercation that ultimately killed Brown may have lasted 45 minutes before police were called to the scene. The most serious traumatic injury was to Brown's lungs, which suggests he was stomped on after he'd been beaten to the ground. How someone as small as 19-year-old Alton Franklin could, acting alone, have inflicted so much damage on Brown is difficult to envision.
That Brown was in McPherson in the wee hours of a Saturday morning is easier to imagine, since Hillsboro pretty much shuts down after dark. Tabor had defeated Haskell Indian Nations University 56-7 in a home game that evening, and by the time the team was out of pads and showered it was probably pushing 11 p.m. McPherson, a town of 13,000, has three downtown bars popular with college students, and Brown and a few teammates -- including Ilai Eteaki, a linebacker who'd transferred with Brown from Santa Ana -- likely made the 30-minute drive from Hillsboro aiming to blow off steam and mix with other young people at Hank's or Shaggy's or City Limits. Around closing time, it's possible that Brown and Eteaki were invited to (or caught wind of) a house party on North Carrie Street, a block from the McPherson College football field. According to the police witness list, at least a half-dozen players from the McPherson football team were at the party, as were a pair of girls from the McPherson track team.
As I stood in front of the house, a kid walked past in a red McPherson College hoodie and a plaid ballcap. His face hardened when I asked him about the plywood nailed over the front door. "They say the guy pulled a street sign out of the ground and smashed it through the glass when they wouldn't let him back into the party," he said.
"Which guy?" I asked.
"The guy who died. They threw him out of the party, so he comes back with a street sign and tries to smash the front door in." The kid paused, glared. "What pisses me off," he said, "is how everyone keeps talking about this, and nobody's talking about what happened to Paul."
It took me a moment to realize he was referring to Paul Ziegler, a 19-year-old McPherson College tennis player from Pennsylvania who was struck and killed by a car while riding his bicycle north of town the day after Brown died. Ziegler, the son of a McPherson alumnus, had come to the school partly because of its traditional affiliation with the Church of the Brethren, a peace church that shares Anabaptist roots with the Mennonites and the Amish. In many ways Ziegler and Brown represented how athletic programs at the small colleges of central Kansas have shifted over the years. Half a century ago, most out-of-state athletes at schools like McPherson and Tabor were people like Ziegler: Brethren or Mennonite kids who'd known about these colleges since childhood and who considered sports secondary to denominational education. These days, the out-of-state athletes on KCAC rosters are more often like Brown (and Franklin), young men who probably had never heard of these distant Kansas campuses until they spoke with athletic recruiters.
Ironically, the sporting rivalry between Tabor and McPherson has never been that intense. Traditionally Tabor's biggest KCAC rival has been Bethel College, 25 miles south of Hillsboro, a school affiliated with a more liberal sect of Mennonites. McPherson has never had a clear rival save perhaps for Bethany College, 16 miles north of McPherson. Of the 10 KCAC schools, Tabor, Bethel, Bethany, Sterling and Kansas Wesleyan all lie within 40 miles of McPherson. With the exception of Kansas Wesleyan, all of these colleges are in towns of 15,000 or fewer residents, and each has an enrollment of around 600 students. Most have recently renovated or newly constructed stadiums, and all boast large football rosters dominated by out-of-staters.
In the days that followed Brown's death, I visited each of these small-college towns, talking to alumni, boosters and retired or late-career coaches, professors, athletic directors, presidents and trustees. Many of them admitted that what happened to Brown in McPherson could have happened in any KCAC college town at any point in the past 20 years. The biggest surprise, some said, is that it didn't happen sooner.
One week after Franklin's arrest, police arrested a second suspect: DeQuinte Flournoy, listed on McPherson's preseason roster as a 5-9, 330-pound sophomore offensive lineman from Dallas.
How the small colleges of central Kansas came to host so many big-city student-athletes is a story rooted in the religious idealism of late-19th-century prairie settlers; the rise of professionalized sports culture and the fall of rural populations in the mid- to late 20th century; and the stopgap economics of trying to keep small denominational colleges alive in the early 21st century.
Most of the schools that later came to be a part of the KCAC were founded in the wake of the land boom that brought more than one million settlers to Kansas between the end of the Civil War and 1890. In one remarkable three-year period, 1886 to 1889, various Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Brethren and Lutheran synods founded Kansas Wesleyan, Sterling, Bethel, McPherson and Bethany colleges in four adjacent counties. Intercollegiate football debuted a few years later, when a squad from Kansas Wesleyan traveled to Lindsborg and defeated Bethany 48-0.
The early days of small-college football in Kansas reflected national trends and controversies. When Friends University in Wichita dropped its football program in 1907 amid national concern over gridiron deaths, students staged a mock funeral in protest. (Friends reinstated the sport in 1912.) In 1915, a Kansas Wesleyan coach defended the violence of football in the school yearbook, noting, "The real dangers of football are two in number -- if the winning of the game is more important than building character, and if it is made the all-important purpose of the college man's life." Team recruiting tended to take place on campus, though occasionally coaches went to the train yards and recruited railroad men to beef up their rosters.
The KCAC was formed in 1928 to give the small colleges of Kansas their own conference, and local sportswriters took to calling it the "Little Six" (in contrast to the NCAA's Big Six, precursor to today's Big 12). The Topeka Capitol-Journal commended the spirit of the small-college game, noting that there were "no costly schedules, no overbuilt stadiums, no disproportionate staffs in the KCAC, but a lot of real football just the same." One of the most electrifying players of that era was Ruple Perkins, nicknamed "The Ghost," a black running back from Ohio who (despite having to sit out games against southern schools like Oklahoma Baptist) helped lead Kansas Wesleyan to the inaugural conference title in 1929.
The presence of out-of-state players such as Perkins was a rarity, however, and for the next several decades the KCAC was for the most part a league of tough Kansas farm kids playing for church-affiliated colleges. Up through the 1960s, a Bethany-Bethel game consisted of Swedish-Lutheran players with names like Gustafson and Sandquist battling it out against German-Mennonite kids with names like Friesen and Zerger. That began to change in 1976, when a South Dakota-born coach named Ted Kessinger arrived at Bethany and started building a dynasty that would dominate the KCAC for 25 years, winning 15 conference titles between 1977 and 2001.
In small-college football circles Coach K is as legendary as Bear Bryant or Lou Holtz (to whom he bears a faint physical resemblance), though the best comparison might be to Tom Osborne, since Nebraska inspired the NCAA-style program Kessinger brought to Bethany. In an era in which most KCAC football coaches still doubled as gym teachers and assistant track coaches, Kessinger devoted himself to football year-round. While other conference coaches seldom strayed past Oklahoma or Colorado to scout out-of-state talent, Kessinger recruited in Florida, New Jersey, Texas and California. And, at a time when KCAC squads rarely topped 50 or 60 players, Coach K's Bethany rosters boasted 100 or more student-athletes. It wasn't long before other conference programs began to adopt Kessinger's methods.
Ask KCAC veterans about Coach K, and they'll tell you he brought national-class excellence to what had previously been a sleepy provincial conference. They'll also enthuse about Kessinger's moral and spiritual character, his genius for delegating leadership to his players and assistants, and his unwavering conviction that sports are a classroom for life. The problem with 10 KCAC football programs trying to emulate Coach K is, of course, that only one team can be conference champion in a given year. Simple math dictates that half the programs in the conference will end up with non-winning records-and coaches with losing records don't stay in the league for 25 years, regardless of how much moral and spiritual character they possess. The resulting struggle to stay competitive from year to year created an arms race of sorts: By the 1990s, 100-man football rosters were the norm in the conference.
This arms race arrived at a time when the number of teenagers graduating from high schools in the Great Plains was on the decline. Moreover, the small colleges of Kansas didn't compete just with each other for the dwindling number of area prospects; they had to compete with five state universities (including Kansas, K-State and Division II powerhouse Pittsburg State) and eight Kansas junior colleges (including NFL hothouses such as Butler and Coffeyville). Many coaches discovered that two days of visiting high schools in Houston or Ft. Lauderdale could yield better prospects than two weeks of driving the backroads of Kansas. Florida became a big recruiting destination for KCAC coaches in the 1980s, but by the late 1990s a disproportionate number of the conference's non-Kansas players were coming from Texas and California. At the outset of the 2012 season, 36 percent of all players on KCAC football rosters hailed from those two states.
One challenge in recruiting these athletes is that, due to KCAC regulations, sports scholarships tend to max out at about 40 percent-50 percent of total tuition (which averages around $21,000 a year across the conference). Without the luxury of handing out full rides, coaches tend to court players who aren't getting many other offers. Quantity of recruiting thus becomes a tool for discovering quality: A typical recruiting class might consist of 40 to 50 solid but not particularly stellar players; coaches and athletes alike hope to develop overlooked talent. In this kind of system, starting slots are at a premium, player attrition is high, and a given team will experience a steady rotation of new faces from season to season.
With such a high percentage of out-of-state athletes flowing into KCAC colleges each fall -- many of them arriving sight unseen from tough neighborhoods in big cities -- it becomes important for coaches to identify kids who can adapt to life in small Kansas towns. Some coaches do this better than others, though with rosters on some teams now topping 120 players, it's hard for any coach to know the social and emotional backgrounds of all the athletes he brings to campus. Most coaching staffs are skilled at managing or weeding out difficult student-athletes once the season begins; some aren't. KCAC veterans use a variety of euphemisms to describe what happens when a given program is unwilling or unable to rein in unruly players, but what they are referring to might best be called a "thug problem."
Most every school in the KCAC has had a thug problem at some point in the past 20 years. In the course of talking to people around the conference, I heard stories, dating from the early 1990s to the current sports season, of Southwestern players arrested for dealing drugs out of a dorm room in Winfield; of a former Friends player shot while robbing a liquor store in Tulsa; of a Sterling baseball player sent to the hospital after a fight with McPherson athletes in McPherson; of a Kansas Wesleyan player allegedly flashing a gun during a confrontation with Bethany players in Lindsborg; of McPherson players arrested for provoking fights outside of a Friends basketball game in Wichita; of four Bethany football players and a Bethany wrestler arrested for aggravated robbery and assault at an alleged drug-dealer's house in Salina.
"There are some schools in the conference that get a reputation for recruiting at any cost," one former athletic director told me. "When that kind of thing happens, some coaches are going to wind up recruiting the wrong kind of kids. You do that, you're exponentially increasing the percentages of something [like the Brandon Brown incident] happening."
As often as not these problems emerge during the tenure of young journeymen coaches who leave for better-paying gigs in higher-profile conferences after a couple of seasons. Theoretically, preempting thug problems should be as easy as cutting football rosters to a more manageable size and retaining coaches who, win or lose, have good instincts when it comes to recruiting and mentoring student-athletes. But winning teams make for good institutional branding, and big rosters mean better enrollment numbers for schools that in recent years have been struggling to attract students by more traditional means.
Indeed, if there has been an accidental side effect to the KCAC football arms race, it's that recruiting student-athletes to the small denominational colleges of Kansas has become intertwined with keeping those colleges in business.
The profile photo on Alton Franklin's Facebook page shows him glowering at the camera, shirtless, two fingers pointed like a gun at his right temple. His upper body is muscular and laced with tattoos: a five-point star over his heart; abstract scrollwork on his biceps and pectorals; the words respect and loyalty in ornate cursive across his collarbone. In many of the pictures on his Facebook wall he's holding his hand in an odd gesture: fist splayed, three fingers down, ring finger cocked. These pictures make him look like a Dallas street thug, but it's hard to know if he actually is one, since his efforts to create a menacing public profile mimic the Facebook behavior of roughly one million other teenage males from Dallas to Kansas to Long Island.
By comparison DeQuinte Flournoy, the second suspect in Brown's death, wears his heart on his social-media sleeve. In his Tumblr blog, Flournoy refers to himself as a "hip-hop prodigy from Dallas ... writing music about how his father was never there, having to eat ramen noodles daily, basically the struggles he and his mom had to go through." His first mix tape, he adds, is called "Being Overlooked." Even more telling is Flournoy's Twitter account, @DeeSwerve_, which is essentially a 1,980-tweet emotional autobiography from the summer he moved to Kansas until the week he was arrested. Read these tweets, and you'll learn how Flournoy likes Nike Air Force shoes and Black & Mild wood-tip cigars, how he loves God more than music, and music more than football, and football more than everything else. He still longs for the girl who broke his heart two years ago, and he still hates his sixth-grade teacher ("b---- told me I wouldn't make it through junior high, well I'm made it to college hoe"). A part of him hopes he never gets rich, because he knows everyone will ask him for money, and he knows he can't say no. He likes to smoke weed, and he has respect for men who take care of their kids. Most of all, he wants to do right by his mom and make sure she has everything she ever wanted. "It's only right," he says. "She struggled so much for me."
Based on his tweets, Flournoy's first year at McPherson College goes fairly well. Football practice is hard work, and he has trouble remembering all the plays, but he senses that the coaches like him. He gets along with his teammates, especially the ones from Dallas, but he wishes there were more girls around with good personalities. He thinks black people from Wichita talk funny, and he thinks it's hilarious when the McPherson College cafeteria serves soul food on Martin Luther King Day. He occasionally oversleeps and misses class. He admits that he fears God, dying young and losing his mom. At times he expresses a fondness for college, but by the time he heads back to Dallas for the summer he still hasn't taken much of a shine to life in Kansas. When an old childhood friend dies he falls into a funk, smokes a lot of weed, obsesses about the past ("I knew niggas who was going to jail when we was twelve"). He expresses dread at going back to Kansas, but he resolves to play one more year at McPherson before transferring someplace else.
By Aug. 11 Flournoy is back in McPherson, worrying that it's "gonna be a long year" if football doesn't work out for him. On Aug. 14 his ankle gets rolled in practice; he thinks it's high sprain or a fibula ligament detachment. By Aug. 29 he's out for the season ("I'll be lying if I said that I'm not feeling kinda lost"). On Sept. 10 he admits he hasn't been sleeping very well. On the evening of Sept. 15 he seems to be in better spirits, hanging out and "freestyling for hours" with friends from the football team.
A few hours later, in the early morning hours of Sept. 16, Brandon Brown was beaten unconscious. In the days that followed, DeQuinte Flournoy's Twitter account featured a handful of banal tweets ("Gotta big test"; "West Virginia uniforms are pretty nice") before falling silent altogether.
As for Brown, he didn't leave much of a social-media footprint. His Facebook profile is private, revealing only a handful of celebrity interests (Steelers linebacker James Harrison, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., "full-figured urban model" Montana Deleon) and a single quote: "Men lie, women lie, B. Brown don't!"
I reached a few of Brown's family members by phone in California, and they told me how he loved this three-year-old son and his seven-month-old daughter and how he'd been close with his recently deceased great-grandmother, a civil rights pioneer who in the 1950s started a training school for African-American real estate agents in Pasadena. They told me he had a gift for cheering people up and was a resourceful cook and a whiz with sports statistics. He'd expressed reservations about moving so far away from his kids, but his family had supported his decision to play football at Tabor, since the small-town college seemed like a good place to finish his studies-a place that was quiet and Christian and safe.
Early in October KCAC commissioner Scott Crawford, in tandem with the presidents of Tabor and McPherson, announced that the Oct. 20 game between the two schools had been canceled "to honor the memory of Brandon Brown and to respect the needs of an ongoing criminal investigation."
Around the same time my sister Kristin, who teaches English at Bethany, was getting inquisitive emails and online comments from college professors around the country. These messages weren't related to the Brown incident; they were in response to Kristin's recent Chronicle of Higher Education article recounting her attempt to lure more males into her literature classes by offering a course on the poetics of hip-hop. The essay revealed that three-quarters of her male students are athletes, and this detail perplexed some readers. "Seventy-five percent of male students are athletes?" one comment read. "Is this a college or a sports camp?"
In truth, my sister rounded down to arrive at the 75 percent figure. Even when female students are factored in, Bethany's total percentage of student-athletes tops 60 percent -- a number similar to what one finds at Tabor, Kansas Wesleyan and Sterling. The economic downturn notwithstanding, KCAC schools continue to expand their athletic rosters and add new sports programs. (Bethany now has wrestling; Tabor has bowling.)
This is not a phenomenon unique to Kansas. Around the country, small and mid-sized colleges have embraced athletic expansion-and football in particular-as a strategy for enrollment stability and growth. According to a report by the National Football Foundation, 33 U.S. colleges have introduced football programs since the start of the 2008 recession; 17 more programs are set to debut by 2015, and more than 20 other schools have formed exploratory committees to consider the possibility. Raising the institutional profile is part of the strategy-as is attracting alumni involvement, expanding the donor base, offsetting female-slanted gender imbalances, and boosting student numbers.
But in central Kansas, expanded sports programs are less about growth than about survival. "We have way too many small schools for the population," one retired KCAC administrator told me. "As money became tight at these institutions, pressure was put on to grow enrollment. Recruiting for sports is more effective, in many ways, than going out to the high schools and convincing somebody that doesn't have a Mennonite background that they need to come to Tabor for English." One problem with cultivating a sports-slanted enrollment model, he added, is that (even when donors chip in to fund stadiums and fitness facilities, as was the case at Tabor) recruiting a majority of your students against scholarships makes for tight margins. "If you're offering 50 percent in scholarship aid to students you're giving back 50 cents on every dollar you're bringing in. None of these schools has an endowment to support that, so it's coming right off the tuition and fees that other people are paying. Once you've gotten into that cycle it's hard to get out of. So now that's the dilemma: you take sports away, and these small schools will fold."
This influx of athletes -- many of them from out of state -- has gradually changed the demographic makeup of small colleges in central Kansas. McPherson College is now 19 percent minority (including 9 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic) in a town that is 95 percent white; Tabor is 19 percent minority (including 9 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic) in a town that is 97.5 percent white. In return for racial and cultural diversity, these schools offer athletes small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio in KCAC schools is 13:1), personalized attention in and out of the classroom, and a nurturing residential environment that emphasizes Christian values.
Hosting such a big percentage of athletes impacts the academic environment, however, and many of the professors I spoke with expressed concern about how some student-athletes arrive at the school without the motivation or academic foundation to succeed in the classroom. This has shifted some of the scholastic focus from collegiate academics to remedial education. All of the KCAC schools have tutoring or mentoring programs for athletes, and Kansas Wesleyan recently opened a donor-funded Student Success Center to help get underserved students up to speed academically. "I've had a lot of inner city kids who've struggled in the classroom," one Kansas Wesleyan professor told me. "They have to come in with some ability to succeed. That's what we want. We don't care if we have to work hard to get them further, but you get a kid with a 13 ACT, a kid who can't read or write, we can't help him. All we can do is take his money until he fails out."
The fact that even economically disadvantaged students end up footing the percentage of tuition not covered by athletic scholarships (usually through a combination of loans and need-based awards like Pell Grants) means that student-athletes who do succeed in the classroom tend to graduate with high amounts of debt. As of 2011, the average indebtedness of a graduating senior at Tabor was just over $27,000. Given a typical repayment scheme (say, $250 a month against $27K plus 3.4 percent interest), that can take more than a decade to reimburse -- which means that a student in Brandon Brown's situation might well be in his 40s before he stops paying for the privilege of playing football in Kansas.
Both Tabor and McPherson were skittish about media attention in the wake of Brandon Brown's murder. When I called Tabor, a series of startled-sounding administrative assistants put me in touch with a startled-sounding communications director. She informed me that Tabor has an obligation to protect the privacy of its student-athletes, and the school's president and football coach would not be not available for comment. Switching to email, I sent a direct appeal to the president himself, Jules Glanzer. He replied almost immediately and cited similar privacy and community concerns. "Please respect our wishes," he wrote. "I realize that this means that Tabor will not be included in your story, which is fine with us."
Given that the murder victim was a Tabor student, Glanzer's statement was so foolish in its wishful thinking that it was faintly endearing. In a way I could empathize with the guy, since his school is in the tough position of maintaining a prim religious image for alumni while dealing with the less-than-pious realities that come with a changing student body. Unfortunately for conservative schools like Tabor, however, nothing can guarantee the privacy of students who broadcast every aspect of their lives on Twitter and Facebook.
I had, in fact, been following the Twitter feeds of a dozen or so out-of-state Tabor football players for the previous couple of weeks. They seemed like decent enough guys. @KLew_7, a senior defensive back from Atlanta, took his studies seriously, didn't swear or use the n-word in his tweets, and gave thanks to the Heavenly Father each morning for another day of life. But his positive attitude was offset by darker moods ("Father, please give me strength to get through my remaining time here at this school"). @KLew_7 was particularly irritated by what he saw as insincerity in the wake of Brown's death. "Takes something like this to happen to 'bring us closer together' yeah right save it," he tweeted during one Tabor chapel service. "Didn't care about who he was before this happened I bet."
Based on their day-to-day tweets, Tabor's out-of-state players have the same interests and obsessions as male student-athletes most anywhere in the U.S. They enjoy watching SpongeBob, The Family Guy and online porn. They have respect for their coaches and take their workouts seriously. Some players tweet about getting stoned; others tweet Bible verses. @AirLawrence23, a freshman defensive lineman from Houston, is upbeat about his time at Tabor, especially after he has a good game ("I f----g LOVE college son!"), while @partinmyhead, a freshman defensive back from Houston, is stymied by the lack of social options ("nigga be bored at tabor be needing somethin 2 do"). @M_missile23, a senior defensive back from Orange County, Calif., is reverent in his faith and diligent in his studies ("If i dont get an A on that business test ima be one mad mexican"), while @bigjoe68210, a sophomore defensive lineman from San Antonio, wishes professors would stop talking about God so much ("just teach me about science ...). Other frequent Twitter themes include racial alienation ("I miss my brown people, too many white folk round here"), the standoffishness of girls on campus ("said hi to a girl at tabor. . . . She think im creepin now") and the almost unanimous conviction that Tabor's professors might lecture better if they had sex more often.
McPherson's president, Michael Schneider, is a handsome guy in his late 30s who dresses like an undergrad (black pullover with the collar up, gray pants, Puma sneakers with no socks) and is well aware of his students' Twitter habits. He told me that what happened to Brown (and Paul Ziegler) had had an outsized effect on his small campus, and letting a journalist interview his students would be socially and emotionally distracting for them. He also noted that the criminal investigation was still ongoing. "There's a lot we still don't know about what happened that night," he said. "What if they end up arresting some of the guys you talk to? It would be irresponsible of me to risk something like that."
In Kansas we tend to avoid discussing race until we have no other choice but to do so. I talked to upward of 40 people with KCAC ties in the weeks after Brown's death, and even off the record they were reluctant to address the fact that both the victim and the suspects in the incident are black. Whenever I used the phrase out-of-state athletes in a context that implied race, they took great pains to remind me that not all student-athletes who come to Kansas from other places are minorities.
Marcos Franco, a senior wide receiver at Bethany, has no such inhibitions when it comes to talking about race. We arranged to meet in the basement of the student union building after a campus poetry slam. When I arrived, an Afro-Latino kid in a black Bethany College hoodie held up one of his big receiver hands and waved me over to a lunch table. He told me about his upbringing, how his family left a crime-infested part of Chicago when he was eight and settled near relatives 10 miles east of downtown Dallas. This new neighborhood had dangers of its own, but Franco stayed out of trouble by focusing on sports. Two or three small colleges scouted him during his senior year of high school, and Bethany showed the strongest interest. Franco had scarcely spent any time around white people, but his family encouraged him to give the tiny Lutheran college a try. "My father said that nine times out of 10 your manager in life will be white," Franco recalled. "And even if he's not white, then the man above him will be white. That's just the way this country is, and if you want to be successful you should learn how to act around white people. He told me I should watch what they do, how they take care of their business, and do things the same way."
Life in Kansas did not begin well for Franco. It didn't help that his Texas high school had focused on getting students to pass a standardized basic-skills test, and he wasn't prepared for college-level studies. It also didn't help that he'd been recruited for a Bethany team that was having a thug problem. Not wanting to back down from confrontations in his new environment, Franco wound up brawling with a couple teammates from Houston, both on and off the field. "After that year [Coach Jamie Cruce] got us together," Franco recalled. "He told us he'd rather recruit a group of good guys and go 0-10 than recruit another group of thugs and go 10-0."
Fewer than 10 players in that 45-man recruiting class returned to Bethany the following year. "A lot of those guys weren't here for anything," Franco said. "They just came because they didn't want to stop playing ball after high school. A couple guys were drinking it up, smoking weed every day, not going to class, always talking about going back home, always starting fights with people. They didn't even try to fit in."
After the student union closed we headed to the dorm, where Marcos introduced me to his roommate, Steven Williams, a strapping junior defensive end from Houston. Steven told me how he came to Kansas sight-unseen after having sent his highlight video to every college coach in Texas ("Bethany was the last piece of pie in the pan," he said, "so I took it.") He didn't come from a rough neighborhood like Marcos did, and his transition to college was comparatively smooth. "I felt I had a lot to prove in coming to Kansas," Steven said. "There was no way I was gonna go to a school in the middle of nowhere just to flunk out and go back home. I like the challenge of coming up here and proving to the white folk that I'm not just some black high-jumping dunking brother."
Marcos added that the turning point was for him as a college student came when his old teammates didn't return to Bethany after his first year. Away from their negative influence, he got more involved with daily life on-campus. He began to date a girl who helped him study with more discipline, and he made new friends, including Steven, whom he now considers family. "Being in Kansas forced me to figure out who I was," he said. "There was nothing else for me to do here, so I developed a personality."
When I asked about what happened to Brown in McPherson, Franco noted that football is a form of legal violence, and this adds to the tension when players from an opposing team turn up at a house party. "It was early in the season, and those two teams hadn't played each other yet," Franco said. "It's easy to take things too far, trying to be the toughest guy there. Somebody needed to tell those guys they weren't in a big city anymore. This is someplace new, and if you don't learn how to act new, situations like that can escalate into some serious trouble."
A few days later I finally heard from Alton Franklin's attorney, who granted me permission to visit his client in the McPherson County jail. I was required to submit my questions in advance and conduct the interview with the lawyer present, so I wasn't hoping to get information about what happened the night Brown was beaten. I mainly wanted to get a sense for who Franklin is.
We met in the jail's attorney-client conference room. Franklin walked in wearing jailhouse stripes with orange slippers, and he looked at least an inch shorter than the 5-7 listed on McPherson's roster. He acted a little nervous, but he seemed like a pleasant enough kid. He told me that he started playing youth-league football at age 10, and over time he learned to make up for his small size by being extra-aggressive. He followed a former high school teammate to McPherson, and his mom approved of his move to Kansas but expressed concern about tornadoes. He's studying to be a gym coach, and his classes give him the chance to try out sports he's never played, such as field hockey and Ultimate Frisbee. He has yet to play a game for McPherson, because he redshirted his freshman season and was suspended for bad grades in advance of the 2012 season. When I asked him why he likes to play football, he talked about the sport's sense of unity. "You all gotta be in the same mindset to win," he said. "But it's not even about winning. It's about being a brotherhood, and staying together. If somebody is out of tune, that could bring the whole team down."
After the interview I drove to the McPherson County courthouse to look through official documents related to the case. Ever since DeQuinte Flournoy emerged as a second suspect I'd been intrigued by the openhearted, weed-smoking offensive lineman whose Twitter feed resonated with love and loyalty for his mother. His lawyer hadn't returned my calls, so I was hoping the case paperwork would list his mother's name, or at least a Dallas address. I searched through scanned documents on the courthouse computer, but the only address I found was 1600 E. Euclid Street -- the address of McPherson College. On a lark I entered "McPherson College" as a search term. This yielded no information about DeQuinte, but it did turn up an open premises-liability lawsuit against the school, alleging that several McPherson College football players and one of the team's assistant coaches were involved in a November 2009 bar brawl that left four people (three of them women) in need of medical attention. The plaintiffs' petition asserted that "McPherson College knew of prior occurrence(s) of violent behavior by members of the football team and failed to take necessary measures to prevent additional occurrences."
It took two days of tracking down paperwork and witnesses to piece together an account of what happened that night. Several McPherson football players and a 24-year-old running backs coach named Chris Ezebunwa were drinking together at a bar called City Limits the evening of Nov. 7, 2009. Earlier that day McPherson had defeated Bethel 34-16, improving its conference record to 7-1. The team's only loss had been a 44-41 double-overtime thriller against Ottawa six weeks earlier, and with one game left in the season McPherson could earn a share of the conference title with a win over Bethany and an Ottawa loss. At some point after midnight, as the bar became packed with people taking advantage of its College Night promotion, Ezebunwa flew into a rage. According to a municipal court complaint, he assaulted three people, one of whom was a 21-year-old McPherson drama student who'd played Frau Schmidt in the school's fall production of The Sound of Music.
Ezebunwa's other female victim, a 26-year-old bartender from the Kansas City area, suffered a split lip and was escorted out of the bar by her two sisters, a 23-year-old insurance agent and a 28-year-old nurse practitioner. As the three women made their way outside, they were followed and jeered at by a group of McPherson football players, including Stephen Harrison, a senior wide receiver from Columbus, Miss. When the youngest sister called Harrison a "piece of s---" for taunting them, he punched her in the face; when she fell to the ground, four or five men began to kick her. The eldest sister tried to intervene, and Harrison punched her in the face so hard that she was knocked out of her sandals. That woman's husband, a 33-year-old cable installer, came to her aid, and an unidentified combatant beat him unconscious. The police report lists six victims, at least two of whom were taken by ambulance to McPherson's Memorial Hospital.
Within a few days of the altercation McPherson had fired Ezebunwa, but there's no evidence that the incident resulted in any other disciplinary action. (McPherson College declined to comment on the matter.) The following weekend all six of the McPherson football players named in police and court documents saw action in the game against Bethany, and Harrison-less than one week after having fractured the nose of a 28-year-old mother of two-racked up 204 all-purpose yards and one touchdown in a 44-17 victory. Ottawa's win that same day meant that McPherson had to settle for conference runner-up, but Harrison was named KCAC Special Teams Player of the Year, and McPherson landed its first berth in the NAIA Football Championship Series. The team lost its first-round playoff game, but Harrison was named NAIA first-team All-America as a return specialist and McPherson head coach Brian Ward was named NAIA Coach of the Year.
Harrison eventually pleaded guilty to one count of battery and was given a 30-day suspended sentence and one year of probation. Ezebunwa was charged with three counts of battery but never showed up for his hearing and is technically considered to be at large. Coach Ward left in February 2010 to take a job as defensive backs coach at North Dakota State. McPherson awarded the head-coaching job to Joe Bettasso, a 26-year-old defensive coordinator who'd worked alongside Ezebunwa as an assistant to Ward.
Bettasso stayed for only two seasons before moving on to an assistant's position at Quincy (Ill.) University, an NCAA Division II school, but his tenure at McPherson is notable for two things. First, in 2010, he led McPherson to its first KCAC football title since 1952. Second, in 2011, he recruited the players who are now in jail for the murder of Brandon Brown.
The preliminary hearing for Alton Franklin and DeQuinte Flournoy was scheduled to take place the Monday before Halloween. I arrived at the courthouse early and searched through recent case documents, noting that Franklin's attorney had filed a motion to prohibit any mention of witness polygraph examinations during the trail. While I was reading the paperwork, a couple of women in the county clerk's office speculated on where the preliminary hearing would be held. "They'd better hold it in the big courtroom," one of them said. "Every reporter within 60 miles of McPherson is going to be here."
The big courtroom had windows that looked out on a pale-gray grain elevator and a small civic park featuring an equestrian statue of Union General James Birdseye McPherson. As the 11 a.m. hearing neared, the wooden pews at the back of the courtroom began to fill with people, many of them older black folks dressed in the kind of clothes one might wear to church. A couple groups of young people, possibly McPherson College students, took seats in the back row. Several people in the pews clutched reporter's notebooks, and a television photojournalist fiddled with a tripod near the main door. One row ahead of me, a kind-faced, heavyset black woman in a red skirt and black blouse dabbed at her eyes with a folded white handkerchief; a male relative slid down the pew to console her. We sat there together, mostly in silence, for 45 minutes.
Finally the district attorney came out and announced that the lawyers representing Franklin and Flournoy had requested a continuance; the preliminary hearing, he said, would resume in mid-December. In the courthouse hallway I introduced myself to the woman with the black blouse and the kind face. She said she's LaQuita Morrison, DeQuinte Flournoy's mother. She told me how she got a chance to hug her son and talk to him in private earlier in the day, how the sheriff's officers had told her he's a good kid. Through Morrison I met other people who'd come to show their support, including several family members from Dallas and a sophomore defensive end from Bethany who was friends with Flournoy in high school.
As we chatted, the two suspects walked out from a holding room, accompanied by two McPherson County sheriff's officers. Franklin and Flournoy were dressed in black slacks and white dress shirts, and if not for the handcuffs you'd have thought they were a couple of office interns headed off for a smoke break. A sheriff pressed the elevator button, and we all had a moment together in the hallway.
With the preliminary hearing delayed, the exact details of what happened to Brandon Brown remain murky and haunting. Late in October, local media interviewed a man who lives in the other half of the McPherson duplex where Brown was beaten. The witness described a late-night quarrel at a party involving McPherson football players. The fracas escalated when someone threw a for sale sign through the front window of the house. Several men from the party confronted Tabor linebacker Ilai Eteaki in the front yard, evidently believing Eteaki had thrown the sign, and a shouting match ensued. Brown stood several feet away from the altercation chatting with another group of men and was never directly involved in the argument, according to the witness. Eteaki and one of the men began to fight, and after a brief scuffle Eteaki fled down the street. Somewhere in the confusion, the witness said, someone sucker-punched Brown. After the bulky California lineman went down, two or three men began pummeling and stomping him. Brown remained motionless after hitting the ground, yet the beating continued, vicious and relentless, until police arrived. Paramedics attended to his injuries for 45 minutes before taking him away in the ambulance.
In the McPherson County courthouse, the elevator finally opened; various friends and family called out farewells, and the two suspects stepped inside. As the doors began to close, Flournoy looked to be in good spirits; Franklin looked bored. They both looked a long way from home.