Brian Brown climbed out of the bleachers, carefully navigating his way to the sideline on Monday afternoon.
There, cutting off ankle tape and wiping sweat away from his cheeks, was son Blayden Brown. Practice was over for the driving force of Rocklin High School’s football team, but not the challenges.
Father wanted to remind son that the wager still stands, a 20-yard race for $50 and eternal family pride. Never mind the elder Brown’s prosthetic left leg, a reminder of perseverance and the horror he endured nearly three decades earlier when he lay on the side of a highway, fearing his life would be lost in flames. But now, he jokes that the handicap will even the odds against a son who has been impossible to slow this season.
The son doesn’t bite.
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“Dad’s been challenging me for that race since I was 6, but he never seems ready,” Blayden said with a laugh. “I’m ready. Let’s go!”
The Thunder senior running back and linebacker says he plays with pride and fury for a father whose legs once did the same for him at those positions, be it a 98-yard touchdown sprint or an 85-yard interception return for a score. Said Blayden, “If you don’t play with passion, then you’re not in the right sport.”
That mantra fueled Brian a generation ago when he was the heart and soul of Elk Grove’s 1984 team that started 1-4 and won a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship.
“Hearing how great my dad was, it makes me so proud of him, and it’s an honor to be his son,” Blayden said. “I want to be his equal, if not potentially better. Dad had his football hopes cut short, and now we’re living the same dream together. I do this for him as much as me.”
Blayden’s dreams are bright. He is on the recruiting radar as a thick-bodied, deceptively quick and instinctive 6-foot, 210-pound playmaker. He has rushed for 392 yards and eight touchdowns for the 6-2 Thunder, and he has returned two of his six interceptions for scores while also taking a fumble into the end zone.
“Something’s going on inside Blayden when he plays, that extra fire and desire,” said Brian, who coached his son in Roseville youth football. “I told him any time he is ready to stop playing this sport, I’d be OK with it. But he digs it, and he knows I sure dig it. Dreams coming true.”
Brian Brown had dreams, and they crashed – multiple times. He had a scholarship offer to San Diego State pulled when the Aztecs elected to go with another prospect. He landed at Sacramento City College in 1986, where one of the assistant coaches was Steve DaPrato, his Elk Grove coach.
“The ugliest injury of my 50 years of coaching, and it’s a non-contact drill,” DaPrato said Wednesday in reflection. “Brian’s knee goes out, this horrible sound, and he goes down, lands on his face, screaming, his knee so dislocated his foot was resting by his mouth. Players turned white. He’s special to me, and I felt for him.”
Brown had four shredded knee ligaments replaced, anchored by five pins. Three years of rehabilitation led him to another opportunity at Sacramento State with an invitation from Texas A&M for a workout.
And then the real crash.
Driving back to Sacramento from Lodi late one summer night with his cousin in 1990, Brown was side-swiped by a car whose driver he suspected was under the influence. Brown’s pickup truck was impaled by a guardrail, the metal slicing through the engine block and up through the floor boards, cutting the rig in half, breaking his right ankle and shearing his left leg below the knee.
“I was upside down in the truck, smoke everywhere, thought I was going to die,” he said. “I tried to stand up but fell down because I didn’t have a leg. It was bad.”
After freeing himself from his seat belt, he helped his cousin get out of harm’s way before paramedics arrived.
From there, two people changed Brown’s life, and two more inspire him to this day.
While in the hospital recovering, a 9-year-old girl from another ward stopped by.
“She had no arms or legs and operated an electric seat with her nose,” Brown said softly. “She said, ‘Hi, Brian!’ I started to get better after that. Life suddenly wasn’t that bad.”
Watching a news account of the crash was a cheerleader for the professional football team, the Sacramento Surge.
“DeLayna was inspired to meet me, and she showed up, and was so beautiful and nice,” Brown said, tears welling up. “She never knew me as a two-legged man, but her heart was real. We got married three years later.”
Brown sat quietly, the sun glistening off the 8-inch scar that snakes across his right knee and off the metal of his prosthetic left limb. Without that accident, there would be no chance meeting with DeLayna, and without her, there would be no kids – Markley, 21, and Blayden, 17. And there would be no football joy to heal the soul.
“All these bad breaks, and then I get this,” Brown said of his family. “My kids and my wife mean the world to me.”
Markley was recently hired by the probation department at Sacramento County. She’s the one tackler who could take her brother down in the front yard as kids. Brian drives a cement truck, affording him a lot of time to think and reflect. One story makes him smile: Blayden’s name is a mixture of DeLayna and Brian.
“We were told he was going to be a girl, and when he was born, I told DeLayna, ‘It’s a boy,’ and he’s all boy,” Brown said.
He’s all football player, too, a team captain in the running for Bee Player of the Year honors. Blayden carries his father with him, right on down to the No. 28 they share. Blayden even has a tattoo of 28 on his left triceps.
“We have a Bronto Fear of Thunder award for extreme effort and heart, and that’s Blayden,” Rocklin coach Greg Benzel said. “We made it clear in coaching meetings to get him the ball, get him lathered up and going. And he has a nose for the ball on defense.”
Benzel added, “He and his father have an incredible relationship.”
Blayden dearly wants to play in college. He has a recruiting visit to San Jose State on Nov. 4. But football isn’t everything, Blayden hears.
Said Brian, “Football was once everything to me. But it doesn’t have to be. Things happen. I’m proof.”
And Blayden, “Football won’t last forever, but my relationship with my dad will. Football has been a great bond for us, but we also watch races, go fishing, go out to eat, watch film. And he shows me love. Not for being a football player, but for being his son.”