Former Seahawks Lineman See Sports as Salvation for Wounded
August 24, 2011
Joe Brown vividly recalls an assignment he received one Friday afternoon while in the third grade. He and his classmates were asked to spend the weekend thinking about what they would like to be when they grow up and then share with the class the following Monday.
“I knew what I was going to say before I even reached the door on my way out that day,” Brown said. “I was going to be a major league baseball player and an Army Ranger.”
As it turned out, Brown’s “grown-up” life hasn’t been too far from what he reported to his class nearly 25 years ago.
Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Brown loved football. He would go on to play college football for his parents’ alma matar of Ohio State.
Out of college, Brown made his way onto the Seattle Seahawks where he played from 2001-03. The 6’6″, 300-pound defensive lineman enjoyed his time on the field, but he had a nagging feeling he should be doing something else.
“I felt like joining the military was something I needed to do,” said Brown, now 34. “I didn’t want to be 35 and ask myself why I didn’t serve.”
His father had a 26-year career as an Air Force pilot and his grandfather died in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War. Military life wasn’t foreign to Brown.
So he joined the Army and became a Ranger, going to Iraq the first time in 2004 with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
Once back home, Brown decided to get his master’s degree while he was still in the Army and then return to the NFL.
But by March of 2007, Brown was back in Baghdad with the 2nd Infantry Division for a year-long deployment. (Stateside, Brown was re-assigned to this group so that he could begin training to return to football-then President Bush announced the surge in Iraq and the 2nd Infantry Division was on it way.)
Five months into this tour, he was in the southeast section of the capital city trying to :help out a unit in trouble.” He was atop a three-story building calling in air strikes. As his team headed down off the roof, Brown fell through a 30foot stair shaft; he shredded his calf and landed on his face, causing severe brain bleeding.
He was flown to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where he was told he would likely spend the next two years in outpatient therapy.
But with a wife and two small children in Arizona, he knew this was not going to work. So he wrote to Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and explained what was happening.
“I don’t know what he did, but my stay was cut significantly short,” Brown said. “We ended up in Jonesboro, Arkansas at Arkansas State, so that I could finish my master’s degree.”
At Arkansas State, he also became an assistant coach for the football team, but found he was working more than 90 hours a week and unable to spend time with his family.
Brown made it his goal to find an opening at a parks and recreation department in a military community. So he contacted Harker Heights, Texas, just 10 miles from Ft. Hood, a large Army post.
Today, Brown is the athletic coordinator for the Harker Heights Parks and Recreation Department. And for the first time ever, adaptive sports have come to the city. Now the program is an official Paralympic Sport Club.
Wheelchair basketball, handcycling and rock climbing are just a few of the sports now offered to disabled residents and vets at Ft. Hood’s Warrior Transition Brigade.
Brown’s relationships with Ft. Hood officials have paved the way for wheelchair softball and basketball teams to form with brigade members.
“He came to us and told us what adaptive sports can do and what it has done for soldiers,” brigade 1st Lt. Jarvis D. Adams said. “It raises morale for some of the soldiers who are down at this time in their life or career.”
Brown says it’s important that the wounded know they are wanted and needed in the community.
“So many of these guys feel broken,” Brown said. “The more community-based programs we offer to them, the better off they will be. Sports programs are good mental outlets.”
For the ones who aren’t yet interested in competing or are not quite physically ready, there are positions for coaching and stat keeping during the games.
Staff Sgt. Kenny Griffith , a soldier in Fort Hood’s Warrior Transition Brigade who was shot in the arm in Iraq in 2008, began playing softball on a team Brown organized.
“It showed me there is something I can do, that there is something every soldier at Fort Hood can do no matter what their injury is,” he said. “Adaptive sports is going to be a big thing; Brown’s passionate and he’ll make it huge.”
Brown has built the program without any city money. Instead, he has tapped into his NFL contacts, sought out business sponsors and applied for grants — a recent grant from the Olympic Opportunity Fund paid for eight wheelchairs.
“So far he has not asked, but I am standing by, ready, willing and able to provide a budget if he needs it,” said Harker Heights Mayor Ed Mullen. “Joe is an amazing human being. He’s something out of a Hollywood movie.”