Leap of faith: Former Northern star Brown focused on family, farm
Earlier this month, the Baltimore Ravens continued the celebration of their Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers with a customary trip to the White House before collecting their championship rings two days later.
Jason Brown could have been part of the festivities as a member of the Ravens. He could have been on the opposite sidelines on Super Bowl Sunday, on an offensive line in front of breakout 49er star Colin Kaepernick. Or he might have been a leader on a unit assigned to protect Carolina Panther lightning rod Cam Newton.
Instead, Brown elected to leave football behind. At only 30-years-old, the former Northern Vance Viking and North Carolina Tar Heel remains retired from the NFL after spending four seasons with Baltimore and three with the St. Louis Rams from 2005-2011.
The Ravens, 49ers and Panthers were each interested in signing Brown prior to the 2012 season after he was released by the Rams. But Brown walked away from the money, leaving a rather lavish lifestyle behind.
“I asked myself how much is enough,” said Brown. “No man can take a single red cent with him to the grave. And no man has ever beaten the grave. I had worked long and hard enough storing up riches on earth. It was time for me to move on the next phase of my life and start storing up riches in heaven.”
Brown traded his 11,000 square-foot home in St. Louis for a 1,000-acre farm in Louisburg, purchased last year. He had always dreamed of a large front yard with a white picket fence.
The Missouri digs were a better fit for MTV “Cribs,” boasting a 45-foot pool with a diving rock, water slide, fire pit, and a gazebo complete with a jacuzzi. The house included a 12-seat theater and workout, billiards and arcade rooms.
“It was just ridiculous,” said Brown. “It got to the point where it really wasn’t me. It really wasn’t where my heart was.”
Finding the right path
Brown’s change of heart was triggered by Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo benching him in November of 2011 despite grading out as one of the team’s top offensive linemen. It snapped a streak of 84 consecutive starts in the league for Brown, who signed a reported five-year, $37.5 million deal with the Rams in 2009 that made him the highest-paid center in football.
“I looked at him dead in his eyes and I said, ‘You’re making a huge mistake,’” Brown said of the meeting with Spagnuolo. “I tried my best to say that in a respectful manner. And he looked at me, right back dead in my eyes and said, ‘You know what, I think you’re wrong. I think this is the best move for the offensive line and for the rest of the team right now.’”
Brown couldn’t explain to his friends and family why he had been benched in favor of Tony Wragge, who played just one season in St. Louis before being released by the Ravens after the 2012 season. Brown didn’t know the answer himself.
“After that I had a lot of time to think about my life and my values and what’s important to me and my family,” said Brown.
Less reps at practice meant more energy for his oldest son, JW, now 5. The 28-year-old Jason was no longer mentally and physically drained when he came home.
“My son is like, ‘Let’s play,’” said Brown. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s go outside. Let’s do something.’”
Brown finished out the season with St. Louis and went to work preparing for the 2012 season, but North Carolina was on his brain when he got a call from Jeff Fisher, who replaced Spagnuolo as head coach. Brown had been released.
“What most people would see as a failure, I saw as an opportunity,” said Brown.
Brown’s agent told him several teams were interested in the versatile lineman’s services, including San Francisco, Carolina and Baltimore.
The Ravens took Brown in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. He still had a good relationship with Ozzie Newsome, the team’s general manager.
Brown’s wife, Tay, is from the Bay area and still has family there. She wanted him to don the red and gold.
Others close to Brown badly wanted him in a Panthers uniform.
Brown’s parents drove him from the Charlotte airport to meet with Panther representatives.
“I just knew that it wasn’t for me,” said Brown, who saw the disappointment in his parents’ eyes. “I can’t play for my parents. I can’t play for my friends. I can’t play for the fans out there. As a man, you have to do what’s best not just for you and your family, but also you have to be in tune with God and his plan for your life as well.”
Seeds sewn for a new beginning
The Brown family put their St. Louis home on the market, not knowing exactly where they would go. Jason called it “stepping out on faith.” They ultimately moved in with Jason’s parents in September of 2012 before buying the Mort Harris farm in late October.
There’s more than enough space for JW and his sister, Naomi, 2, to roam and Baby Noah is six-months-old. The vast estate features numerous ponds, filled with fish, surrounded by growing fields of cucumbers, corn, wheat, and soybeans.
The farm wasn’t on the market when Brown was investigating a nearby property. But he knew that he wanted the Harris property when he saw it.
“It’s as though God saved this farm for me and my family,” said Brown. “We didn’t have to compete with anybody for the purchase.”
Jason and Tay have taken to gardening, planting everything from carrots to cantaloupes. Jason has plans for an orchard, vineyard and goats and cows to go along with his chicken coop.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees,” Jason says. “But food does.”
“I’m working harder than I ever had playing football, trying to whip this place into shape,” added Brown.
Brown has dubbed the grounds First Fruits Farm in honor of a Bible passage instructing to give back the first fruits, the best fruits one has to offer.
Brown said his current work on the farm is in preparation for sharing wisdom with youth, an extension of the Henderson-based ministry he founded in 2008, Wisdom for Life. He plans on hosting fishing derbies for area children and also hopes to form partnerships with local churches and ministers with the goal of planting gardens for youths to look after.
“Every child should know how to fish,” said Brown. “Every child should know how to sew a seed and tend to a garden, be able to produce fruits and vegetables. That’s one of the fundamentals of life.
“You don’t need a huge farm like this to plant a fruit tree or have a small garden.”
Brown said he misses the friendships and bonds he formed with players in the NFL. But it’s not likely he’ll trade his hammer and hoe for a helmet and pads.
“If I leave and go back to the league, who is going to take care of this farm?” Brown wondered.
Brown said the identities of he and Tay, a dentist, don’t lie in their occupations, but rather in faith and family.
That picket fence Brown dreamed of needs a fresh coat of white paint, but the Franklin County farm is starting to feel more and more like home to the Brown family.
“Since I was a kid, I always had that dream of something with a large front yard, white picket fence,” said Brown. “God has blessed me with those things. Haven’t painted it yet, but the white picket fence surrounding the house is going to be painted.”
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