Tragedy to Triumph: The Story of Marcus Brown
Note: The following appeared in the May 12 issue of IPTAY's official publication, Orange: The Experience.
Marcus Brown has persevered through the toughest of times. But they don't come any tougher than the news the thrower on the track & field team was dealt on consecutive days this January.
His longtime girlfriend and high school sweetheart, Ikia Hawkins, died of cardiac arrest Jan. 7 resulting from her diabetic condition. She was 23.
The next morning, his grandmother Irene Washington, passed away from natural causes.
Despite his losses, Brown told Head Coach Mark Elliott he needed to compete and be around his teammates for the opening meet of the 2014 indoor season. He went out and won the shot put, competing as an unattached athlete because he had no more indoor eligibility.
"I kept everything to myself and didn't tell a lot of people," Brown said. "I didn't want anyone feeling sorry for me."
Brown made it through the competition before traveling to Columbus, Ohio and home to Gaithersburg, Md., the following week to attend the services for both of his lost loved ones.
"The hardest thing I've ever done in my life was going home for two funerals," he said.
To understand the story of Marcus Brown is to know the meaning of hardship. To appreciate the story of Marcus Brown requires spending about five minutes with this imposing presence, yet engaging personality.
The imposing part comes in the form of a 6-foot-3, 300-pound former defensive end standout on Quince Orchard High School's state championship football team. A dual-sport athlete from the time he first picked up the shot put at age 12, he was the middle child in a family of five boys born to Michael and Janice Brown.
His parents lacked college education, and sometimes struggled to get by financially. His father was in and out of stable jobs, but luckily had the ability to work with hands and was always able to find work, whether it meant helping build houses or fixing windows. His mother knew how to cook and landed small catering positions.
When Brown was entering high school, his father owned a soul food restaurant. The family was at least breaking even financially, and Brown was thriving on both athletic fields.
"I had scholarship offers for football," he said, "but I ended up falling in love with throwing."
His high school coach Seann Pelkey, a distance coach by trade who taught himself throwing techniques to help maximize Brown's potential, helped instill the love of track & field in him. By his senior year, Brown was state champion in the shot put and discus and accepted a scholarship to compete for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
But it was during his senior year that things began to unravel. The family lost its restaurant, a huge financial hit for Brown's parents.
"We couldn't keep the doors open," Brown said. "We were losing more money than we could bring in."
Within the blink of an eye, Brown and his family went from a five-bedroom house to living with another grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment.
"We never told extended family, because my dad didn't want anyone to worry about us," he said. "We lived that way for about a year."
As the rest of his family struggled to get by, Brown headed off to college in the fall of 2009. It didn't take long for him to make his mark, either. He won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference discus title and was named its Rookie of the Year in 2010.
He did even better his sophomore year. Brown surpassed 17 meters and won the indoor and outdoor conference titles in the shot put. But as his throws progressed, Brown wanted to take on more of a challenge. He wanted to attend a bigger Division I school.
Because Eastern Shore would not offer an immediate release, Brown had to sit out the fall semester of 2011. It was during this time he developed an interest in a potential future.
"I was home training when the coach at Dematha Catholic High School called and told me they needed a throws coach," he said. "I coached for a semester while I was home, and I fell in love with it. I enjoyed watching them develop and get better."
And though he was not training with collegiate coaches during that semester off, Brown was training under a former rival coach, Scott Mathias of Clarksburg High School.
It was during this time that Brown began to weigh his options for the next stage of his athletic career. He fielded offers to transfer to Florida State and Tennessee, among several others. But he also had a good friend who went to school at Clemson, and at his urging he decided to take a visit to the Upstate South Carolina institution.
"The minute I got off that plane in Greenville-Spartanburg, I fell in love with it," Brown said. "When I got to campus, I loved the school and the people. It just clicked."
Brown signed an aid agreement and enrolled for the spring semester of 2012. He produced solid results in his first season as a member of Clemson's track & field team, finishing fifth indoor and outdoor in the shot put. The next season, he was even better. Brown took the silver medal at the 2013 ACC Indoor Championships before redshirting the outdoor campaign due to injury.
But as he began to experience more success, his thoughts were back home. His father was unemployed for about a year, and almost as soon as he got a new job at a local plant, he was laid off and out of work another six months.
Money was hard to come by, and with Elliott now on board at Clemson, Brown went to the Tigers' new head coach with a courageous request.
"I wasn't sure how I was going to pay for school this year," he said. "He didn't know me from anything, but I asked for help, and he increased my scholarship to 75 percent. That meant a lot that he showed that type of faith in me. Now instead of my parents sending money to me, they could send it to my little brother Manuel who was starting his freshman year of college."
Because he was not on full scholarship, Brown picked up a part-time job in September working at Fike Recreation Center. He said at one point in time he was working about 30 hours per week, while continuing to attend classes and train with his teammates.
"I saw that I had some free time at nights," he said. "I was running around with no gas in my car and no food in my fridge. I was eating one meal a day, if that. At that time, neither of my parents were working. At 22 years old, I needed to take care of myself."
On top of all that, Brown took over in the fall as president of Clemson's student-athlete advisory committee (SAAC), the same position he once held at Eastern Shore.
And despite the fact he was in a leadership position, there were times Brown went to SAAC's new director, Kyra Lobbins, and broke down in her office because of everything he was going through.
"Marcus is a big strong guy, so (people think) he's not supposed to have worries," Lobbins said. "But sometimes he looks for that outlet to make sure he's doing okay."
As time passed after the deaths of Hawkins and Washington, Brown re-focused on his craft and dedicated himself to having the best final outdoor season under the tutelage of his fifth different event coach in five years, Robert Weir.
"Coach Weir doesn't like excuses and has a fast track to success," he said. "He has a lot of wisdom. I appreciate everything he and Coach Elliott have done for me this season."
It's been an outdoor season to remember for Brown. He set a personal best in four successive meets, culminating with his first throw of over 18 meters in a silver medal effort at the ACC Outdoor Championships.
Through the heartache and pain to begin the semester, Brown came full circle and survived the emotional process of earning his undergraduate degree to end it on May 9. The first college graduate on either side of his family, Brown was simply overjoyed to share the moment with his parents.
"They have gone above and beyond their call of duty," he said. "The long phone conversations, the money they sent that they didn't really have - everything they did to try and make me into the man I am now - goes to show that it can be done."
After he turns his attention to the NCAA East preliminary meet in Jacksonville, Fla., next weekend and an aspiring national championship berth, Brown will begin the process of applying for graduate school. He hopes to find a graduate assistantship with a track & field program and work toward a degree in education.
Brown ultimately wants to be a guidance counselor and a coach, fitting for someone who has faced adversity at nearly every stage of life and pressed on to bigger and better things.
"I have so much experience to pull from and be able to coach an athlete," he said. "Being an athlete, things can be rough from having to handle school, family, relationships and performance. I want to be a coach to see kids be as successful as they possibly can. And I want to coach in high school because that's such a pivotal point in anyone's life. When I was that age, I was lucky my parents steered me in the right direction."
Brown has always been able to find the silver lining in everything. When his family lost the restaurant, his mother Janice referred to Marcus as the family's "rock" even though he was just 18 years old at the time.
As he reflects on a year of turmoil, tragedy and ultimately triumph, Brown can't help but think of a guiding principle his father instilled in him at an early age.
"He taught me that manners will carry you further than money," he said. "By always being good to people, others always wanted to help him. So that's why I have such a deep passion to help people and be a positive role model."
Mission accomplished, Marcus Brown.