Journey Brown carried a burden into Penn State’s game against Rutgers on Saturday.
His 17-year-old cousin, Paige Fabela, died last Sunday back in Brown’s hometown of Meadville.
Brown channeled the emotion of the week to help carry him — and the Nittany Lions — to a 27-6 victory over Rutgers, as he carried the ball 16 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns.
His touchdown runs of 2 yards in the first quarter, 18 yards in the second quarter and 1 yard in the fourth quarter were the difference on the day for a Penn State offense that was minus starting quarterback Sean Cliffod (injury) and starting wide receiver Justin Shorter (transfer portal).
“I knew I was playing for him today,” Brown said. “I feel like that I had to put on for my little cousin, Paige. I feel like I did. I did it for him and his immediate family and the seniors and the Penn State family.
“I get very emotional when I think about that kind of stuff. My family up here supported me. I never felt alone when he passed away. My teammates had my back.”
With Thanksgiving and the Senior Day regular season finale vs. Rutgers on his plate, Brown didn’t have the chance to make the 173-mile trek back home to the northwest corner of the state. So he relied on his families — one in Meadville and the other at Penn State — to help him through his grief.
“I was playing for the people back home in Meadville and my family up here — my Penn State family, my coaches, my boys. My best friends,” said Brown, a redshirt sophomore. “That’s how I get through all this adversity in my life — all these people around me. They support me a lot. I couldn’t do it without them. They sacrifice for me.”
Brown knows adversity. Last fall, in the middle of football season, his grandmother Helen Leona McCracken passed away. He honors her memory in every game, wearing a headband and neckband with the word, NANA.
“My grandma was hard,” he said Saturday, “but this one definitely hit differently.”
Over the summer Brown was suspended from the team, along with his best friend, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos.
“In my 24 years I don’t think I’ve been around a kid who has overcome more adversity in his life than him,” Penn State coach James Franklin said after the game, as Penn State raised its record to 10-2. “He had some more this past week. He’s a special, special kid. Huge smile on his face. Very appreciative of Penn State. He’s been phenomenal and I could not be prouder of him.”
When Brown entered his third season at Penn State this August, he was fighting three other running backs — highly-touted freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, and sophomore Ricky Slade — for playing time. Slade was the presumptive favorite, with 262 yards rushing on 45 carries in 2018, while Brown had just 44 yards on eight carries. The 2019 season began with Slade as the starter in the first two games.
NO TIME FOR FEELING BLUE
Brown’s faith didn’t waver.
“It all gives me another why — why do I love this game, why do I want to do what I want to do, why do I want to get up every morning and roll out of bed,” he said. “When I roll out of bed, I think about the people who are still here and what I have to do for family at Penn State and what I have to do for my family back home.”
Midway through September, Brown started against Pitt in the third game of the season and ran for 109 yards on 10 carries. His 85-yard run vs. Pitt is PSU’s longest of the season. Brown has started every game since, with the exception of Michigan State (when he was injured and at less than 100%). In three of the past four games, Brown has emerged as the Nittany Lions’ go-to guy.
Over the past four games, Brown has run for 391 yards and seven touchdowns. He ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries against Minnesota; for 100 yards and a TD on 21 carries against Indiana; and for 64 yards and a TD on 11 carries last week at Ohio State. Each was a team-high effort.
“I just think he’s getting to the point where he’s confident with the scheme, he’s confident with his footwork, his fundamentals, and technique,” Franklin said. “He’s playing with confidence right now.”
FAMILY COLORS EVERYTHING
Brown low-keys his recent run of football success. His off-the-field life provides a counterbalance.
“You grow from stuff like this. Adversity,” Brown said. “I became the man I want to become by having mentors like Coach Franklin and Coach (Ja-Juan) Seider and the whole coaching staff. They give me a lot of wisdom. And the same for the family back home — my mom and my uncles — they pave my way and fill my head to motivate me the right way.”
Through it all, Brown has not only maintained his perspective. He’s also kept sense of humor, like at the end of an interview session on Saturday evening, when he referenced the animated sitcom, Family Guy, and its main character.
“You can tell I’m a big family guy,” Brown smiled. “But I’m not Peter Griffin.”