“Every dark night, there is a brighter day ahead. No matter how hard it gets, keep your head up.”
-- Me Against the World, by Tupac
When he looks at his left arm and reads those words now, he hopes the dark nights of his life are over, and in spite of it all, Curtis Browns understands he is lucky, because many of the young men who traveled this path before him are in prison. Or dead.
On this day, Curtis Brown is sitting in the only quiet spot in the Steelers training room, and maybe for the first time in his young life he is letting down his guard and opening up. But Brown isn’t looking for sympathy. He doesn’t want your pity. His tears already have been shed. He has emotional and psychological scars, yes, but those wounds have healed, and some of the other things … well, those were handled with an acceptance derived from his own naïve belief that life was just supposed to be like that.
Curtis Brown doesn’t have a why-me bone in his body.
* * *
Six weeks into Curtis Brown’s life, his birth mother gave him up. His father, Aundray Taylor, wanted to help, but spent most of his son’s early life incarcerated for various narcotics offenses. It was his grandmother, Oneta Taylor, who stepped up and took custody and did everything in her power to provide a loving home for the newborn.
Oneta Taylor, though, faced her own challenges. She had already raised her 10 children and three grandchildren and survived a battle with cancer. But there were other health issues that left her crippled and unable to fend for herself, let alone care for an infant on her own. But with the help of Brown’s aunt, Gwendolyn Rose Carr, they managed with the little they had. Somehow.
Home was in the deep country setting Longview, Texas, but it wasn’t much simply because there is not a lot around.
“There are trees everywhere. I would roam through pastures as a kid picking up cow bones,” said Brown. “There were tadpoles, hogs, raccoons, possums, and skunks everywhere. It was like a breeding ground for skunks. That is the one thing I am scared of.”
Longview, Texas, is not a thriving metropolis. The area Brown is from is small, poor, country, and basically ignored.
“Where I am from, it was all raggedy homes,” said Brown. “Everyone in my neighborhood was lower-class income. There isn’t anything around, a real country area. There isn’t too much there but trees and football.”
Brown learned at an early age to be self-sufficient. Anywhere he went, other than to play football, his only option was to walk.
“They would give me the list and the food stamps, and I would just walk to the store and get everything,” said Brown. “I used to run across town, to the next neighborhood. That was something I would love to do.”
Brown always thought of Carr as his mother. She was the one caring for him if he was sick, the one making sure he had something through all of those times when there just wasn’t much of anything. Along with his grandmother, she made all the wrongs in life as right as she could. But she couldn’t control everything, including her own health issues.
Gwendolyn Rose Carr battled diabetes and other health problems and when Curtis was in fourth grade she went to the hospital. He waited patiently for her to come home. She never did. The head of their humble household, the person who was his rock was gone. And he was devastated.
“It was the toughest thing I can ever remember,” said Brown. “She was the only mom I knew. There were times when she was alive that I would go and stay with my other uncles and cousins, and I would cry until they took me back to her.”
Telling the story even now, Brown looks down at his right arm proudly to show off a tattoo of a beautiful rose, his aunt’s middle name. His first attempt to honor her – a cross inscribed with RIP – was too ugly, and so when Curtis was able he had that tattoo covered up with the one of the rose. But even getting an ugly tattoo at that time in his life was a commitment.
“I got it from somebody who had to use guitar strings, India ink and an engine out of a mechanical tooth brush,” said Brown. “It was deep.”
And so was his pain of losing her.
“It hurt real bad,” said Brown. “It hurt my grandma even more. That was her base. She did everything for my grandma and everything for me. That was my mom by far.”
Carr’s passing created upheaval for Brown and his grandmother. They were forced to move to a small apartment in Gilmer, Texas, where family was nearby and Oneta had access to health care. Whatever Curtis Brown had before, he had even less after the move to Gilmer. His friends were all back in Longview, the aunt who was the only mother he had known was dead, and the uncle who lived in Gilmer, Hosea Taylor, was often unavailable because he had his own life to live and his own family who needed his attention.
“It was just me and her in a small apartment,” said Brown of that time in Gilmer. “It was in the projects, more for elderly people. I never went and stayed over at other kids’ houses. I would go to football practice and come home. Every night.”
Oneta had someone to care for her during the day, but in the evenings before his uncle could stop by and check on them, the responsibility fell on his small shoulders. Curtis didn’t mind.
“I would get her water, get her things she needed,” said Brown. “I would empty her pot, which was nasty but I had to do it. We had good times. We were a team.”
Eventually Oneta’s health issues worsened and she wasn’t able to be cared for at home. That meant a move to a nursing home and away from her grandson. Brown was crushed. He felt like he had been abandoned again – once by a mother he never knew, once by an aunt who went to the hospital and never came home, and now by his grandmother who was taken from him by a nursing home. Curtis Brown was a seventh-grader left alone to fend for himself.
“It felt like my life was done,” said Brown. “It was hard being away from her. There was a lot of crying at night. When I lost my auntie that was hurtful. But when she went (to the nursing home), there was no one there for me. There was nothing for me at all.”
Uncle Hosea allowed Curtis to stay with his family, but that turned out to be very temporary because Hosea’s wife didn’t like the idea of a seventh-grade boy being added to the household. And so Curtis pinballed from place to place, with nowhere to call home.
“I just bounced and bounced,” said Brown. “I stayed by myself. They kept the apartment my grandmother had hoping she would come back there. I would sneak away and go there. I always left the window unlocked so I could get in and sleep in there by myself most of the time.”
That too was temporary, because with no hope for his grandmother ever to leave the nursing home, the apartment, the only roof over Brown’s head, was gone. He had literally nothing. No home, no money, no food. Nothing but an empty stomach and the constant question of where he would lay his head at night. Friends tried to help with the occasional hot meal or a couch to sleep on, and Uncle Hosea did whatever he could whenever he could, but there were plenty of times when there was nowhere to go.
“I have slept on park benches,” said Brown. “I didn’t want to, but my uncle’s wife would mistreat me mentally. She would break me down and make me feel like I can’t do anything. She would tell people I was going to end up in jail. I heard that a lot in my life.”
Curtis admits that prediction could have come true.
“Being in that area and not having a lot of money I did things,” said Brown. “I would be around the older kids, and I got into a lot of trouble, stealing and robbing, drugs and liquor, which I will never be proud of.
“But at that time I just didn’t have the means to eat … eating corn out of the can doesn’t satisfy you. I was poor, didn’t have a family base. I was out there trying to do what I could to provide for myself. But when I saw how bad I hurt my grandma, that triggered something in me. When I saw my grandma cry over that, it really straightened me out a lot.”
* * *
Through all of the trouble, with all of the heartache, there was some hope. Brown’s father was released from prison when Curtis was in the eighth grade, and they began a relationship that continues to this day. Aundray was able to secure a home for him and his son, but those years of living a hard, a troubled life had worn on him as well. Aundray had been shot in the head and came out of prison paralyzed with his only means of getting around being a scooter.
“He did what he could for me,” said Brown. “I saw what happened to him. He pressed me to keep my nose clean.”
One of the things Aundray did once out of prison was to take Curtis to meet his birth mother. During the visit, Curtis learned he had a sister. But it wasn’t a warm reunion.
“The only thing she wanted to see us for was to get food stamps,” said Brown. “She couldn’t get food stamps off of me, so I wasn’t anything to her.”
Curtis and Aundray lived month-to-month on social security checks, and they stretched it as much as possible just to cover the bare necessities. And even that didn’t last long.
After two years Aundray was back in prison, where he remains today. Curtis found a way to stay in that house where he lived on his own once again, for as long as he could.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” said Brown. “The lights were turned off. There was nothing there.
* * *
For Curtis Brown, though, there might have been nothing tangible, but there still was something. He could play football.
A two-time all-state selection at Gilmer High School, Brown rose to be rated as the nation’s No. 2 cornerback by recruiting services. Naturally, colleges took notice, but Brown had his doubts. Gilmer High wasn’t exactly a hotbed for big-time college prospects, and he never expected to be the exception to that rule.
“I remember questioning it,” said Brown. “I thought, this isn’t for me. I can’t do it. Not many from my school even went to college, maybe three before me. I looked at them like heroes. But I wasn’t like them, they were good students, they weren’t from my neighborhood. They had family bases.”
One issue the college recruiters found difficult to understand was that lack of a family base. Normally recruiters spend time getting to know parents or whatever family a boy might have, but with Curtis Brown there really wasn’t anyone to get to know.
“I was bouncing from house to house. I didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Brown. “You’re in the 11th grade, and you still have nowhere to go.”
His high school coach stepped in and introduced Curtis to a young white couple who could offer the boy the stability of a home, and eventually guardianship. He had his doubts, but he needed someone.
“I was iffy about it,” said Brown. “In the country the races are so different. It’s still so separate. Football is the only thing we had in common from the people on the other side of the tracks. They took me to my first football camp. I still didn’t think I could trust them. I went to their house and slept on the couch. I kept going back to my town, but I would go there and have a meal every night, have somewhere to sleep.”
Grades were also an issue, but Brown took it upon himself to improve, even by spending time after school re-taking classes from 9th and 10th grades to get his grades to where they needed to be.
“I studied hard for the ACT, failed it a few times, and then passed it,” said Brown.
As college started to become a reality, he set his sights on attending the University of Texas, but the school initially had no interest.
“I went to Oklahoma for a weekend, and then Texas offered me,” said Brown. “I accepted. I never thought I would be in college. When I picked my school and learned it was in the Big 12, I thought that meant those were the 12 biggest colleges in the country. I didn’t even know it was a conference.”
Brown worked on the field to become an NFL prospect, and he might have worked even harder off the field to stay out of trouble.
“The things I did in the past, the liquor, drugs, all that kind of stuff … when I went to college I had seen that,” said Brown. “I had seen it and lived it, and it’s not what life is about. That’s what got me through college, knowing what I went through and knowing how to better myself.
“I don’t fault myself for what I have done because there was a reason for it at that time. It might not have been a good reason, but it was the decision I made.
* * *
When the Steelers chose Brown in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, it meant a chance to be able to support himself, his grandmother and his 2-year old daughter, Alayah, who was born premature while he was at Texas. It also meant being far away from his grandmother, now 84, for the first time.
“Being (at training camp) was really hard at first,” said Brown. “I wasn’t able to see my grandma like I wanted to. I knew what was ahead, how long I will be here. It was all running through my head. It got hard for me.”
There were nights he sat in his dorm room in Rooney Hall, with those he loved far away, and it really got to him.
“The walls were closing in on me,” said Brown. “Since I didn’t know anybody, didn’t really know the players and coaches yet … who do you have? It takes me a while to get used to anyone. I don’t just open up to people like that. I have always been a sheltered type dude.”
From somewhere inside himself, Brown knew he would have to open up and trust others, but it wasn’t easy. He turned to Coach Mike Tomlin and Ray Jackson, who works in the area of player development.
“That helped me a lot,” said Brown. “I found out everybody here wants to help you. They don’t want to harm you. It’s a family atmosphere. It’s good people here.”
Brown also knew why he had to do what he was doing.
“If I could be financially stable without working, my daughter would be on my hip every step of the way,” said Brown. “I can give her my love, and I do that by working every day so I can provide for her. Everything I do is for her and my grandmother. That’s what pushes me.”
* * *
Loud laughter coming from the Steelers’ training room distracted Curtis Brown for a moment, but he quickly returned to his thoughts. The questioner wanted to know when he had hit rock bottom.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you,” said Brown, before adding, “It was having nights when you didn’t have anybody, when the two main people who love you are gone, and everyone else was preoccupied with their own families. It was the thought of not having much, being in that same town, doing the same things your friends are doing now. Football was a key to a better life.”
Brown has every right to be angry, to wallow in self-pity, to be bitter. But he isn’t. Before opening up for this story, he didn’t even see his how bad he had it.
“Looking back now I see how tough it was,” said Brown. “But most of my friends, their story is two times worse than mine. When I was there it wasn’t a big deal.
“You can say I missed out on a lot of stuff, but the thing that was important was having somebody love you, and that was my grandma and auntie. Even now when I call my grandma she will sing a song to me. I didn’t miss out on anything important because I always had my grandma’s love and I will take that over anything.”
Curtis Brown lives a life now that’s millions of miles from Longview, Texas. He has a place to live, clothes to wear. He can walk into a restaurant and order anything on the menu. But none of that is what it’s about for him.
“It can leave just as fast as it came,” said Brown. “As long as my grandma is proud, I am good. I can provide for her and my daughter. Everything else, the value is low, except for your family and the love they provide.”
And with that love comes brighter days.
This article was originally published in Steelers Digest and is copyright of Steelers Digest and can not be republished or reposted.