Sports

Man overcomes shattered NFL dreams to become college coach

A Happy Meal changed Fran Brown's life.

It was 2008, and Brown was driving home from a workout with his 4-year-old son Frannie. It'd been a tough time for Brown, who had sunk in a deep depression after the Cincinnati Bengals had cut him, ending his dreams of playing in the NFL.

He had a degree in criminal justice from Western Carolina, but football had defined him for as long as he could remember. Growing up on the streets of Camden, that pursuit kept him going through the most difficult of circumstances. Now, he was lost.

"He didn't want to come outside, didn't want to be around people," his wife Teara said. "I guess he felt kind of embarrassed and ashamed."

Nothing compared to that day with his son though. Frannie wanted McDonald's, but Brown couldn't afford it.

"So, I told him that's not good for you, let's go home and eat and do this, and after that I'm like, 'I got to work,' " Brown said. " 'I got to flip this over ... It's time for me to make something out of this. I can't allow my son to starve.' "

Eleven years later, the Brown family is thriving. Many others are too, because of Fran.

Brown is the co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach for the Temple University football program. He's also recognized as one of the best recruiters in the nation, and he's helped put countless high school athletes on the path to future success.

"I'm constantly grinding, I'm constantly pushing," Brown said. "When it's all said and done, I'm going to make sure I made a positive impact on thousands of kids' lives."

"He's just authentic," current New York Giants safety Sean Chandler says of Brown. "He just always being himself. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He tells you how it is."

Chandler, a 2014 Camden High School graduate, knows struggle. He lived in six different homeless shelters as a kid.

Brown was a role model for Chandler growing up, and when Brown started recruiting him, they forged an instant connection. They not only grew up in the same place, they knew what tough was.

Brown's mom had him when she was 13, and his father was never around. They constantly moved around, too.

"I lived in Mount Ephraim, Thurman (Street), Morton (Street), Sheridan (Street), all in one town, and Carl Miller Boulevard, that's one little neighborhood," Brown said. "I lived in Centerville, I lived out at Sixth and Ferry. I lived out in East Camden. I lived in three different houses on Haddon Avenue. We had to move, just had to move, different things coming up. Now I'm older, (I realize) she was getting evicted."

Brown saw someone shot and killed in sixth grade. He saw someone else fall off a truck and die.

In Camden, resilience is key. For Brown, the way forward was football.

When he got to Camden High, the long-time running back switched to quarterback just so he could play immediately.

And Brown more than did the job on the field, but he didn't off it. He wound up getting held back after his senior year.

But Brown persevered through the extra year of high school and wound up going to Hudson Valley Community College, still striving for a shot at Division-I football.

However, his mom got sick in the fall of 2001, forcing Brown to return home right after training camp. He started working on a trash truck among other side jobs, all the while staying in touch with his coaches in New York.

"In my brain I was going to the NFL since I was a little kid, I'm going to play in the league," he said. "I'm going to do whatever I have to do to be able to do it."

Brown returned to school the following year, but he returned with yet another challenge — he had no money. He drank lots of water to fill his stomach and relied on a friend at Dunkin' Donuts to keep him fed.

"I'd call home to different dudes around the way and they're just like, 'Come back home,' " Brown said. "Nah, can't. I'm not trying to come back to that. What am I going to come back to? Run a block? I'm going to go to jail and be killed. I'm cool, I'm going to make it work."

And he did.

Brown thrived for Hudson Valley at cornerback despite never playing the position before. Several schools took notice, but one coach in particular stood out.

"There was something about (Western Carolina's) Matt Rhule that drew my attention," Brown said. "He came to my neighborhood to see me. A lot of coaches didn't come to our neighborhood."

Brown was so taken with Rhule he committed on the spot.

Brown shined for the Catamounts, but his play wasn't enough for pro teams. That didn't deter him though. He trained constantly over the next year, and the Bengals brought him in. He spent about seven weeks with the team over the next two seasons, but it all ended in 2008.

"I'm running down on kickoff and Keith Rivers was on the team and I'll never forget, he was a linebacker, and I was running extremely hard and I remember looking to the side and I was like right there with a backer and I was like, 'Oh snap, I'm going to get cut,' " Brown said.

"When (Frannie) asked for that McDonald's and I had no money, that was the best moment of my life when I go back," Brown said. "It hurt, but it was crazy. That put me on my grind."

Brown snapped out of his depression and started working three jobs. He was a manager of environmental services at the University of Pennsylvania, a substitute teacher and he trained kids on the gridiron.

Brown wasn't looking for a path back to football, but he found a calling helping others.

"It truly does something to me to see you get better," he said.

Rhule, whom he remained close to, encouraged him to keep an eye out for coaching opportunities, and one presented itself when Paul VI coach John Doherty asked Brown to help out during the 2010 season.

The following year, Temple coach Steve Addazio, with Rhule on staff, offered Brown a job as the Owls' director of player development.

It was a step back financially, but the family felt it was worth the risk.

"We thought about the opportunities that he could have in the future and how much further he could go with his career and how many lives he could touch, and I just knew it was a great opportunity and I was like, 'We'll be fine,' " Teara said.

"Each week of the month I would sit and talk to each kid individually," Brown said of one of his responsibilities. ". . . I was around them all the time, that big brother."

Brown wanted more though, so he hounded the receivers' coach, sitting in on every meeting. That tenacity landed him a graduate assistant role on the defense the following year, which he parlayed into the cornerback coaching job, and his star has risen ever since.

When rising Williamstown senior Aaron Lewis narrowed his choice of colleges last spring, it stung leaving Temple out of his top five. That was because of Brown.

Brown, while at Baylor, recruited Lewis, who recently committed to Michigan. He was the first to reach out to Lewis and the connection with the family was deep.

"You might have to make it six just to kind of give him his props," Lewis' mother Angela told him.

How does Brown do it?

"Fran's going to keep it real," said Camden head coach Dwayne Savage, who's known Brown for nearly two decades.

Marcus Hammond, founder of Next Level Greats (NLG), a premier football skills development program in the area that recently won a 7v7 National Championship, met Brown when Hammond was in first grade. Hammond was in a fight with a bigger kid and Brown broke it up.

The two stayed connected through family for years, and reconnected when Hammond started NLG.

Hammond speaks with recruiters constantly, but Brown's straight talk is unique.

"There's probably four or five guys around the country that have been that way," Hammond said.

Brown's also passionate about kids' success.

"There's times he knows there's a kid who's not going to go to Temple, they're not good enough or are going to go to a bigger school, but he likes to take them under his wing and educate them, especially inner-city kids," Hammond said. "It's not all sunshine and happiness when you get there, it's a grind. It's not about you playing college football, it's about you changing your life. That's his MO with these kids."

It's what sticks out most to Chandler.

"Whether it was on the football field or off the football field, he was just that big brother that helped me out in any way he could," Chandler, who went to Temple to play for Brown, said. "He definitely played a huge part in my success."

Those are the stories that keep Brown going.

Sure, he wants to be a head coach. He was disappointed he didn't get the Temple job this past winter, but that didn't compare to the hardships he experienced in his past.

His primary focus is making a difference, and he'll continue to do that.

"I'm trying to do this for every kid that thinks they got no way out," he said. "If I have a chance to give them that ticket to get 'em in, come get it with me; and if they can't get it with me, I'm going to show them how to go get it.

"I want to see everybody happy, I want to see everybody eat. I truly want to see everyone shine."

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