Cam Brown, a physically imposing yet affable sophomore linebacker, tells himself the same thing every single day.
I’m blessed. I’m blessed. I’m blessed.
For someone who’s had tragedy strike close to home so many times before, Brown has to remind himself of that.
Brown, who’s competing for starting time in 2017, has 17 words in his Twitter bio: “Penn State Outside Linebacker | Rest in Paradise to the ones I’ve lost, I’m balling for y’all now!”
In a two-year span, four people — a godfather, mentor, childhood friend and grandfather — passed away, each of whom had a significant impact on Brown’s life.
And to a degree, those four still shape the budding linebacker today. A tattoo on his upper left arm provides a daily reminder of one for Brown, and he constantly reflects on his time with others.
“When I have a hard time here, when I have a lot of work or I’m tired, I think about them,” Brown said Wednesday morning, from inside the Lasch Football Building. “They’re my motivation.”
Peter Warren, or “Mr. Pete” as Brown called him, was an old neighbor and friend to Brown’s parents, who divorced when their son was 8 years old. In high school, Brown lived with his father, but oftentimes his dad’s work schedule prevented him from being around as often as he’d like.
That’s where Warren came in, hosting Brown at his Maryland home. A chef by trade, he cooked dinner, harped on homework and helped out with girl advice, too. Warren considered himself to be Brown’s godfather.
“He was like a dad and a big brother at the same time,” Brown said, smiling. “He made sure I was safe, and he made sure I got where I needed to go.”
But in the summer of 2014, before Brown’s junior season, the linebacker received terrible news: Warren was diagnosed with esophagus cancer.
Everything was normal for a while. “Mr. Pete” would still cook for Brown, and their relationship didn’t really change. But when Warren started chemotherapy treatment, Brown saw the health of his “godfather” slide downhill.
Warren passed away in October 2014.
“He had such a big heart,” Brown said. “He was always looking out. He would always step up to the plate. Even though he had cancer, he never wanted to sit in the backseat. I really appreciated that.”
Shortly after Warren’s death, Brown got a tattoo in memoriam on his left arm. The tattoo features a chef’s hat and butcher’s knife, as well as the phrase, “Rest in Paradise.”
That also when he posted that quote in his Twitter bio. From the start, it was directed toward Warren — but a year after his death, Brown was grieving yet again.
Siafa Lavala, a former St. Francis (Pa.) defensive back who mentored Brown when he was a young boy, passed away at the age of 28 in November 2015.
Brown didn’t grow up in a football family — his father and brother played soccer — so he was never really exposed to the game until he met Lavala. Brown’s family lived down the street from the church-going Lavala. The former cornerback introduced him to everything from a basic route tree to formations.
“I looked up to him,” Brown said. “He taught me everything.”
Despite losing two companions in a year, Brown kept pushing on with his high school career. It was difficult, sure, but he knew giving up wouldn’t have honored the lives of Warren and Lavala.
Patrick Cilento, the head football coach at Maryland’s Bullis School, watched as the prospect grew off-the-field, even with the adverse circumstances.
“He always had a smile on his face, and always laughing,” Cilento recalled. “When you see someone like that, that positively affects everyone around him — and not just his teammates, but also the school and everyone he’s associated with.”
Of course, Cilento also saw Brown blossom into a force on the defensive side of the ball. The linebacker was a three-time captain, leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back Interstate Athletic Conference titles in 2014 and 2015.
A 6-foot-5 anomaly at the position, he caught Penn State’s eye and committed as a highly regarded prospect in the Nittany Lions’ 2016 recruiting class.
However, a month after he arrived at Penn State, he went through yet another agonizing day. On July 9, 2016, he received word that Andrew Dantzler, a childhood friend, drowned in a Maryland lake.
Brown and Dantzler were close in elementary school, and while they went their separate ways in high school, Dantzler would always text or tweet him inspirational messages, telling Brown to keep grinding away.
Thirty minutes after learning of Dantzler’s death, Brown was devastated yet again.
“Right when I go to really think about Andrew, my mom calls,” Brown remembered, “and says, ‘Grandpa is about to pass away. You need to get to New York.’”
His mother’s father had a brain aneurysm, complications built up, and his health started to deteriorate. Shortly after, Brown’s grandfather passed away.
Brown described his grandfather as “the man behind the scenes” in his family.
“He didn’t travel to games, but he always let me know that he was proud of me,” Brown said. “He never failed to mention that.”
It was stunning for Brown, that Danztler and his grandfather — two different, yet important people to him — were lost in a matter of days. And at the time, having four so close to him pass in a two-year span was unfathomable.
But in Brown’s words, he has to “focus on the path and try not to be affected by anything.”
After a 33-tackle freshman campaign, Brown is keyed in on remembering those lost loved ones by making a difference at Penn State next season — and his teammates and coaches have seen that out of him this spring.
“First time I ever met Cam Brown, I saw and thought, ‘Damn, that’s going to be a big receiver.’ Coach Pry said, ‘No, he’s about to play linebacker,’” redshirt junior linebacker Koa Farmer said. “He’s out there and it doesn’t seem like he’s a freshman anymore. He’s making plays, being physical, he’s big. He looks incredible out there.”
Added head coach James Franklin: “He had one of the better offseasons, from the end of the Rose Bowl to the beginning of spring ball. He gained experience on the field last year before he was probably ready, and he was able to have a great offseason. Putting all together in fall camp is really the next step for him.”
Brown knows, too, that as he enters the Blue-White Game on Saturday and as he continues his career at Penn State, the four he lost will still be with him in a way.
After the upset against Ohio State last year, a game in which Brown blocked a punt, he thought of how Dantzler would’ve FaceTime him to offer congratulations. Following his first collegiate start against Minnesota, he pictured Lavala in the stands cheering him on.
Dwelling too much on it takes him to a deeper, sadder state. Instead, Brown is “thinking about how I’ll do all this for you, and we’ll all celebrate together.”
His smile isn’t going to go away, and neither is his positive attitude.
“I look back and realize that I’ve come so far,” Brown said. “These are the people that pushed me and helped me get here. How would they feel if I stopped playing or gave this all up? I can’t give up. I just can’t.”