The lasting impact of Cazzie Brown
Oct 03, 2017 11:44AM
● By Jana Klopsch
Cazzie Brown (center) dances with some Hillcrest High students around the school’s 2016 homecoming. (Sara Diggins/Hillcrest High School)
The Hillcrest High School football team had just finished practice when senior McKay Ashby recalled how his head coach, Cazzie Brown, took some of the big linemen out to his truck.
Some of them didn’t have the money to go shopping for clothes so Brown had brought a large sack of clothes, shoes and whatever else they needed “and just gave it to them.”
“(Brown) said, ‘Here you guys go, take all that you want and gave them this big smile and got in his truck and drove away,’” Ashby remembered. “That’s just the kind of guy he was, always serving all of us.”
Ashby’s memory was one of hundreds, if not thousands, shared by those who felt the impact of Cazzie Brown in their lives.
Brown, the Huskies football coach, died on Aug. 27 from what a family spokesperson said was the West Nile virus.
The weeks that ensued after his death saw a community unite and honor the beloved coach and the legacy he left behind.
The early years
Born in El Paso, Texas, but raised in Houston, Brown was a three-time state champion wrestler in high school, said close friend Donnell McLean at Brown’s funeral. McLean and Brown were teammates at Idaho State where Brown received a scholarship to play defensive line.
Before earning such a scholarship though, he had a high school coach by the name of Benjamin Gordon who would drive Brown to school every day.
“(Cazzie) was what you would call a knucklehead growing up,” McLean said. He added Brown knew if he were to get out of Houston, it would be through sports.
“He also realized that in sport, he found people, coaches, teachers who saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself,” McLean said.
Hillcrest Principal, Gregory Leavitt, said Brown told him Gordon was one reason he became the man he did.
“(Gordon) made sure he attended school, made sure he did his best in school, got him into college (and) made sure he got the opportunity to make something out of his life,” Leavitt said at a candlelight vigil held in Brown’s honor. “Cazzie never saw himself as a victim as a kid. He had a hard road, he had a hard life, but he made the best of it.”
For McLean, whether it was their found friendship at Idaho State through finishing last in conditioning drills or Brown staring at McLean in disbelief as he danced to a Sugar Ray song at a college party, Brown was an instrumental figure in his life.
“I appreciate you for teaching me that friendship is essential to the soul,” McLean said at the funeral.
Having a coach in high school leave such an enduring impression, it makes sense Brown would continue that legacy.
Brown helped coach girls basketball with Jeremy Chatterton at both Judge Memorial and Highland High School. He also helped coach the Rams football team too before taking the head coaching position at Hillcrest. He also taught physical education at The McGillis School.
Chatterton recalled a moment at Highland where a girl was elbowed in the eye during a game. She kept complaining about it and when Brown pulled her out to ask what was wrong she said her eye was hurting.
“How many eyes do you have?” was his response. “There are people in this world who don’t get to see like you, so let’s use that one good eye you have and go play.”
Chatterton said Brown wouldn’t let you feel sorry for yourself. “There was no pouting, no hanging your head, it was let’s solve your problem and move forward. He was always there with you to push you and lend you a hand.”
Hillcrest Athletic Director John Olsen recalled a memory from former Husky football and basketball player Karris Davis.
Davis had shown up late to practice for the second time. Brown stopped what he was doing, asked Davis for his father’s phone number and called him while standing in front of Davis.
He told Davis’s dad that his son was late to practice again and Davis isn’t bigger than the team. He concluded by saying that if Davis doesn’t get his act together, he’d be turning in his pads.
Davis was never late again. Olsen echoed Davis when he said Brown was a “game changer.”
“This was the impact Coach Brown had not only on his players, but hundreds of students here at Hillcrest. Even if they were only small interactions, this was his gift,” Olsen said.
On Jan. 13, 2016, Brown was hired as head coach of the Hillcrest football team.
“His presence alone, changed Hillcrest,” Olsen said.
A candlelight vigil was held on Hillcrest’s football field the day after Brown’s death. Brody Roemmich, a junior football player, said Brown would always text or call him after each game or practice. Roemmich played one of his voicemails of Brown saying, “Just checking to see how you’re doing.”
“He always wanted to show love for anybody and everybody,” Roemmich said. “He never, never was selfish.”
Chatterton said Brown changed his life and pushed him to be a better version of himself.
“Coach Brown’s presence changes everything, and everyone, and I mean everyone, wants to be near Coach Brown,” Chatterton said. “They want to be part of what he is doing because he ignites something in them that they didn’t know was there.”
Green sticky notes dotted the walls of Hillcrest after Brown’s death. Many of which had written his motto for the Hillcrest football team, “One Pack, One Goal.”
In the ensuing week after Brown’s death, Hillcrest held a candlelight vigil in his honor. The football team also played Highland High School, Brown’s previous school, and ate a pregame meal together the night before the game where former University of Utah football coach Ron McBride shared a message with the players.
While the game ended with the Rams winning 31-6, the score played second fiddle to the tributes surrounding it. Hillcrest and Highland players walked out together holding hands. Both sets of coaches wore shirts with the initials CB and the phrase, “One Pack, One Goal,” on the front.
The funeral was held the day after the game to cap off the emotional week.
Chatterton said during the funeral he was proud to see the way Brown’s last team (team 55) represented themselves.
“Having the opportunity to be your coach was something that Cazzie worked so hard for and he was so proud to call himself a Husky…I know his legacy and message will live on through you and all the other athletes he’s inspired,” Chatterton said.
During the week, posterboards were placed along the wall near the entrance to the stadium where all those who were impacted by Brown could write what they learned from him.
Other sports teams at Hillcrest displayed tributes as well with the cross country team putting CB on their calves. They also changed their pre-race chants to a variation of One Pack, One Goal.
Cross Country head coach Scott Stucki wrote on the team’s running blog that Brown was supportive of every program at Hillcrest, even adjusting his practice schedule to accommodate cross country’s weight room needs.
The girls soccer team, who had a game the day after Brown’s death, held a unity circle with its opponent, Cyprus High, where they had a moment of silence and a cheer for the football team.
Utah and beyond
Hillcrest High students wore green to honor Brown the Monday after his passing.
But they weren’t the only ones.
Schools from around the district, state and country, expressed their support and condolences to Hillcrest and Brown’s family.
Students from Alta, Judge, Highland, Olympus and others all wore green too. Tweets were sent out from high schools such as Cyprus, Provo, Jordan, Hunter, Woods Cross, Murray, Brighton and Westlake. University of Utah football also tweeted their condolences.
Other high schools like West, Riverton, Bingham, West Jordan and Herriman signed posters that expressed their love for Hillcrest.
“The love and support that we've gotten from everybody from around the state, around the country, different schools, we love and appreciate all of you guys,” said team captain Ezra Moeni during the candlelight vigil.
Olsen said Leavitt received an email from South Houston High School, where Brown’s picture hangs in the high school’s athletic wall of honor.
“The world may be a little darker having lost him, but it is much brighter that he was here,” Olsen read.
That sentence proved consolingly appropriate considering what Chatterton said was a common phrase from Brown, “You can ignite many candles without diminishing your own flame.”
Canyons District Foundation has set up college funds benefitting Brown’s three children (Bishop, Judge and Marlo) with Utah Educational Savings Plans in their names.
“We’ve had such an outpouring of support from schools and school districts throughout Utah. As students, colleagues and friends mourn, many have asked if there’s anything they can do to support his three children in their educational goals,” said Canyons District Foundation Director Laura Brown on one of the district’s Flickr albums. The foundation is accepting donations online at https://foundation.canyonsdistrict.org/index.php/donate.Olsen said Brown “was here for a reason, now it is our job to give our best and live up to the legacy that he left all of us.”