Journey Brown laughs a little and then concedes, his first name turned out to be so absolutely accurate.
“Been on a journey for sure,’’ said the 24-year old Brown, who will serve as Grand Marshal for this Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway.
The former Penn State football star is eagerly starting a new chapter of that journey now as a developmental pit crew member at Trackhouse Racing. It wasn’t a job he ever anticipated as a young boy playing peewee football and then as a teenager, a highly-recruited prep player in football-rich Pennsylvania. It certainly wasn’t a career choice he ever envisioned when breaking tackles as a star running back for the Division I powerhouse Nittany Lions or lining up in the blocks as he set track and field collegiate records in the 100-meter dash.
But life happened. And Brown has not only negotiated the sudden turn in aspiration but is proving himself both adaptable and ambitious in ways he never considered.
A case of COVID-19 while Brown was at Penn State in 2020 was not only challenging - but as it turned out paradoxical; the illness arguably ended up saving his life.
The NCAA and Penn State University athletic department had a rigorous medical clearance procedure for players to return to the field after a COVID diagnosis. And it was during these tests that doctors determined Brown actually had a rare heart disorder – hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The 2019 Cotton Bowl MVP and likely National Football League top prospect was immediately sidelined and advised by doctors he should not play football anymore. It was too dangerous with his heart condition.
“I actually didn’t know anything was wrong with me,’’ Brown said. “I was like 235-pounds and tip-top peak of my shape, feeling good and then COVID came around. One of my roommates got COVID and gave it to me. And the Big 10 [college football conference] put in place new rules where if you get COVID, you have to get tested with MRIs, EKGs, ECGs – all these different tests for the heart because a player down in Georgia State had passed away from a heart condition due to COVID.
“They tested me and that’s when they found my heart condition because of those tests.
“Essentially it [COVID] saved me,’’ he conceded.
“It’s a genetic thing that got passed down in my family, although to my knowledge no one else in my family has it. And from that aspect, it’s nothing COVID related, they just found it because of tests I had to get after COVID.’’
As you would expect, the diagnosis rocked Brown’s world. The NFL had been his lifelong dream.
But then he got a phone call from Trackhouse Racing pit crew coach Shaun Peet last year, inviting Brown out to Charlotte to see the race team’s shop and meet the other former college athletes who now pit the Trackhouse Racing’s No. 1 and No. 99 Chevrolets. Brown brought a friend with him and figured he had nothing to lose by at least checking out the situation. No promises from him and no guarantees from Peet.
Brown will absolutely concede that NASCAR had never really been a sport he previously followed. He was familiar with two race car drivers - Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ricky Bobby. The later, of course, a fictional character played by comedian Will Ferrell in a movie.
“I was still very upset with my situation and I didn’t really have any aspiration to be a NASCAR guy,’’ Brown recalled. “I really didn’t know there were analytics, science behind it all. I didn’t know anything about it.”
In fact, his knowledge of NASCAR was largely based on stereotypes – of those competing and those attending the races. But Brown had a whole different outlook by the time he returned to Pennsylvania after his trip to the state-of-the-art Trackhouse Racing headquarters.
“Coach Peet showed us around the whole facility and I just remember, my initial thought was, ‘wow, this is not what I expected. ‘ “ Brown said. “Walking into the front door and seeing how big the facility was, for one thing, and seeing how nice and clean and up to date it was. Everything and anything.
“Walking through the assembly lines and seeing how people work and the shop guys move. It was like a whole different world that I would never have thought or fathomed in my head.
“I went out there to [pit stop] practice and thought it would just be some dudes drinking beer and instead I go out there and hear a variety of music - country, rap the whole nine yards. And I see how diverse it is. I see black, purple, green, white whatever color you could think of out there practicing, getting along and everybody really cool.
“It was fun, people talking smack and that’s essentially what I left in the football locker room. You get the same type of good vibes.”
And compared to NCAA Division I football, the physical stress levels were not going to be troublesome for Brown.
“Tires are only 45 pounds and the gun [used to attach a tire) is only about 10 pounds – so that’s in my ballpark,’’ Brown said with a laugh.
“You have to remember, I was lifting 400 pounds and squatting 500 pounds, so for me, lifting 45 pounds is a walk in the park. For me, it’s not that crazy, being a front tire changer I really don’t do a lot of running for it. It’s only about 10 seconds a pit stop and I barely have a sweat after a couple pit stops. So for me, I feel great doing it and don’t feel any problems [physically].”
It’s truly both a happy ending and a happy start – a lesson for all in navigating destiny. And sometimes, you don’t see it coming.
“It’s actually surprising how many football players are in NASCAR and a lot of them played at the levels I did and even higher,’’ Brown said. “So when I first came in and explained my story, they understood because they had to call it quits at some point too, so for them it was like playing a broken record because they know how it feels.
“When you play football and it’s cut short, it’s all the same story. There’s a lot of similarities in ‘how do you give it up?’ They understand me better than anybody.
“And at the end of the day, life always throws curve balls at you and you either hit it out of the park, or you strike out.’’
For Journey Brown, it’s been a home run.