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Christmas Comes : After Hard Times, Dennis Brown Can Unwrap the Future

December 19, 1985|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — High school days are running out as quickly as daylight on a winter afternoon, and Dennis Brown knows he must break through this bittersweet time and go on. The future is the thing now, and the anticipation of it makes his heart race. But the past still clings like a passionate embrace, and for the moment he doesn't want it to let go.

And so he threads the projector in the Jordan High football office and rolls the film. On the screen No. 75 in the dark uniform crashes in on the quarterback.

"That's me," he points out.

Then he steps outside to the scene of his glory.

Brown, a huge 18-year-old, sits on shaded bleachers whose blue paint long ago succumbed to nature, and looks out at the sunny field that absorbed his sweat, blood and soul and where he performed so well as a tackle that he was named to The Times' All-South Coast team three straight seasons.

This is also the place where, for a few hours each day, he could think about something other than death, hard times and empty Christmases.

Dreams of No Burdens

Now, with January graduation nearing and the football factories of the nation trying to entice him to their college campuses, the field is where Brown savors the memories of Jordan and dreams of a life without burdens.

"I've always been fascinated with rich people," he says. "I watch 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' all the time."

And when he clicks off that television show at his grandmother's house in South Gate, where he lives, he resumes dealing with a very non-rich reality.

His grandmother has rheumatism, so he cooks and cleans before he puts on a gray sweat shirt, gets on the bus and heads for school. And when he gets home he helps her fix sandwiches for the college coaches who come calling.

Brown doesn't blend in with his fellow students. His size--6 feet 5 and 280 pounds--and his quietness set him apart. When the other students burst into the corridor at the sound of the bell, Brown walks slowly through the commotion in a hulking manner, a bit bent over, but still head and shoulders above everyone else.

Imposing to Classmates

When he was in junior high he was already so imposing that his classmates looked up at him with suspicion.

"They thought I was a 'narc' or an undercover cop," Brown said.

His size once made him self-conscious.

"I hated it a lot," he said. "But after I got into sports it felt comfortable."

But it gave others a pain.

"In junior high I knocked a guy out and the other coach came out screaming that I should be illegal and should be banned from junior high flag football because I was so much bigger than anyone else," Brown said.

He has a cherubic face that a mustache can't age, but the baby fat he lugged around for years has vanished. When he puts on shorts and a T-shirt, thick, hard legs and arms are revealed, and they will probably get thicker and harder when he arrives at a big-time college weight room.

Now he has to push up barbells in a sparse, raucous little room that is crowded with dozens of boys and girls searching for strength. They step aside for Brown, whom one of them calls "a Refrigerator in the making."

Forced Into Adulthood

Brown only recently turned 18 but was forced into adulthood three years ago when his father, Jerome, a roofer, fell off a roof, suffering disabling injuries.

Not that life as a child had been a piece of cake--his first eight years were spent in Watts. Brown's mother died when he was 3, and his brother was killed in a car accident.

At the time of Jerome's accident, he, Dennis and Dennis' sisters, Traci, now a sophomore at Grambling University, and Fran, now 8, lived in an apartment a couple of blocks down Atlantic Avenue from Jordan in North Long Beach.

With Jerome disabled and unable to work, Dennis and Traci became Fran's "parents." And Dennis took care of his father.

"After Jerome was hurt he got so large in the stomach that he couldn't put on his shoes," said Matilda Brown, Dennis' grandmother. "Dennis put his daddy's shoes on, stood him up and pulled on his pants. It was like he was his child."

Dennis and Traci both worked, handing out lunches at a junior high, but ends didn't meet.

"Me and my sister did what we could but sometimes Christmas never came," Brown said. "I think I stopped celebrating Christmas when I was 15."

'A Good Boy'

Jerome Brown moved to Palmdale this year, took Fran and wanted Dennis to come, too. But Dennis didn't want to leave his girlfriend or interrupt his football career so he decided not to leave.

"He has been a good boy, he ain't never no trouble," said Matilda Brown, who has raised Dennis since his mother died. "Only table trouble . . . if you don't have his food on time."

Jordan football Coach Mike Ono may be Brown's biggest booster.

"I wish all kids were like him," Ono said. "He's well-mannered, well-tempered, not the hot-dog type of kid. He works real hard in class. He's not the brightest student, but he's a hard-working kid." Brown has a 2.5 grade-point average.

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