Ex-Penn State RB Journey Brown embarks on NASCAR pit crew career

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Journey Brown never envisioned a future without football.

He certainly never considered one in racing.

The last time he left the field after a game, Brown had rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns, leading Penn State to a 2019 Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis. He had every reason to believe he would one day return to AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, leading an NFL team to another win.

“The only NASCAR I knew was ‘Talladega Nights,'” Brown said of the slapstick movie starring Will Ferrell, “and my next door neighbor had a Dale Earnhardt Jr.” flag.

Brown knows a lot more these days. On Saturday, he walked through the inside door of Kansas Speedway and joined his new teammates at Trackhouse Racing, where he’s learning the ropes as a pit crew member.

The winding road to reach this point has been long and unexpected, beginning shortly after that December game in Texas.

Brown was undergoing a routine covid-19 test at the height of the pandemic. Brown joked with the doctor that he had a good heart, able to pump enough blood through his body to fuel those long TD runs, when the doctor turned to him with a grim-faced expression. The doctor told Brown something was wrong — there was something about his scans — and he would need further tests.

Soon after, Penn State coach James Franklin called him into his office and broke the news: Brown had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, thickening and stiffening of the heart wall, and he would be too dangerous. to continue playing football.

All those images of what the future might hold evaporated that day in the office.

“I’ve always been confident in my abilities in football,” Brown told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview. “For me, the confidence I had in myself, I know I would have been in the league and played for as long as I chose.

“So,” Brown said, “that wasn’t an option anymore. And I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

He helped the Nittany Lions a bit. He had a job planned to train aspiring players in California which fell through, partly because of the cost of living there and partly because of the daughter he had in Pennsylvania.

When Brown got a call to try to change a tire for Trackhouse Racing, he just failed. But a few weeks later pit coach Shaun Peet called again and convinced Brown to come to Charlotte and look into the operation.

Brown thought he’d find a bunch of guys turning keys in a greasy garage. What he found was a sophisticated research and engineering facility, spotlessly clean store space, and a finely tuned team that created an atmosphere not unlike that of college football.

Peet said he made no promises. But it didn’t take long for Brown’s athleticism to show. He was faster than the average crew member, quickly getting into position to change a tire. It was also stronger than many others, making it easy to send a 40-pound wheel back to the pit wall. And his dexterity made changing nuts feel natural.

Brown ended up spending a week in North Carolina and then returned home to consider his future. He spoke with his family and friends, including Carolina Panthers defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, one of his former teammates at Penn State.

“I was like, ‘I think I want to try this NASCAR thing,'” Brown said.

He ended up moving to North Carolina late last year and has spent most of that year learning the nuances of life as a pit crew member. Brown could potentially be part of Trackhouse Racing’s regular rotation, which fields cars for Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain in NASCAR’s top series.

In the meantime, Brown bought a house and settled down. He has become an ambassador for AdventHealth, one of the team’s sponsors, and spends his free time speaking to schools about the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

This is not the future he envisioned. But it’s the one he’s happy to kiss.

“I know what my life in the NFL would have been like. The life I live now is the script, what if I didn’t play football? What would I do ? said Brown. “Right now, I wake up curious every day, because I’m living a life I never imagined. I’ll never forget that I was a baseball player. I love football to this day. But I love this life that I never thought I would live.

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