EUGENE, Ore. — From the front row, in the west end of Autzen Stadium, Jeannetta Smith leaned over the guard rails and screamed as her son, Pharaoh Brown, led the Ducks onto the field for the season opener of the 2016 season.
It had been less than two years prior when Smith was awoken by a phone call from a friend.
“How is he?” the voice asked. “Is Pharaoh OK?”
Smith, who had fallen asleep in her Cleveland home during the late telecast of the 2014 Oregon-Utah game, had not seen her son collapse in the end zone or be carted off surrounded by trainers. She had not heard the chatter that there would be no replay because the injury to his knee was too gruesome to witness again. She had no idea that her son was anywhere other than on a plane back to Oregon with the rest of his teammates.
But, as she slowly turned her TV back on and made her way through the game on DVR, she got to that play in the fourth quarter and saw exactly what Brown saw: The Utah safety shot into the box picking up the run fake, giving Brown an open lane to the end zone. But Brown then just crumbled to the ground.
An Oregon coach and players began to call — which ones, it’s hard to remember these days, Smith explained. She was told she needed to get to Salt Lake City as soon as possible.
She was on the next flight out of Cleveland, but by the time she landed, Brown had already undergone his first surgery of what would become a year-and-a-half rehabilitation process.
Smith, a nurse, became one of Brown’s primary caretakers in Cleveland along with Brown’s grandmother and girlfriend. They shuttled him from the house to the hospital four days a week, took care of him during his two ensuing surgeries and did everything from helping him bathe and go to the bathroom to making him dinner and monitoring his pain meds.
Through all of it, Smith had Brown focus on the positives — that he was able to be home with his grandmother, who had fought cancer; that he was fortunate to have received the best medical care; that he had so many teammates that cared.
“Things happen in everyone’s life, but it’s how you look at it,” Smith said. “Where some person might look at it and see an injury — it’s over, it’s done — but I didn’t look at it like that. I wanted him to look at it in a different way.”
Eventually, when the focus turned from learning how to stand and walk again to getting back on the field, Smith had her son aim high — he not only could return to the field, he could be a starter. Rather, he would be a starter.
When Brown returned to Eugene, he wasn’t enrolled in classes and wasn’t participating in team workouts. He was only rehabilitating his leg, which left him alone a lot of the time.
He began reflecting on his time back in Utah and Cleveland, and specifically remembered a moment in the Utah hospital shortly after his first surgery. A golden retriever had come into the room and put its paws on Brown’s bed while the two “prayed.”
The moment had stuck with him enough that he decided he would find his own wonder pup in Eugene. When he saw an ad for a few Yorkie puppies, he and a teammate drove to meet the woman and her dogs. Brown picked the bigger of the two that was available and decided on a fitting name for the six-pound puppy: Tyger.
The daily potty walks with Tyger quickly became runs. And those runs, led by Tyger, who had almost instantly learned the paths and sidewalks of Eugene, became trips to the rehab facility on campus, where the dog became the biggest celebrity.
But it was Brown who was the rehab facility’s best success story.
“Coming back, I just had the mindset that that’s what I was going to do, and there was no turning back,” Brown said. “I’m at the bottom, the only place is to go up from here. So this is what I’m going to do.”
From the time he had gotten back to Eugene, the injury had been in his rear view. He had taken his mom’s perspective and kept looking for the positives in his workouts. He would be stronger, he would work for the day when he didn’t need to wear a red no-contact uniform, he would be back not only as a player but as a starter.
He impressed coaches in spring and fall practices, so when the Ducks’ fall camp depth chart was released, Brown was named as the starting tight end.
Less than two years from an injury that could’ve resulted in the end of a career or the loss of a leg, Brown was Oregon’s starting tight end again. And while everyone used the injury to illustrate and define him, Brown was focused on the recovery.
On Saturday morning, as Brown made his way to Autzen Stadium for his first game back at his old spot, he found comfort in a bit of familiarity from an old ritual between him and his mom: Saturday morning inspirational text messages.
Only this time, it meant a little bit more, because it wasn’t just a quote, it was a part of his story now.
The quote, from author Asha Tyson, read: “Your journey has molded you for the greater good. It was exactly what it needed to be. Don’t think you’ve lost time. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now. And now is right on time.”