CERTAIN THINGS LEAVE A LASTING MARK ON YOUR SOUL.
In the early 1960s, back when he was just a boy, all of 9 or 10 years old, James Brown discovered a book in the grade-school library about how to become a doctor when you grow up. As he flipped through the pages, his teacher walked by, saw him reading it, and stopped in her tracks.
“You may want to consider another profession,” she said. “Because kids like you don’t do well in math and the sciences.” He was crushed, so rattled by the insult he never could bring himself to discuss what had happened with his mother and his father.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me? That’s a lie,” he says. “Words are powerful. Kids think they can do anything, and that needs to be fed, fueled, steered in the right direction.”
From his early days as a basketball star to his record-breaking run as 10-time host of the Super Bowl pregame show, Brown has found that kind of inspiration and direction from legendary sports giants such as Wes Unseld, Red Auerbach, and Tony Dungy.
But sports has not been the biggest influence on his life. It doesn’t even rank in the top three, says Brown, affectionately known to NFL fans as JB. He points instead to the teachings of his high school basketball coach, the man who echoed the lessons he’d learned from his parents: the importance of education, family, and faith.
Over the course of 46 years, Morgan Wootten would log 1,274 victories and five national titles at all-boys DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, earning a plaque in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. For Brown, though, it was the principles Wootten championed off the court that helped guide him through the most challenging moments in his life.
JB was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His father was a security guard in a local prison. To provide for his five children, he also drove a taxicab, served in the Army Reserve, and took on odd jobs each holiday season. His mom ran the household, working tirelessly to raise her offspring. She was a five-foot-five taskmaster, JB says, playfully calling her “the sergeant.”
The family had a deep-rooted respect for sports stars. JB’s maternal grandfather owned a baseball team in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It wasn’t a Negro League team, but it brought big names like Hank Aaron, Cool Papa Bell, Mudcat Grant, and Satchel Paige into the fold.
But Mary Ann and John Brown were determined not to let athletics lure their children away from real success. “They had PhDs in drive and determination,” JB says, “a desire to see all five kids do well in the game of life.”
And that meant JB and his siblings had to be home at the kitchen table, doing their homework, when the streetlights came on. They had to help around the house, washing dishes, ironing clothes, and waxing the floors. And they had to assist neighbors in mowing the lawn and carting groceries from the car.
God forbid you misbehaved when you were outside playing. Not only did a nearby adult set you straight, but a phone call to Mary Ann usually ensued, ensuring that you got “another dose of discipline” the moment you got home.
JB’s sister had her own bedroom. He and his three brothers piled into the two bunk beds in another. It was a modest upbringing—one pair of dress shoes and a few nice shirts. But Mary Ann Brown inspired her children to think big. “She instilled in all of us the idea that there is a spirit of excellence in our family,” says JB.
MORGAN WOOTTEN SHARED THE BROWN FAMILY’S values. He also had a knack for cultivating excellence. It’s almost like fate brought him to JB. The would-be prospect was playing in a youth baseball game, doggedly pursuing his first love, when Wootten turned up to scout another boy. Impressed with the lanky outfielder’s spirit, the coach invited him to a summer basketball camp, where JB found himself soaking up every word on the finer points of passing and shooting. “I never picked up a baseball bat after that,” he says. “It was all basketball.”
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