Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the book, "Cougar Converts: Life-Changing Stories from BYU Athletics," by Talo Steves, Jedd Parkinson and Matt Hodge, published by Totalbluesports.com.
The 2002 Brigham Young University football recruiting class was widely considered the best in school history, at least on paper. Even after the last-minute defection of five-star defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to Oregon, the class still included three five-star recruits and three four-star recruits. Expectations were high, but the next few years would demonstrate that recruiting is an inexact science and star ratings don’t always translate to impact on the field.
Ben Olson, the nation’s top quarterback recruit who headlined the class, would redshirt as a freshman, serve a mission to Canada and then transfer to UCLA, where his career never matched his immense hype due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Walt Williams, a five-star, all-world junior college cornerback, signed but never enrolled at BYU or anywhere else and remains an Internet legend and man of mystery to this day. Scott Young, a five-star defensive tackle out of Dixie College, did contribute, but did so after being switched to the offensive line his senior season.
Like Young, four-star defensive tackle signee Jake Kuresa was also moved from defensive tackle to the offensive line, where he became a solid four-year starter for the Cougars. Four-star junior college safety Chad Barney, also from Dixie College, became a starter for the Cougars, but was never a game-changer at the Division I level. Mulivai Pula, the explosive running back out of Hawaii’s Kahuku High School who looked like the second coming of Luke Staley on film, eventually enrolled at Dixie College due to academics and never made it back to BYU.
Fortunately for BYU fans, four other players from the 2002 signee list made a tremendous impact on the program in spite of being some of the lowest-rated recruits of the class. Two-star linebacker Bryan Kehl and unranked players Fui Vakapuna, Andrew George and Curtis Brown would become household names to BYU fans in spite of receiving limited attention from the national recruiting services. All four players excelled on the field, but Brown arguably made the greatest impact of the four.
A native of Palmdale, Calif., Brown was unknown to all but the most ardent fans when he signed with the Cougars on Feb. 6, 2002. Although Brown rushed for an astounding 7,045 career yards for Paraclete High School, Gary Crowton and the BYU staff didn’t begin to pursue him in earnest until late in the recruiting season. In spite of the limited early recruiting attention, Brown signed with BYU and made his mark on the field, eventually leaving BYU as the school’s career rushing leader with 3,193 yards. He also finished with 34 touchdowns and a school-record 15 100-yard rushing games to his credit.
Football stardom didn’t arrive overnight for Brown. Like most freshmen, he was used sparingly during his first year of Division I football, but in the fifth week of the season against Utah State, Brown gave Cougar fans a preview of what was to come. Brown broke onto the scene that day, leading a BYU comeback that erased a 34-7 halftime deficit as the Cougars pulled out a 35-34 win on the road in Logan. The true freshman finished the day with 217 yards rushing and three touchdowns, adding another 49 yards on four receptions.
As he began preparing for his sophomore season, Brown was disappointed to learn that the coaches planned to redshirt him in 2003. He had been anxious to improve on his solid freshman performance, but the redshirt year became an important time of introspection and personal growth.
“I was just trying to figure out life in general,” Brown explained. “Obviously coming to BYU, I had high expectations as far as football was concerned, then having to redshirt I realized there was more to life than football.”
During the redshirt season, Curtis was sharing an apartment with LDS teammates Corby Hodgkiss and Kellen Fowler, and he often found himself alone on Sundays.
“It seemed like on Sundays I would be by myself in the apartment. They’d take off and go to church and then they’d come back and they’d be joking about what happened at church, or they’d break the fast or whatever. They’d have dinner over at this girl’s house and I’m like, ‘I feel left out.’” Teammate Matt Berry eventually invited him to attend church with him one Sunday, and Brown was overwhelmed by how welcome and loved he felt in spite of having just met most of those in attendance.
Wanting to learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brown decided to talk to long-time BYU athletic trainer George Curtis.
“George Curtis had always been on my case about investigating the church and he said I seemed like a bright guy that he’d love to take under his wing,” Brown said. “I decided one day I wanted to learn more and I felt like George was the guy to go to because he’d keep it private and it was something that I could discover for myself and not have any other outside influences. So one day I went up to him after football practice and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to learn more,’ and he set it up to meet with the missionaries. I went through the discussions and eight, 10 weeks later I was getting (baptized).”
Asked about the conversion process that took place over those weeks, Curtis remembered a lot of prayers along with some struggles. “It’s interesting,” Brown said. “I don’t know if other people go through this, but it was more like it was revealed to me that it wasn’t not true. After every discussion they asked us to go home and pray about it, to pray to know if this gospel is true. I’d go home and I’d pray really hard and I’d read the scriptures they had me read. I’d sit there and at the end of the day I’m praying and I’m thinking is this true or is this not true, or give me a sign. And then at the end of it after receiving the discussions, I hadn’t received anything negative but I hadn’t received anything telling me that it is true.”
Like many investigators before him, Brown was expecting the answer to come in a different form than it actually came. “I felt like everything was going well and I felt happy about it, but I was waiting more for (God) to appear in a dream or something like that. So, the night before I was supposed to get baptized I called up Matt Berry and I said, ‘Hey Matt, I’m having some cold feet.’ So he comes and he picks me up and we go over and park in front of the Provo temple."
Brown said he and Berry sat in the car quietly for about 10 minutes until his teammate finally broke the silence, explaining that this was a place he would go when he wanted to be alone and needed answers from his Heavenly Father. Berry asked Brown what his biggest fears were about joining the church.
“I said my ultimate thing is that this is a big decision and I want it to be the right one and I would hate to go through this process, get baptized and find out a couple of weeks later it’s not true and to have that regret,” Brown said. “He just told me that ultimately his personal opinion was that the church is true and he said that this gospel is so simple that anyone on this earth can comprehend it, but it’s so complex that only the strongest of men can make it through and be successful. Ultimately I took that as it’s something that is easy to understand but it’s harder to live.
“He said you’re never going to have all the answers. There’s going to be things that you’re going to continue to question. He said he’s been a member his whole life and there’s still things that he still has questions about. He said ultimately Heavenly Father will tell you if you’re making the wrong decision and if he hasn’t given you any negative feelings so far, then go with that. That’s when I realized that sometimes Heavenly Father is not necessarily there to tell us everything, whether it’s right or wrong. When we’re doing something good he’s going to continue to give us those positive feelings and that’s what I felt. I just felt that positive emotion over me every day. Every day I had an opportunity to meet with the missionaries and interact with teammates of the LDS faith, it was a positive experience. To this day I still have those experiences. I’ll never deny the gospel because I know that I’ve felt so positive about life since I entered into that covenant with Heavenly Father.”
On Feb. 21, 2004, Brown was baptized a member of the church by Berry. Leading up to that day, Brown was unsure how he should handle the situation with regards to his family.
“At first I didn’t even want to tell my family that I was getting baptized because I felt like it’s personal, I don’t need to bug them with it,” Brown explained. “I wasn’t sure how they’d respond.” He ultimately decided to tell them about his plans and invited them to attend the ceremony in Provo. Two days after attending her son’s baptismal service, Cheryl Brown penned an article on TotalBlueSports.com describing the experience from her unique perspective as a mother and a member of another faith.
“My son Curtis Brown, a running back on the BYU football team, was baptized and confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last Saturday in Provo,” she wrote. “His father, brother, sister and I are not LDS members, but we were thrilled with his decision and would not have missed it for the world. I can honestly say I saw it coming for some time and was not too surprised. I have witnessed and marveled at the growth and maturity in my son since he has been at BYU. As parents, how can we not be proud and supportive when our adult child chooses to accept God as his Savior and commits to live his life in accordance with God’s word.
“I truly appreciate the love and support my son has received from so many in the BYU community. Be assured as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Gospel is moving forward at BYU and lives are being changed, one at a time. I would personally like to thank Matt Berry, a BYU quarterback, and George Curtis, the BYU trainer, for the spiritual guidance they provided Curtis and being there for him on a daily basis. In addition, I would like to thank the many BYU coaches, athletic department staff members, his teammates and friends who led by example and were such a positive influence in my son’s life. As parents, we are ever mindful that our actions speak louder than words.
“Since our affiliation with this unique and special university, the BYU coaches and supporting staff have done nothing but conduct themselves with integrity and dignity. For that, we are forever grateful. The male athletes at BYU are blessed to have them as role models since they are our future fathers, husbands, church leaders, community activists, etc. Thank you Bishop Edgley, a member of the LDS Church’s Presiding Bishopric, for taking time out from your busy schedule to participate at this joyous occasion. How profound your words were when you assured Curtis that, as the newest member of the church, that it is as much his to claim as it is yours.
“When Curtis told us he wanted to be baptized into the LDS Church, I never once felt that I was losing a son, but gaining a whole new family. This fact has been amplified in my mind and with members of my family over and over since Saturday. Thank you all for the kind words and best wishes. I will be sure to pass them along to Curtis.”
More than 150 people were in attendance that day as Curtis Brown began a new chapter in his life. Looking back on the experience nearly a decade later, he is grateful for the love and support he received from his family and friends.
“Knowing that they were there supporting me, having quite a few people there supporting me, I didn’t realize at the time how big of a deal it was,” he said. “To see the kind of support I got from friends and family was a pretty awesome experience and it’s something I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
Within weeks of his baptism, Brown was back on the field for spring football as the team began preparing for the 2004 season. After redshirting the previous season and going through his conversion process off the field, Brown was anxious to get back on the gridiron with his teammates. Brown had a solid spring performance and followed it with a strong fall camp and was rewarded with a substantial increase in playing time as a sophomore. He split time at running back with future NFL back Fahu Tahi, starting six games on the season and leading the team with 789 yards rushing. He averaged five yards per carry and scored six touchdowns. Brown also showed his versatility by catching 27 passes and throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass to Austin Collie against Wyoming. The sophomore was recognized for his outstanding play by being named to the All-Mountain West Conference second team.
Those close to the program knew that Brown was poised for a breakout season, and that breakout came in 2005. He started every game as a junior and rushed for 1,123 yards, scored 16 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for nearly 500 yards. Brown was named first-team All-Mountain West Conference. He combined with fellow All-Conference performers John Beck and Johnny Harline to lead a potent Cougar offense that averaged 33 points a game for the season.
As he began his final season in Provo, Brown was approaching the all-time Cougar rushing record held by Jamal Willis. The running back who received little fanfare upon signing with BYU was now in a position to finish his career as the most productive running back in school history. Brown did not disappoint. He delivered another thousand-yard rushing season in 2006 and added 62 receptions for 566 yards, making him the all-time BYU record-holder for both career rushing yards and all-purpose yards. These accomplishments also put Brown in very select company on a national level. He remains one of only 24 players in FBS college football history to have at least 3,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards, an honor he shares with former BYU running back Harvey Unga.
Brown, Beck and Harline were once again key cogs in a powerful Cougar offense that averaged 36.7 points a game in 2006. The trio of seniors led the team to an 11-2 season that was capped off by a 38-8 drubbing of the Oregon Ducks in the Las Vegas Bowl. Brown finished his career on a high note, rushing for 120 yards on just 17 carries while scoring two touchdowns in the bowl victory.
Brown has many great memories from his record-breaking career as a Cougar running back, but his fondest BYU memory occurred away from the football field. “I found my eternal companion, my wife Kimberly,” Brown said with a grin. “I’ve been married – it will be six years in August (2012). We got married in the Oakland temple.”
Brown shared his testimony of the gospel, describing the foundation of his faith, the gratitude he feels and what inspires him to be an example to others.
“I know the church is true,” he said. “I know that Heavenly Father revealed the truth to Joseph Smith and let him know that this was the true church. I’m so thankful for this gospel in my life and the opportunities it’s blessed me with. One of the things I always tell people who are interested in learning about the church but are kind of skeptical about things, ultimately what it comes down to is Heavenly Father wants us to be representatives of what he stands for. I felt like the LDS Church is the best church amongst any of those churches on this earth. It does the best job of representing him with charity, with selfless acts, with the representation of its members and the high standards that we hold. I feel like if Heavenly Father were to step on this earth today, he would say, ‘You guys are representing me well.’ I take pride in that. I take pride in being part of this gospel and I’m grateful for all the blessings and the things that I’ve been blessed with as part of this church.”
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company