CEDAR CITY — In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, it was easy for Justin Brown to consider his blessings.
Seated in an empty Southern Utah University classroom, the senior wide receiver smiled as he talked about big plays made, touchdowns scored, thrilling victories and the joy of contributing to the Thunderbirds’ historic 7-3 season. He took great satisfaction in knowing SUU was one win away from clinching the Big Sky Conference title.
But even more worthwhile than the gridiron success, Brown was grateful for the experience and life lessons learned off the field that have helped him get to this point.
About five years ago, Brown almost ruined his opportunity to play college football by “doing dumb stuff and getting in trouble with the law,” he said. At one point, the 6-foot-2, 207-pound receiver was suspended indefinitely from the team and told by his coach not to come back until he had grown up. Rediscovering his faith and serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed the course of his life and made him the person he is today, he said.
“At that point in my life, I felt really lost,” Brown said. “Serving a mission helped me to grow up and realize that school was important, that I had a great opportunity to play for a great university and coach. When I came back, I felt more mature and composed. The mission settled me down a lot.”
Brown grew up playing a variety of sports in an athletic family that moved around from California to Arizona and the Ogden area.
In 2009, Brown played one year at Mesa Community College before accepting a last-minute scholarship offer from SUU coach Ed Lamb. Brown saw limited action on the field as a sophomore in 2010 but showed promise, Lamb said.
“He was big, strong, fast and competitive,” Lamb said. “There was never any question about his ability to play football.”
But away from the football field, Brown began finding trouble. Although he was raised in an LDS home with a father who had served as a bishop, Brown found himself “slipping away” from the church, he said. During the recruiting process, Brown told his coach that a Mormon mission was not in his future.
“I was really hotheaded and got into a lot of fights. I showed up at parties I shouldn’t have been at. Coach Lamb’s No. 1 thing is keep things out of your body that shouldn’t be there,” said Brown, declining to share the details. “I was making unwise decisions.”
Brown’s behavioral problems continued into the summer before the 2011 season. Among other things that happened, the wayward receiver was running amok with teammates. He was up and down emotionally on a daily basis, Lamb said.
Brad Sorensen, then Southern Utah’s quarterback and a returned missionary, was Brown's roommate and became a close friend. The young receiver was clearly talented, Sorensen said, but the team grew tired of giving him opportunities to change or improve.
The quarterback also noticed a negative pattern in Brown’s life. In addition to his sometimes rogue behavior, little things constantly went wrong for him, such as his car running out of fuel or him receiving a speeding ticket, Sorensen said.
“He was going through a tough time, a bad string of events. We tried to be there to support him, but he wasn’t really listening to us,” Sorensen said. “When stuff in your life is going wrong like that, the only person you can turn to is Heavenly Father.”
At one point that summer, Sorensen tossed Brown a Book of Mormon and told him to look up Ether 12:27, a verse of scripture that teaches how humility and faith in Jesus Christ can help a person transform weakness into strength. The scripture sparked a conversation about the current direction of Brown’s life and his need to put the Lord first in everything he was doing. It was a message Brown said he needed to hear.
With that message in mind, and knowing he needed to change, Brown left his dorm room a short time later. He climbed the stadium stairs to a seat on the top row of the Eccles Coliseum, where he prayed earnestly to know if the church was true and if he should serve a mission. Eventually, an answer came.
“I was smashed by the Spirit, hit hard,” Brown said. “I had never felt anything like that in my life. I knew I needed to serve the Lord.”
To the field
A short time later, Brown and his coach had a heart-to-heart. Brown knew he needed to serve a mission but was scared to tell Lamb. Brown had committed to play that season, and the coaching staff had recruited around that commitment. Brown assumed he would lose his scholarship.
But Lamb was tired of Brown's immature antics. The coach told Brown he was suspended from the team indefinitely.
“‘You need to grow up. You need to figure out who you are,’” Lamb said. “I told him he would not be welcome back on this team until he went and found himself.”
To maintain his NCAA eligibility, Brown had two options: join the military or serve an LDS mission. While it was a tough decision, Lamb felt a mission would be good for Brown.
“From a team standpoint in the short term, it was going to hurt us,” Lamb said. “I suggested he follow through on his commitment to serve a mission.”
Brown thought it was a little strange for a coach who wasn't a Mormon to encourage him to serve a mission, but he knew his coach wanted the best for him.
“It was a shocker, but Coach Lamb’s qualities and values are right there with the LDS Church,” Brown said. “That was Coach Lamb understanding where I was in life and knowing what would benefit me as a person.”
Brown called his father with the news that he was leaving school to serve a mission. His father wept, he said.
Brown packed his bags and was ready to leave the next day. He met Lamb at a gas station, and the coach informed him he would honor his scholarship.
“Don’t worry about anything,” Lamb said. “Just take care of yourself, grow up and be the man I know you can be. When you come back, I want you to excel.”
Brown was later called to serve in San Diego, California, the same city where the Chargers would draft Sorensen in 2013. One Sunday, Brown looked up to see his old friend walk into a church meeting. Sorensen also treated Brown and his companion to a meal at a nice restaurant.
“It was really cool how things fell into place,” Brown said.
Seeing Brown in a white shirt and tie with a black name tag on was gratifying, Sorensen said.
"Nothing really worked until he decided to make a change in his life," Sorensen said. "I think going on a mission really helped him figure things out."
Lamb vividly remembers meeting with Brown upon his return from the mission field and immediately knowing he had changed. It was for moments like that one that Lamb got into coaching, he said.
"He sat down across from me, looked me in the eye and smiled. From the time we recruited him to all the interaction we’d had before, I had never seen that look in his eye, I’d never seen that type of energy, that type of confidence," Lamb said. "Before then, he had been guarded about his faith, but he sat across from me and essentially bore his testimony and thanked me for the part I had played in encouraging him to get right in his life. It was a special, emotional moment of closeness that we had never come close to enjoying before he left."
Blessings and lessons
In 2014, Brown finished the season second on the team with 43 catches for 678 yards and three touchdowns, among other contributions.
This season, Brown's numbers place him among the top receivers in the conference, and he now leads the T-Birds with 48 receptions for 616 yards and four scores through 10 games.
But just as valuable is his example and influence on his teammates, Lamb said.
"He represents so much to us on the field, but off the field, everybody is aware of his story, and he doesn’t hide that. He is not afraid to take the opportunity to share his story with guys," Lamb said. "Coaches and guys who knew him before he left can see the difference. It’s an incredible story of what two years of commitment to a selfless cause can do for a guy. I’m glad our young guys have his example. He’s probably affecting more young guys than he knows."
Sorensen follows Southern Utah football closely and exchanges texts with Brown on a weekly basis. They will forever be linked in gratitude because Brown played a role in introducing Sorensen to his wife. Sorensen believes Brown's story is a strong example of a person not giving up on himself or a friend who is struggling.
"He had a goal in mind and wanted to prove himself," Sorensen said. "Never give up in life or church; there is always a second opportunity."
As for Brown, he credits all his accomplishments to Jesus Christ. He is grateful for the blessings that have come to his family and his own life since his mission. When appropriate, he's happy to share his story and perspective with teammates who are contemplating missionary service.
"Since I’ve been home, I have come to realize the importance of a mission and what it did for not only me, but so many others. I’ve had the opportunity to bear my testimony to them on how it would change their life," Brown said. "I say you should go and love every second of it. I’ve been there, I have done that."
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