He’s the reason I played football. —Jordan Dunn
MIDVALE — Jordan Dunn had abandoned football.
Coach Cazzie Brown convinced him to give it a second chance without a word about scholarships, trophies or championships.
Dunn met Brown last fall when the coach walked the halls, shaking hands like he was running for office, telling students what he hoped to accomplish as the school’s new head football coach.
“Hillcrest is kind of known for not having a very good team, and I just didn’t think it was worth playing,” said Dunn, who is a member of the Huskies’ basketball team. “Then I saw coach Brown come in with his staff, and he was always really nice. He walked around the halls and greeted everyone, told them who he was, and told them what he wanted to do with the team. I wanted to see if I could help.” So he showed up for offseason workouts, and Brown told him he thought he could help the team compete.
“He’s the reason I played football,” Dunn said. “I have really enjoyed it. He’s the type of coach who just shows up and works. He’s always making jokes. He changed the perspective of football for me.”
Dunn and his teammates played without their coach Friday night as Brown was fighting for his life at the University of Utah Hospital, stricken with a viral infection that sent him to the hospital on Wednesday and into critical condition on Thursday. At press time Saturday night, he remained in critical condition on life support. Earlier in the day, Brown’s family welcomed dozens of players, parents and coaching colleagues to the hospital for visits.
Some of the players learned Brown was in the hospital on Thursday, while others didn’t know how grave the situation was until after the game against Brighton on Friday night.
They said they played because that’s what he would have wanted.
“Personally, for me, it wasn’t hard to play,” said Ezra Moleni, a senior captain. “It was just giving me extra motivation to play for him. I played my butt off last night for him, and I know that he knows I did.”
Moleni is a four-year varsity starter for the Huskies. He said Brown changed more than Xs and Os when he arrived last year.
“Coach Brown, he brought something different than many of the other coaches I’ve had in the past,” Moleni said. “He was trying to bring a culture of family. He made Hillcrest something better than it was before. He believed in us. He believed in me. He really cared about us — and not just as players. He cared about us as young men.”
Hillcrest was Brown’s first football head coaching job after more than a decade as an assistant at Judge Memorial and Highland.
Dilworth Elementary principal Jeremy Chatterton met Brown when both of them worked and coached at Judge. Chatterton was asked to take over the women’s basketball program, and he approached Brown, who was an assistant with the football program, about helping.
“He’d never coached basketball before,” Chatterton said. “We coached together for 11 years. First at Judge and then after I left Judge, the opportunity came at Highland.”
Brown was his first phone call.
“I said, ‘If I take it, I want to make sure you’re going to come with me,’” Chatterton said. “He is extremely passionate. He is the best motivator I’ve ever seen, in terms of inspiration and motivation. He gets kids to believe and to push themselves. The impact he’s had on kids who needed that motivation has been second to none.”
Brown coached football at Judge, East and most recently Highland for three years before accepting the head coaching job at Hillcrest two years ago.
“All the kids wanted to be around him,” Highland High School coach Brody Benson said as he recalled how the defensive line and fullbacks coach carried candy with him to reward players for particularly good plays. “His players loved him. He was hard. He pushed kids, which I loved. But he also had that soft side. Kids just gravitated to him. He was a great guy. It was easy going to practice with a guy like Caz. He was one of a kind, a good guy.”
Benson said the best thing about working with Brown wasn’t what he knew or how hard he worked, but how much joy he derived from working with teens.
“The biggest thing I think of when I think of Caz,” Benson said, “he loves, he really loves what he’s doing. He loves being a coach. He finds extreme value in that.”
Benson’s Highland Rams are slated to take on Brown’s Huskies this Friday night, but Benson said football is the furthest thing from his mind. He said they are concerned with how to support Brown’s wife, Heather, and their three children, one of whom is a sophomore on the football team — Bishop Brown.
While the Hillcrest players planned a fast that will end with a dinner and prayers for the Brown family on Sunday, other groups planned get-togethers and prayers of their own, including prayers at Our Lady of Lourdes Mass at 11 a.m. Sunday.
While Judge and Juan Diego offered a prayer of healing for Brown after Friday’s game, Alta High’s team offered support through social media. On Sunday, friends created a GoFundMe page to help the Browns financially.
Benson said there are discussions about how to support both the program and Brown’s family as he continues to fight for his life.
“I’m a better person because of Caz Brown,” Benson said. “Those kids over at Hillcrest were lucky to have Caz. We all were.”