He changed lives and made a difference for hundreds of players across the state of Utah and beyond. —Summit Academy girls basketball coach Gianni Ellefsen
MIDVALE — In his 18 months as Hillcrest High's head football coach, Cazzie Brown changed the school by convincing the students that they were "One Pack" with a responsibility to take care of each other.
The extended family that he created in the football program and beyond enveloped and comforted his family in the wake of his unexpected death. Brown, 43, died Sunday night after a brief illness.
More than a thousand people — students from Hillcrest, Judge and Highland — as well as parents and community members, gathered on the school's football field Monday night for a candlelight vigil meant to honor the bright light that was coach Brown. After all of the players walked together to the 50-yard line carrying pictures of the effusive and energetic coach, the team's captains addressed the crowd gathered around them.
One young man played a message from Brown just asking him how he was doing. Another talked about how coach's philosophy made them better people, not just better players. Lineman McKay Ashby recalled how Brown would gather clothing in bags and then let players take what they needed.
"He gave them a big, ol' smile, got in his truck and drove away," Ashby said of one of the last memories he has of his coach. "He was always serving all of us."
He also spoke directly to Brown's wife, Heather, and his oldest son, Bishop, who is a sophomore on the team, telling them that the love he felt for them was evident in how he talked about them. After Ashby's comments, Bishop Brown walked from the crowd to embrace the lineman, while senior captain Ezra Moleni gave the final remarks.
The family will hold a celebration of Brown's life at the school, on the football field, Saturday at 10 a.m. The family requested students "dress like they're going to a football game" for what is a uniquely coach Caz Brown funeral.
Earlier in the day, Canyons District spokesman Jeff Haney recalled how Brown began shifting the school's culture within the first 45 minutes of being introduced to his players. He said he delivered that address with the "passion of a preacher and the bark of a drill sergeant."
“He fired up this group of kids to have pride in wearing husky green for Friday night lights,” Haney said. “He had them put away their cell phones, take off their hats, and by the end of the (address) they were yelling ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ to every question. It was almost transformative to the way the kids walked in and heard the announcement and then walked out. It was phenomenal to watch, and it was inspiring.”
What Brown accomplished in his brief 18 months at Hillcrest went far beyond the football field. Students said he reached out to all of them, constantly convincing them that they were "One Pack" and needed to support and care for each other. He helped the football team earn a berth into last year’s playoffs.
“He came on just a season ago,” Haney said. “In one season, he turned the program into one that was winning. Kids were proud to wear the husky uniform. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
Maybe even more important, the father of three brought positive energy in just about every way to a school that has suffered tremendous losses in the last two years.
In April 2015, assistant principal Dr. Paul Kirby died after suffering a stroke. A month later, two students — Hunter Kelson, 17, and Cheyenne Bagley, 16 — were killed in a car accident just before graduation in May.
Last year a beloved custodian, Lee Ostler, passed away unexpectedly, and then in February of this year, the Unified Police Officer assigned to Hillcrest for several years, Detective Brian Holdaway, died from an undisclosed medical condition at the Sheriff’s Office.
“It seems like the 'Husky Strong' is repeated over and over because of all the traumatic incidents that community has had to face,” Haney said. “And they are strong. They are very resilient, and they’ve dealt with so much loss.”
Before news of coach Brown’s death was even made public, school administrators and counselors met with the football players and their parents. District officials sent emails and letters to every student at the school explaining the situation, offering resources and giving parents tips on how to recognize signs that their children may be struggling and in need of help.
Brown coached at Highland before he was hired to take over Hillcrest’s program, overseeing the defensive line and full backs. Highland head coach Brody Benson said that after the two teams played last year, Brown came to their locker room to congratulate the Rams on a quality win.
“This was two guys who were very close,” Benson said, “two programs that were very competitive. But yet, there was so much respect. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Friday’s game will be emotional, but it will not be somber as the two schools plan to honor Brown’s relentless joy and deep passion for the game and what it offers young people.
“We talked about the unity we want this week with Highland,” athletic director John Olsen said. “It was a great, fantastic meeting with all of those guys (coaches from both teams and school administrators). Friday is going to be a celebration of coach Brown. We don’t want it to be a memorial. That will come.”
The players will walk onto the field through the Husky tunnel two by two — one Highland player alongside one Hillcrest player.
“Every player on both Hillcrest's and Highland’s teams will wear a decal on their helmet that says ‘CB’,” Olsen said. “We’re going to do a little tribute before the game, and then after the game, as well, we have some things planned with Highland.”
Additionally, Summit Academy girls basketball coach Gianni Ellefsen was attempting to organize a state-wide ‘moment of respect’ before every prep football game in memory of coach Brown.
“He changed lives and made a difference for hundreds of players across the state of Utah and beyond,” Ellefsen wrote in an email. “He also inspired many coaches along the way with his work ethic and mantra of respect and hard work. He will be missed by those who knew him but never forgotten.”
There is a GoFundMe campaign to support Brown’s wife and three children. On Monday, Olsen told the team that defensive coordinator Will Haws was named interim coach. He'll lead the team with offensive coordinator, Ron Hill, as both men were the first hires Brown made after being hired.
"Those are two guys he trusted and he loved," Olsen said.
In addition to coaching at Hillcrest and Highland, Brown coached at Judge and East and he was a PE teacher at the McGillis School for the last seven years.
Friends recalled his humor, passion and dedication to the young people with whom he worked. "He was one of a kind, a good guy," Benson said. "Those kids over at Hillcrest were lucky to have Caz. We all were."