We shared a special relationship over the past 45 years
By CHRIS HOBBS
Tom Brown has been gone, almost to the hour, for three days as I sit down to write on a quiet Sunday night about a man whose impact and life story can’t really be put into words.
Last Thursday — the day the Lord called him home at age 77 – was a tough day for all who knew him, and I have lingered about writing about the guy we call The Oldest Rat In The Barn.
But as I tried to let the emotions and memories flow within the sting we’re all going to feel for a very long time, I came to realize he is going to always be with us.
Even tonight, I hear his laugh. And when I close my eyes, I see that grin. He had a great one.
I can also hear his one-liners, sense the steadiness of his friendship and appreciate who he was, why he was that way and why there won’t be another Thomas E. Brown.
This column is about Tom – a stab at showing him the respect and admiration I have for him after working with him for more than 40 years as a writer and knowing him for about 50 years – but I can’t do that without some of the stories being personal.
I often think back to a phone ringing around 3 p.m. or so in a hospital room in Charlotte while I was enduring a five-week stay in the kidney wing at the hospital.
We had no real clue why — at age 28 or so (I am 62 now) – my blood counts that monitor the health of the kidneys had continued to decline.
I was responsible for covering more than 100 schools in Piedmont North Carolina for The Charlotte Observer way back then and my only daily company was my mom (Betty), who slept in a chair in my hospital room for five consecutive weeks.
When I answered the phone that day – best I recall it was a Thursday – it was Coach Brown. He was moments before starting practice for a second-round state playoff game against Thomasville.
“I heard you’ve been in the hospital for a while and have had you on my mind,” Coach said. “I wanted you to know… you need anything, you call me. You get better. We miss you.”
I thanked Coach and he once again asked “You need anything?”
I said: “I do, Coach… kick Thomasville’s ass.”
I’ve never forgotten that of the thousands of coaches I was then working with, the one phone call I got was from a coach who was still vying for a state championship and the call was before practice.
Coach Brown and I had that kind of relationship. He told me things he would not tell other reporters. He always told the truth and there was a mutual trust.
From the time I was a young reporter — telling Coach Brown you’re not going to get any special treatment (and he never asked for any) – I learned about and from Coach Brown.
We used to have some laughs about the irony that while growing up, I attended archrival Bandys. The impression then was that Coach was the enemy, a mean old man that had 10 or so negatives on his resume for every one positive.
And if I had a dollar for every e-mail I’ve received over 45 years of covering prep football that was mean-spirited or very critical about covering Coach Brown, I’d be very rich (truthfully, there were many stories because he won so much and because only a few newsworthy things went on in the program that I did not know about).
There was actually one day that I saw clearly what motivated The Oldest Rat, a nickname Brown himself came up with.
I was scheduled to meet Coach for an interview at his office at the old MHS stadium.
I arrived on time but Coach was nowhere to be found… and that was just very, very unusual. I, of course, waited.
After about 15 minutes, here came Coach in a truck. As he parked behind the MHS dressing room, he apologized for being late.
I asked where he’d been.
He said when he headed toward his office, he found that the MHS girls’ tennis team did not have transportation to get to a match that afternoon at Bandys.
“I couldn’t let those girls miss their match,” he said. “So I loaded ’em up and took them over there.”
I also had many opportunities to see Coach with a broom or a mop in his hand, and I enjoyed his sense of humor when I was visiting MHS.
I was visiting one day a month to write about Antoine Ikard battling with South Iredell’s Tyrone Westmoreland for the all-time lead in the state for career rushing yards (we called the series The Great Chase).
Coach asked me to stay late that day to help him with a newspaper interview, so I sat in a chair and the reporters (we’d never met) started asking Tom questions.
He had a sneaky grin on his face and suddenly, when they asked a question about Maiden and its next state playoff opponent, he said “Not much help there, guys, ask Coach Hobbs.”
He had a very crude description after being asked about a previous playoff game against the same opponent in which the Blue Devils did not gain much rushing yards.
He was, in Tom Brown fashion, playing with the media a bit that day.
As we exited the two reporters approached me and asked if his crude comments were on the record and for publishing.
I chuckled and assured them that was The Rat being The Rat, having a little off-the-cuff fun, and finally told them I was not a Maiden coach.
I’m always gonna have so many memories of Tom – from him allowing me to be in the East Burke locker room prior to and after the game when he returned to coaching in 2014 to spending countless hours compiling scores, etc., from all of his 512 games as a prep football coach.
He won at a pace few others have before him, and I’m pretty sure we won’t see many (if any) prep football head coaches last 42 years.
The football matters – it always has – but it’s not No. 1 on my list for why so many love Tom.
I hope what you have read above – a few of my stories with The Old Rat – help you understand more about him.
Chris Hobbs, covering area prep football for the 45th straight season, has covered Maiden since 1976 and covered 33 of Tom Brown’s 42 teams at Maiden, Bunker Hill and East Burke.
SERVICE FOR COACH BROWN, BARBARA: https://hobbsdailyreport.com/tom-brown/memorial-service-set-monday-to-celebrate-lives-of-tom-and-barbara-brown/
COACH BROWN’S OBIT: https://hobbsdailyreport.com/tom-brown/high-school-football-legendary-coach-tom-brown-dies/