STATE COLLEGE — He scooted into the end zone Saturday the way he has done so often for Penn State over the last month. He saw the hole. He sprinted through it. He wouldn’t be denied.
Two yards later, he crossed the goal line, gave the Nittany Lions a lead it would never relinquish Saturday on the way to a 27-6 win over Rutgers, and jogged to the sideline. Pretty routine, really, until he found running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, and collapsed in his arms, overcome by the emotion of the moment.
The day after Journey Brown’s breakout second half in a loss to Ohio State, Paige Fabela died. He was 17, a solid high school student who enjoyed math, ran on the same track team as Brown did at Meadville High School and loved spending time with his dog. That’s what his obituary indicated, anyway. Brown knew that all a little better; Paige was his cousin.
“I knew I was playing for him today,” Brown said Saturday night, after burning the game Rutgers defense for 103 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries, including an 18-yard run in the third quarter impressive in equal parts for the speed and elusiveness he displayed as for the power he used to finish it off.
Brown is no stranger to weeks like that, an all-too-frequent fighter of loss and tragedy. He wears a band around his neck during games that reads, simply, Nana. It’s a tribute to his grandmother, who died last year after helping foster Brown’s love for football. Every game, he has said often, is dedicated to her memory.
He thinks she’d be proud of the player he has become, too, just like he hopes Paige would be proud of how Saturday turned out. They wouldn’t be the only ones, either.
“In my 24 years (coaching), I don’t think I’ve ever been around a kid who has overcome more adversity in his life,” head coach James Franklin said. “He’s a special, special kid, always a huge smile on his face and very appreciative of Penn State. He has been phenomenal, and I could not be prouder.”
Brown opened the season almost as the forgotten man in the Nittany Lions’ four-man backfield rotation. Sophomore Ricky Slade, a former five-star prospect, was named the starter. True freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford were the exciting new toys in the offense. Brown was the middling prospect who had been around the program, the type of kid who had been surpassed by the new guys before.
Only this time, Slade struggled. And, Cain got hurt. And in their absence, Brown developed into one of the Lions’ better offensive players down the stretch despite the adversity. He led the Nittany Lions in rushing by more than 300 yards in the regular season, scoring seven touchdowns over the last four games and piling up three 100-yard games in November.
“I think it’s confidence,” Franklin said. “The biggest thing for Journey is, the guy is a 10.43 100-meter guy coming out of high school, and the guy rushed for 780 yards and 10 touchdowns in one game in high school. It’s not like the guy lacks for ability. I just think he’s getting to the point where he’s confident in the scheme, in his footwork and fundamentals and technique.”
Brown agreed there’s an influx of confidence, but also that he’s playing for others. Not just his late family members, but the Penn State teammates who have supported him in the face of family tragedy throughout his career.
“The family I have here at State, they’ve always supported me,” Brown said. “I never felt alone when I was here and (Paige) passed away. They always have my back.”