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Jim Polzin: How two bouts with cancer have made Wisconsin Badgers assistant Gary Brown's resolve stronger

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Gary Brown receives immunotherapy treatments once a month, a 15-minute infusion designed to boost his immune system and hold off what would be a third bout with cancer.

There are also regular CT scans, including those hold-your-breath moments afterward until the doctor gives the all clear and delivers the go-ahead for the running backs coach for the University of Wisconsin football team to go back to what he’s been doing. Be healthy. Enjoy life. Coach hard.

State Journal beat reporter Colten Bartholomew and columnist Jim Polzin discuss the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12’s alliance and what it means for the Badgers, break down the cornerbacks, safeties and specialists, and Big Ten picks are back!

One way of looking at all of this is it’s a lot for Brown to have on his mind as he nears his debut as a member of the UW coaching staff. But that’s not how Brown, who spent a season out of football so he could get his health in order, chooses to view his situation.

There’s no woe-is-me attitude, no dwelling on any bad news that might come down the road.

“It’s made my resolve stronger,” Brown said one afternoon earlier this month after wrapping up a staff meeting. “It gave me a sense of, ‘Hey, you can fight and fight and fight and win the fights.’ Just because they say cancer again, I don’t feel like I’ve lost. I can go fight, because I’ve got a lot to fight for.”

Brown, 52, doesn’t advertise his story but he’ll share the details if asked. The way he sees it, perhaps it will inspire someone who’s going through his or her own fight.

So when a request was made of Brown to speak to the entire team during camp — the assigned topic being a three-pronged talk on his heroes, his highlights and his hardships — there was no hesitation on his part.

In fact, there may not have been a better person inside the building to deliver that message.

‘It’s part of the deal’

The first piece of bad news came about a decade ago while Brown was an assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns.

By then, Brown had been getting colonoscopies on a regular basis due to a history of colon cancer in his family. His father had died of a heart attack about 20 years ago while on the operating table to have a blockage removed from his colon, an event that occurred about a year after Brown’s mother had died of lung cancer.

This checkup for Brown revealed a tumor and he underwent surgery to remove about a foot and a half of his colon. Fortunately, the cancer hadn’t spread into Brown’s lymph nodes and, after about a month away from work in the offseason, he returned to his job.

But one other diagnosis was made during that episode: Brown had Lynch Syndrome, a hereditary disorder that increases the risk of certain cancers. In other words, Brown knew he may never totally be in the clear.

“It’s just a routine I have to live with the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s part of the deal.”

Two winters ago, Brown wasn’t feeling right and noticed his urine was dark. After learning the day he coached in the 2020 East-West Shrine Game that he wasn’t being retained by the Dallas Cowboys after Mike McCarthy took over as head coach, Brown returned home to Texas and consulted with a friend who’s a doctor.

Blood tests raised some red flags and a subsequent CT scan revealed a tumor located between Brown’s pancreas and bile duct. He underwent chemotherapy and a surgery that Brown said wasn’t successful, leading to a trip to Johns Hopkins in Maryland to find a better course of action.

Doctors there suggested an immunotherapy treatment that had yielded good results with other patients who have Lynch Syndrome. His doctors in Baltimore — and now Madison — have been pleased with the results.

“It’s been working really, really well,” Brown said. “We’re just moving forward. I’m not out of the woods, but my scans look really good.”

Family matters

Brown’s debut at UW — the No. 12 Badgers open against No. 19 Penn State on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium — will come against his alma mater.

We now enter the highlights portion of Brown’s story:

He played for the Nittany Lions from 1987-90, spending most of his time in State College as a running back. But after leading the team in rushing as a sophomore, he gave way to Blair Thomas and was shifted to the defensive side of the ball. It was Brown whose 53-yard fumble return for a touchdown sealed Penn State’s 50-37 win over Ty Detmer and BYU in the 1989 Holiday Bowl.

Brown returned to running back the following season and later made his mark at that spot in the NFL, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark with the Houston Oilers in 1993 and with the New York Giants five years later.

When UW needed a replacement for John Settle, who left for Kentucky last spring, it landed a guy who had over a decade of coaching experience in the NFL. That gave Brown instant credibility with a young group of tailbacks led by sophomore Jalen Berger.

One thing that stood about Brown during practices open to the media is that he was loud in practice without being a screamer. Almost everything that came out of his mouth was encouraging.

“He’s really down to earth, like family,” freshman tailback Braelon Allen said. “I know I can talk to him about anything. I know he’s going to help me get to where I want to be.”

Go beyond the college and NFL portions of Brown’s coaching resume — he was at Rutgers for a season before being hired by the Browns in 2009 — and it’s hard not to notice the humble beginnings of that career.

After his knees gave out on him and he retired from playing, Brown probably could have called in some favors from his NFL connections and skipped a few rungs. Instead, he returned to his alma mater in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and spent time as a volunteer assistant at the high school level.

From there, Brown made two stops at the NCAA Division III level, coaching at Lycoming College in Williamsport and down the road at Susquehanna University. He still counts two men from those early days — Frank Girardi at Lycoming and Steve Briggs at Susquehanna — as mentors who helped shape the way he coaches today.

“I played,” Brown said, “but I needed to learn how to coach, how to teach, how to get guys to understand what I’m trying to tell them instead of going out there and saying, ‘Do this, do that.’”

Heroes? That list starts with his Kim and three children: daughter Malena, who graduated from Penn State and is a production intern at Good Morning America; daughter Dorianna, who earned a Division I scholarship in softball and is a freshman outfielder at Evansville; and son Tre, who’s about to turn 16 and is a standout baseball player.

As much as he missed being out of football in 2020, the silver lining was that he got to spend a lot more time with his family. When Brown said he’s got a lot to fight for, it’s them to which he’s referring.

“I don’t really have time to think about the negative things,” Brown said. “I have a great time thinking about the positive things.”

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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