Cullowhee, N.C. - - Western Carolina University head football coach Mark Speir has a knack for creative sayings that transcend the gridiron. His quirky, yet practical, homespun themes have been at the heart of the resurgent Catamount football program since his introduction in the early winter of 2011.
But this spring, one of his most famous lines has taken on a lot more meaning and is being taken to heart.
"We preach to our football team -- on the field, in the classroom, and in life -- `it's all you got ... as long as it takes'," said Speir of the motto that is at the heart of his program.
Enter in Cameron Brown.
A 6-foot 2-inch, 210-pound, highly sought-after linebacker from Florida High in Tallahassee, Fla., Brown was a key signee for the Catamounts on the February, 2017 National Signing Day, inking his National Letter of Intent (NLI) on the heels of a tremendous 140-tackle, first-team Florida All-State Class 3-A selection season. He added to his trophy case by earning the 2016 Mickey Andrews Co-Defensive Player of the Year plaudits from the Tallahassee Quarterback Club.
"Cam was one of our top recruits going into this 2017 season. Two of our defensive coaches -- Mark Rhea and Blake Gideon -- were instrumental in the recruiting process with Cam. Our expectations for him as a player were off the chart -- his overall abilities and impact in the pass rush were what attracted us to him during the recruiting process," said Speir.
Amidst his high school wrestling season, the kid, who is described by his parents, Sam and Michelle Brown, as "having never met a stranger," grinning ear-to-ear with what has been described as an infectious smile, signed to continue his football career at the NCAA Division I FCS level.
The story begins with a knee injury suffered during football season; bumps and bruises are a part of the game, especially with a linebacker who plays with such a high intensity. As time passed, the injury healed. However, it was following the season that his parents and coaches noticed a pronounced limp in his stride -- something Cam hadn't thought much about or his parents shown much concern over
"With it coming so fresh off his football injury, we weren't as concerned about the new limp. We were thinking it was some residual stuff going on from the previous injury," Sam explained.
From there, the family pursued treatment for the newly developed limp, looking to uncover the cause of the ailment. As more tests were performed, the doctors discovered a tumor in his tibial plateau, or shinbone, prompting additional medical testing. The family was informed and heard the devastating news. Cam Brown was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive type of bone cancer, in his left leg.
Both Cam and his parents agreed -- the moment the diagnosis switched from the athletic realm to something more intense was terrifying.
"That was a scary moment," said Cam on learning the results of the biopsy and that it was in fact osteosarcoma cancer. "But honestly, the first thing out of my mouth was, `will I be able to play football?' For me, personally, it goes God, family, football -- I know God has got me and I know my family is behind me at all times. But, will I be able to play football again -- that was my first thought."
He added, "When the doctor first told me that I might not be able to play football again, it absolutely broke my heart. But I knew that I was going to do everything I possibly can to get back on the field. I've got to play."
The diagnosis hit home hard in Cullowhee, as well.
"We were counting on Cam this fall -- and he told me that as a freshman, he'd be on that plane to Hawaii for our opener," said Speir. "But now, football is the least of our worries. He and his family were dealt a blow with the diagnosis -- and our football team and our family felt the impact of the news as well."
The game plan was set by the medical staff -- aggressive rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the cancer down as much as possible, with an anticipated surgery in the summer to remove the tumor from his leg. That is expected to be followed by two more rounds of chemo with two subsequent surgeries to remove any cancer spores that have spread to his lungs.
There's Just Something about Cam
Western Carolina was introduced to Cameron Brown -- the linebacker, on National Signing Day, 2017 and the Catamount Club's National Signing Day social event held in Cullowhee. Everyone is now learning about Cam Brown, the man.
In a touching letter from his parents to the Catamount Nation, both Sam and Michelle tried to describe who Cam is and is continuing to become as a precursor to the battle he is just beginning. It laid out his open, trusting, and caring nature, while also delving into his curiosity and ambitious nature --both of which are vividly apparent.
But strength doesn't just lie with Cam, though. It's a family trait.
His mother, Michelle Brown, has battled multiple sclerosis -- an unpredictable disease that targets the central nervous system -- since Cam was eight months old.
"Cam didn't just inherit (Michelle's) good looks; he was blessed with her beautiful smile and the mind to wear it," the letter states. "We've been told so often that `there's just something about Cam' when people meet him."
Fighting the Ultimate Battle
For his athletic prowess -- and simply his inspiration to everyone in which he comes into contact with -- Cam has been dubbed "Super Cam" by those who know him best. And he continues to show a "Man of Steel" resolve to win what he's simply called "the next step."
"Watching him fight, it has made it easier for us to fight with him," mother, Michelle said, of her teenage son. "We've been able to pull from his strength and been able to smile when we want to cry. He is definitely a person that can uplift those around him."
His father, Sam, added "Cam -- being the type of person that he is -- has made it easier to be positive about the situation because he is so positive about it. He has really taken on the mindset of, `this is what's next.' And that's how he's always been. We're not really surprised -- but we're amazed by it because we are nowhere near as strong as he is. Cam is still smiling, being very much Cam."
Cam has even managed to embolden Western Carolina football's inspirational figure-head, Mark Speir.
"His spirit when I was visiting with him encouraged me. It told me `don't take this game for granted.' We are going to feed off of his message, his attitude and his spirit in this upcoming 2017 season," said Speir.
"We know it's going to be a journey, but we've just pulled ourselves up by our boot straps and are ready to make this journey," Michelle said.
Outpouring of Support
Members of the Brown family have all been amazed by the show of support that they and Cam have received from not only their past -- but also their future.
"His middle school teammates and coaches, high school teammates and coaches -- they have been reaching out. But we get the exact same feel from the Western Carolina coaches -- they've acted toward us like we're family throughout and have been nothing but supportive," said Sam.
Michelle echoed Sam's thoughts of the Catamount football coaching staff by stating, "It's been amazing. It's constantly been a reminder of how right we were and Cam was to choose Western Carolina. It reiterates how much of a family it really is there, and how we are okay with him being there."
Even Cam was impressed with the amount of support he received initially after hearing the news, especially through social media.
"I posted something on Instagram to let everyone know that I was going to be fine. I usually only get a couple hundred likes on most posts -- but that one post had over 780 likes and over 100 different comments expressing support and saying that they were going to pray for me. That was one of my first looks at how the support for me was," said Cam.
Another example of the love and support his community has shown Cam involved a milestone in his life -- his high school graduation.
It was widely known around Florida High that Cam Brown is a fan of white shoes. He explained that his parents shied away from providing the active teen with something that would be ruined immediately.
"I like white shoes. I'm rough on shoes so I never could keep a pair of white shoes clean -- if I had them, they were guaranteed to get dirty," Cam explained.
So, under the guidance of the school's administration, his 2017 graduating class and many in attendance were asked to wear white shoes -- and, as Cam describes them, "crazy socks" -- to the graduation ceremony.
"When I showed up to graduation, there were so many people wearing white shoes with crazy socks -- it was absolutely amazing that they'd do something like that for me," said Cam. "And then, when they called my name out, I was again amazed at how loud it got and for how long -- it felt like it lasted for over 45 seconds. It was absolutely breathtaking."
Another one of the examples of the influence that Cam has on those around him centered on him preparing for chemotherapy. Both Cam and his parents reflected upon one of his high school wrestling teammates -- one that Cam worked alongside in helping reach and maintain weight class -- who has shown a sign of solidarity and support.
"In anticipation of the chemo (and losing his hair), Cam cut off his Mohawk. And one of his wrestling teammates cut his hair right along with Cam, stating that `you did all of the work with me, I'm here with you," explained Sam.
Stories like these have emerged en masse since the diagnosis and through the process.
Once a Catamount, Always a Catamount
Both Sam and Michelle have been overwhelmed by the support and concern shown by the Catamount Nation, spearheaded by recruiting coaches Rhea and Gideon, and of course, head coach Mark Speir. They referenced Cam choosing Western Carolina on National Signing Day as "the best decision that he could have made."
During a brief visit in mid-May, Speir reminded the Brown family, "Once a Catamount, always a Catamount -- it's more than just a saying. That day in February, once he signed that National Letter of Intent, he became a Catamount. He is committed to us and we are committed to him."
"Everyone feels like they've got the greatest coaches. But I don't think there is another coach in this nation that would drive seven hours just to spend about four hours with a person who hasn't even played for him yet," said Cam of his future head coach. "I'm not sure there is one that is as genuine as Coach Speir is to check up on a recruit or a signee -- but they've treated me like I've been there three years and am I'm about to be a senior. It's an absolute blessing."
His parent's thoughts mirrored that of their son.
"I know how busy college head coaches are -- but I couldn't imagine any other coaches coming down and spending four hours with us here on a Thursday. But Mark Speir and his staff have been nothing short of fantastic since we found out the news," Sam said.
Cam added, "So many people from the Catamount Nation have reached out when they've learned of my story. It is so great to know that I have support from people who I haven't played for; I'm new to the community, I'm new to that public, but I've been treated like I've been a part of the family for my whole life. It feels great to know that I have a whole other family pulling for me while I'm down here in Tallahassee, Fla. It really is amazing."
He concluded by sending this message to the Purple and Gold Catamount Nation:
"To every single person on the coaching staff, the faculty and staff, and everyone involved with Western Carolina University, I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart. I absolutely could not have asked for a better team to be able to join. Everyone we've met in Cullowhee and Western Carolina, it's a true blessing to be a part of this family. It's like a home away from home. And I just want to tell everyone, that once I'm able to get on that field, I'm going to show my appreciation by playing my heart out on every single down, every single play."
To keep up with Cam's progress during the process, www.facebook.com/supercambrown. Individuals can also show their support through social media by using the hashtag, #TeamSuperCam.