The outline of a feathered wing traces Denzell Brown’s right biceps, crawls up his rounded shoulder and extends to the lateral region of his pectoral muscle. The plumage, Brown said, represents freedom and mobility. It reminds him that he is the one who controls his actions and he is the one who has the power to extract himself — to “fly away,” if you will — from hazardous situations that could jeopardize his future.
In his short lifetime, Brown, a sprinter who recently graduated from McKinley Tech, has seen too many promising peers fall prey to the distractions of his northeast D.C. neighborhood. His own brother even took a bumpy route to an eventual happy ending. The wing stained on Brown’s upper-right quadrant acts as a visual cue that helps keep him on track.
He plans to add another patch of ink to his chiseled frame, a four-word mantra on his chest.
“I know a saying that I always keep in mind is ‘Through adversity comes success,’ ” Brown said, “because no matter what adversity you go through, eventually success will come. It’s imminent, inevitable.”
He knows this because he’s lived it.
Two years ago, Brown never would have imagined that he would be bound for Georgetown University on a track and field scholarship that will require him to pay almost nothing. But that’s the reality he now faces thanks to his unwavering perseverance in the wake of a gruesome football injury.
One fateful play changed everything.
‘A horrific injury’
Brown, a running back, entered the 2015 football season with a level of desire tantamount to his lofty goals. But after he spent the summer months entranced in training – his heart set on bouncing back from a sophomore campaign encumbered by a fractured left forearm – Brown’s aspirations were slashed prematurely.
In the season’s second game, he dislocated his left ankle and shredded surrounding tendons. When he planted his left foot into the ground to dodge a lunging Gonzaga defensive back, his cleat took root. A linebacker, meanwhile, tackled him from behind.
“My ankle got kind of stuck in the field, and then basically the weight pushed me this way, and my ankle stayed that way,” Brown said, his hands motioning in opposite directions as he re-created the scene.
In the moments following the play, Brown experienced shock, adrenaline and a bright light. One referee placed a towel over Brown’s scrunched face to block his line of vision, which revealed that his foot had rotated 180 degrees. He looked for his toes but instead saw his heel.
Brown howled from the pit of his stomach, expelling pain, fear and frustration. It was the last football game he ever played.
“When you look at an athlete get injured like that — it was a horrific injury — a lot of times you don’t see that kid make the effort to come back,” said Nathaniel Metts, McKinley Tech’s track coach, “because it’s just too much of a hill to climb.”
Six months lapsed between Brown’s reconstructive surgery, in which doctors inserted a metal plate and 11 screws into the limp ankle, and his season debut in track and field, a sport he had balanced with football since age 8. Brown rehabilitated his body and mind during the recovery period.
He trained extensively in the pool, where he regained his range of motion without the jarring force of impact. In the weight room, he used resistance bands to strengthen his recuperating muscles and tendons — the “technical” parts of rehab, he calls them. Both were steps that Brown needed to take to buck his doctor’s dim prediction, which was that he wouldn’t return to full speed.
Brown concentrated on recovering mentally, as well. In the solitude of rehab, he said he confronted insecurities, adopted a new life outlook and wrote poetry.
One phrase ran through his mind, surfacing out of necessity: Through adversity comes success.
“If you put any other athlete in my shoes with the injury I faced,” Brown said, “most people would give up.”
‘I would have never seen it coming’
Despite his 3.3 GPA, Brown viewed athletics as his primary route to a university, to a better life and to a bedroom that he didn’t have to share with three other people.
He returned to the track late in March 2016, his once-tattered ankle sufficiently sturdy. At first he felt uneasy and expressed apprehension at loading his full body weight onto his left side. Even with Brown’s devotion to rehab, he still hadn’t regained his flexibility and strength.
But the clock didn’t detect his instinctual hesitation. Brown registered personal bests in two events at his second meet back, the 2016 District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association championships.
He won the 100- and 200-meter dashes in 10.96 and 22.53 seconds, respectively, and contributed to McKinley’s first-place 4×100- and 4×400-meter relay squads.
“What attracted me to him at first wasn’t how fast he was running,” said Alton McKenzie, the Georgetown associate track and field coach who recruited Brown, “but just how much he was able to overcome, how much perseverance he had, how tough he was.”
McKenzie extended an offer earlier this academic year to Brown, who said that Georgetown’s courtship stunned him. He had garnered interest from a list of other schools, including Maryland Eastern Shore and Howard, but becoming a Hoya hadn’t crossed his mind.
He signed with Georgetown in April.
“I would have never seen it coming,” said Brown, his tone one of genuine surprise, “never, never in a thousand years I would’ve seen it coming.”
The same can be said for many of the events that have transpired in his recent history.
Two Septembers ago, he didn’t expect to slap on a pair of shoulder pads for the final time, his career ended by a blend of injury and reality. Brown decided to forgo his senior season after realizing the sensitivity of his ankle.
Last May, he didn’t expect to make the splash he did at DCIAAs, a meet that put him on McKenzie’s radar and opened a path to Georgetown. There, Brown will join the Community Scholars Program, which helps students from low-income families transition academically and socially to higher education.
“It’s an opportunity that can change that your life,” said McKenzie, a former community scholar and Hoya track and field alum.
Just last month, Brown didn’t expect to receive a transparent plaque naming him the 2017 DCIAA boys outdoor track and field athlete of the year, which he earned despite missing part of the season due to nagging soreness in his hamstrings. His back pressed against a green wall atop a set of bleachers at the May 18 DCIAA meet, Brown unpackaged his latest accolade from a white box and peeled off layers of its protective bubble wrap.
He posed for an impromptu portrait.
The boy who had overcome so much adversity cradled one of the most tangible representations of success, and smiled.
“This whole picture,” Metts said, “is just beautiful.”