“You’ve got to think lucky. If you fall into a mud hole, check your back pocket. You might have caught a fish.”
– Darrell K Royal
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Sandy Brown was a big Darrell K Royal fan. As a successful high school athlete at Lexington, about 70 miles east of Austin, Brown thought he might like to play for the legendary University of Texas coach. That didn’t happen when he decided to attend Texas A&M instead. But it’s not a big regret, because Brown has spent the last 40 years living his other dream, to work as a Texas high school coach and help kids in need.
It’s a job that more than fills his days because many of his varsity players haven’t even been on a school football field before. They did not spend their childhoods getting sized for Pop Warner football, trying out for club sports or learning sportsmanship at highly regulated school track meets.
His players were on a different trajectory, veering into trouble with the law and eventually being committed to TJJD for serious offenses. They land on Brown’s doorstep at the Giddings State School, angry, sad, dejected, disconnected, but also, with time, eager for a new opportunity -- just like any other teenager.
“They haven’t had the kind of chances we have had,” Brown says, as we visit before a football practice. He explains that many of his band of walk-ons have come from truly difficult backgrounds, with absent or incarcerated parents, abusive families, or families rocked by addiction. “They’ve never been trusted; they’ve always been doubted and ridiculed.”
So Brown’s first step is to re-set their expectations -- upward. He tells them they can win.
The young men Brown coaches have not often heard that message. In many cases, they’ve heard the opposite.
They burrow into this new positive edict like cleats on turf.
“He actually cares about us more than the game,” a player says, as we watch the early September practice on a field behind the gymnasium at Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southeast.
The sun is fierce and the 100-degree day has turned the grass so hot it’s untouchable. But the players and their coach, tromping the field in his customary khakis and sun hat, appear impervious to the heat. As he teaches running patterns to yet another set of youth with faint backgrounds in organized sports, Brown works furiously, though gently, to instill hope and encouragement.
“Actually, at my first game,” says the youth, his voice incredulous, “he told us, ‘Win or lose, y’all have fun’!”
“He’s there for us, emotionally,” says another young man, eyes on the field.
You can almost see the invisible props playbook that Brown runs concurrently with the actual X’s and O’s he and assistant coach Arthur Aviles are teaching. By virtue of long experience, it’s instinctive: A temperately voiced redirect (you got this), a dance step to demo a roll out (I’m one of you), a hop into the huddle where he’s enveloped by the team (I’m with you . . . take charge now).
Boiled down Brown’s approach is remarkably simple: He offers guidance and trust.
“If you trust someone, they’ll trust you. If you love someone, they’ll love you back. Even if they haven’t loved anyone before,” he says. His philosophy aligns well with today’s focus on trauma informed corrections and has been intuitive for Brown since 1979, when he began coaching youthful offenders at Giddings.
“Try not to get too mad at them ….. remember, friend, …..that used to be me.”
– from the poem “My Guys,” by Sandy Brown
For countless players, Brown’s leap of faith in them has proven to be a mighty lure.
Over the years, as the athletic director of the campus high school, Lone Star Southeast, he’s helped the youth defeat the odds against them and taken track, basketball and football teams and players to multiple TAPPS regional playoffs and even state-level competitions. The Giddings State School boys’ track and field team won the state championship in 1996, 1997 and 2001. Giddings State School football teams made it to the playoffs in 2001 and 2018. In that latter playoff they lost a hard-fought (44-32) battle with their state school rivals, the Gainesville Tornadoes.
Brown has been regaled in Sports Illustrated and several Texas publications for summoning talent and sportsmanship from his raw recruits, and the national Positive Coaching Alliance honored him with a “Double Goal Coach” award for teaching life lessons alongside sports.
He enjoys helping players find their place to shine in all sports, and in the world. But football occupies a special place in his heart.
“From the time I was little, I always loved football. When I started a football book, I couldn’t put it down. And I would read the same book over and over, which I guess was a premonition of a future calling,” he says.
He first worked at the Giddings campus as it was being built in the early 1970s. Later, after becoming the first in his family to finish college, he returned to Giddings as a dorm parent. The rolling rural area between Austin and Houston is home territory. Brown grew up in nearby Lexington, a town of about 1,200 residents, where he played on winning varsity teams and set his sights on a coaching career.
But it was his own difficult early childhood that played a pivotal role in drawing him to the state school. He remembers suffering physically and emotionally at the hands of an abusive father, and feeling the sting of abuse reverberate when he went to school where students once noticed that a beating had left him bleeding through his clothes.
Family life was complicated and often confusing. “I didn’t understand it then, I do now,” he says, offering that he’s worked through his emotions about many things through poetry he writes. One poem, “My Guys,” speaks of his love for his players and students. Another is about his father, a child of the Great Depression and veteran of World War II; a “hard man” who was disengaged from much of Brown’s life, yet always showed up at his high school football games
Much later, as Brown and his wife Janet raised their own four children, the two men reconciled, and ultimately Brown served as a caregiver to his dying father. But the young Sandy Brown harbored a frustrating anger that even led to him being “locked up” briefly as a teenager, he said.
It’s no wonder Brown feels attuned to the trauma many youth at Giddings have endured and sees himself as well positioned to help others unwind their pain.
“I relate to these kids. I understand them and I believe they understand me,” he says. “We get along pretty good. I don’t have a need to have power and control over them.”
In the early days, the Giddings campus housed troubled young men and women with a range of back stories and offenses. Today it is strictly a high security campus for young men who’ve committed felonies, such as armed robbery, assaults, even homicide.
Brown says he makes a point of not knowing the specific crimes committed by his players. That is not what matters on the playing field or going forward, and he doesn’t want to be influenced by or draw any wrongful conclusions based on their cases. Just as he wants his players to keep the right focus -- on their future, their grades and their behavior – he, too, aims for the proper perspective.
“I judge my success here not by how many games we win, but by how many kids smile and speak to me each day – am I making a difference?” he says.
Clearly, the answer is yes, says fellow TAPPS coach Beck Brydon.
“I wish there were more Sandy Browns in the business of football and education. He has a gentle spirit about him; I know of no football coach who doesn’t think highly of him,” said Brydon, the athletic director at Regents School of Austin, which played the Giddings Indians for several years as part of the same TAPPS district.
At all their match ups, the Giddings Mustangs (formerly called the Indians) acquitted themselves well, Brydon said, musing that the Giddings’ boys are simply a group of 17-years-olds whose life mistakes have been more serious than those of other 17-year-olds.
“That’s the core of what Sandy and I do,” said Brydon, whose youth once brought Bibles for the Giddings players. “We lead and mentor 17-year-olds.”
“If you push, I push back – I wasn’t made to give up or give in. If you really care about me, then forgive … be my guide and my friend.” – from “My Guys”
“I always tell the kids – sure we want to win, everyone wants to win – but the best thing you can do is behave well,” Brown says. “It has to be behavior first at this type of facility, because if it’s not – if you start trying to win too badly and take kids to games who won’t act right, then you lose the whole thing. You won’t get invited back.”
Back in the 1980s, it was Brown who secured the privilege for the Giddings teams to play off-campus games. With the support of the state school superintendent, he offered local school officials a solemn pledge. “I looked them in the eye and I told them I don’t want to play your junior high or your JV, I want to play your varsity, win or lose, and I’ll make you this promise, I won’t bring anyone to your school who would embarrass you or embarrass me. All of them will be on their best behavior.”
Brown has held to that commitment for four decades.
“As long as Sandy has been coaching, there has never been an incident, and opposing coaches and fans routinely make comments praising Sandy’s teams’ great behavior and sportsmanship,” said Dennis Smith, longtime principal of Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southwest.
After playing local schools as a non-conference team in the first years, Brown won a spot for his teams within the TAPPS league, a better fit for Giddings, with its special limitations. They played 11-man football until 2018, when they dropped to the six-man football bracket as the population declined at Giddings.
Fans might be surprised to see a state school facility in the lineup with Christian and private school teams. But the alliance has proven fruitful. After games, win or lose, the teams typically join hands in a large prayer circle or hug and bow heads in small huddles. And there’s Sandy, the quiet overseer in the middle of it. A storyteller who laughs easily in other settings, he oddly somber, even circumspect after games. “He is a very spiritual man and gives all the credit to God for his accomplishments,” says Smith. “His life at Giddings has been a calling that he has gladly answered.”
Brown regularly hears from former students who still cherish the opportunities he gave them.
As we chat he falls easily into a story about a young woman who beat back her asthma, her family woes, lack of confidence and “less than stellar” times, to blaze into first place in the 300 meter hurdles at the state meet in 2001.
Brown was amazed by her fortitude, and how she swore she’d take first, even though she lacked training and her initial times were far too slow. He recounts how he tried to temper her expectations. “I said, Crystal, what did I ever tell you to make you think you could do this?”
Relishing the story, he draws it out a bit. She grew measurably faster each week, and at the state meet crossed the finish line, clocking an amazing time but falling on her knees, gasping for air. He ran to her with her inhaler, and as he looked on with concern, she caught her breath and spat out: “I told you I could do it!”
Brown laughs heartily. It’s his favorite admonition of all time. He still hears from Crystal, now a mother of three who lives a distance away but has been known to turn up at a Giddings competition. He shares her last text:
“Hey there, Happy Father's day, I love you and miss you and I hope you feel the love and admiration around you today that you truly deserve. To this day and forever more you will be the father of your babies, but a Dad to many-many more, and I'm glad you are mine.”