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Former Penn State running back Journey Brown opens up about career-ending injury

Journey Brown was poised to become the next great running back at Penn State. But then, a heart condition took it all away. In a recent interview, Brown opened up about his diagnosis, his subsequent battles with depression, and coming to peace with life without football.

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Dec 28, 2019; Arlington, Texas, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Journey Brown (4) runs the ball in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Tigers at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2020 season, Journey Brown was poised for a breakout year. Coming off a stellar Cotton Bowl performance in January, Brown was the clear front-runner to be the starting tailback for Penn State football and perhaps even follow his predecessors – Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders – to the NFL.

But then, it all came crashing down. A previously undetected heart condition discovered in the 2020 offseason forced Journey Brown to medically retire from football. And just like that, Brown’s career at Penn State was over before it ever really had a chance to flourish. As one would expect, the transition to life without football was not easy for Journey Brown. In a recent interview with Rich Scarcella of the Reading Eagle, the former Penn State running back opened up about his diagnosis, his struggles with depression, and how he found a new path forward. 

Journey Brown was primed for a massive season

Few Nittany Lions had as much hype going into the 2020 season as did Journey Brown. Taking over the starting running back role near the end of 2019, Brown had a coming-out party in that year’s Cotton Bowl against Memphis. With 202 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 32 and 56 yards, Brown was a critical part of Penn State’s 53-39 blowout win.

“There were a lot of good vibes and good stuff going on that week,” Brown told Scarcella. “I was in a very good head space. My body felt great. I knew it was going to be a good week and a good game because I can usually feel it in my gut.”

Even with tailbacks such as Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, who had both put together solid freshmen seasons, in the backfield, the Nittany Lions felt confident with Brown as the premier back going into the next season. With an offense that featured second-year quarterback Sean Clifford and veteran tight end Pat Freiermuth and a defense that included the likes of Micah Parsons, Penn State looked poise to make a run at the Playoff in 2020.

“He could have been one of the greats at Penn State,” running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said of Brown. “He was gifted, man. When you could run the way he did with that country strength, and you start getting that confidence he was getting, it’s scary.

Brown struggles with difficult diagnosis

But for Penn State football and Journey Brown, nothing about 2020 went according to plan. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the start of the Big Ten football season back to the end of October. While testing during the pandemic, it was uncovered that Brown suffers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart muscle to thicken. Brown admitted that he thought the coaching and medical staff were joking when they told him in September that he would have to give up football.

“There were a lot of emotions,” Brown said. “I started crying. I was angry. I ran outside and just kept yelling. Coach [James] Franklin came from behind me and gave me a hug, holding onto me and telling me I was going to be OK. It was a hard time.”

The following months were extremely difficult for the former Penn State running back. After watching six family members and a close friend pass away since arriving in State College, this latest setback was more than Brown could bear. Brown revealed that he went into depression following his diagnosis. He locked himself in his bedroom and wouldn’t eat for days. Although he served as a student assistant during the 2020 season, Brown said he had trouble concentrating and eventually had to drop out of Penn State.

Former Penn State running back finds a path forward without football

Three years removed from his diagnosis, Brown, self-admittedly, is doing much better. Scarcella writes that Brown now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is training to become a pit-crew member for a NASCAR Cup team. He is engaged to be married and has a young daughter who still lives in State College.

Last season, Brown was also able to really take in football again for the first time since he had to retire. “I finally came to peace with it,” he said. “I came to peace with the fact that it’ll never feel right that I’m not playing football and that I didn’t get to end it on my own terms.”

While he admits that it will always be a struggle not being able to play, he can enjoy the game by watching former teammates like Parsons, Yetur Gross-Matos, KJ Hamler, and Jesse Luketa live out their dreams in the NFL. But most of all, Journey Brown will always have a spot in his heart for the game that was taken away from him too soon.

“I’ll always love football,” he said.



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Matt is a Co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

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