Following a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Wofford in October, Western Carolina football coach Mark Speir MAEd ’95 did not ride the team bus back to campus. Emotionally drained over wasting an opportunity to defeat the fifth-ranked Terriers, Speir climbed into a rental car alone and drove seven hours to see Cam Brown, a recruit who will never play a down for the Catamounts.
Brown, a promising linebacker from Tallahassee, Florida, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive type of bone cancer, after signing with the Cats last winter. He eventually had to have his left leg amputated, but Speir still honored his scholarship. Brown came to Cullowhee in September and led the team out of the tunnel for the home opener against Davidson. He died Nov. 14, 2017.
On that Saturday of the Wofford game, Speir got word that Brown had taken a turn for the worse and was in a Gainesville hospital. After the game, as he approached the Sunshine State in the rental car, Speir checked his phone for available hotels. The University of Florida had a home football game, and he couldn’t find a room in the area. Speir drove to the hospital around midnight and was able to see Brown for a couple of minutes.
“I saw him a little bit,” Speir said. “He was tired. I let him know I was there and would see him again in the morning.” Speir went to the waiting area and got a couple hours of fitful sleep. He thought about the loss to Wofford, and what he might have done differently. He also thought about his young recruit who was losing a battle to cancer.
Morning came and Speir spent a couple of hours with Brown, whose demeanor took away any pain Speir was feeling from the loss the day before. “I did a lot of soul searching and thinking, but I’ll tell you what, he sure cheered me up,” Speir said. “It was the best medicine I could have had. I asked him what I should tell the team. He grinned, and said, ‘Don’t worry about me, coach. I’ll be all right. Tell them boys to never give up on the fight, because the fun is in the fight.’”
Refreshed from his visit with the young man who would never play for the Cats, Speir got in his car and drove back to Cullowhee for a 6 p.m. meeting with the team and gave his players the message from Brown.
Like most coaches, Speir talks about love and family. Unlike a lot of those coaches, Speir means it. He could have called Brown, but he wanted to see him in person and let him know that he loved him and to tell him to keep on fighting. Yes, Speir is different than many of those in the coaching profession because he truly cares about the young men who bleed Catamount purple. Even those who will never play for him.
Photo caption: Chancellor David Belcher joins football recruit Cam Brown prior to the team’s 2017 home opener.