Valley stands #tatestrong with one of its toughest

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Fred McCormick

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Tate Brown.

I was standing on the sidelines in Warhorse Stadium covering my first of many Owen football games and noticed number 12 repeatedly mimicking the pulling of a train whistle, as his team took the field for the opening kickoff. As the kick went up, I was concerned for whatever unfortunate soul was tasked with blocking that 6-foot-4-inch, 200-plus-pound senior who was making his way down the field like a freight train.

The Warhorses would go on to finish the 2014 season with a record of 12-1 and I came to know Tate as one of the toughest football players I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. 

Tate Brown, who graduated from Owen in 2015, was diagnosed with cancer on Jan. 1.

A few weeks ago, I was shocked to learn that Tate will need every bit of that toughness for the road that lies ahead of him. 

I'd just lost my mother to cancer the day prior when I received a message from Tate. 

He wanted to tell me that he'd been praying for me after learning of my mother's diagnosis. 

"Cancer is a mean and nasty thing and no one knows why it picks and chooses some of the people in our lives," the 21-year-old told me. As much as those words resonated with me, the next words I read were much harder to digest. 

Tate was diagnosed with stage 3 testicular germ cell cancer on New Year's Day. 

"I was shocked," the UNC Charlotte student told me in a conversation on Feb. 8. "I work out all the time, I eat healthy and I don't even drink soda. (Cancer) doesn't care, it can happen to anybody."

A sore back had been troubling Tate for some time, he told me, and like most young men would, he attributed it to an injury and waited for it to get better. He came home for the holidays and the pain only intensified. 

A trip to the emergency room revealed the source of the pain. The cancer had spread to Tate's lung. 

While it's hard to imagine what Tate is dealing with, it's even harder for me to imagine facing it with the composure he maintains while talking about his situation. 

"We started my chemotherapy quickly because it's fast-spreading cancer," he continued. 

That first round of treatment, Tate said, killed much of the cancer, but complications left him on life support and took a tremendous toll on his body. Yet, as he prepared to head into another round of treatment later on the day of our conversation, the same strength and courage that made him larger than life on the football field was on full display.

"I'm ready for this fight," he said, confidently. "I've already been through the ringer; I've suffered through some of the worst stuff you could imagine. I'm going to take this thing on."

As Tate says those words I don't have to try hard to picture him as that intimidating defensive presence I came to know him as on the football field. That memory takes me back to a time when hundreds of football fans from the Swannanoa Valley would cheer loudly as he stopped offensive players in their tracks, time after time. 

As he takes on his toughest opponent yet, the support of his community is something he still cherishes. 

"I was really down about this at first, I'd been through all of this stuff and I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "But I've had people deliver me food, baskets, Build-A-Bears, neck pads and all kinds of stuff. That love and support from the community has really helped me get through some tough times."

More support is on the way. 

April Tweed is the owner of Sparrow Salon at 3028 U.S. 70. Her salon is hosting a cut-a-thon from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 18. A shampoo, cut and style will cost $25 and 100 percent of the proceeds will go to the Brown family to help with Tate's treatment. The event will also include a raffle supported by contributions from local businesses. 

Roughly half of all testicular cancer cases occur in men ages 20 - 34, and Tate wanted to share his story to raise awareness of that fact. 

"I want guys my age to know that if something isn't feeling right in your body, then go get checked out," he said. "If you're dealing with some sort of pain, find out what's causing it."

When our conversation was over I thought back to the last time I saw Tate wearing that Warhorse uniform he was always so proud to wear. One of the best teams in the school's history had just fallen at home in the third round of the playoffs, and it was emotional moment for the seniors — most of whom would never play the sport they loved again. 

As everyone consoled each other I remember seeing Tate, a key player on that roster, walk from midfield toward the dark side of the field, where he spent a few minutes alone. As he held his head high and took everything in for one final time, I remember thinking that the inner strength I saw in him in that moment was going to come in just as handy as his physical strength later on in life. 

That time, as more and more people in the Swannanoa Valley rally around #tatestrong, is right now. 

And we're still all right here cheering you on, Tate.