When Pharaoh Brown called his mother on graduation day, he sounded calm. Jeannetta Smith assumed her son was pulling another prank, but this one angered her.
“This is not how you play,” Smith said.
Brown wasn’t joking. His friend, Fred Zuber, had drowned hours earlier. He sounded calm because he was in shock.
Brown, Zuber and three other friends graduated fifth grade earlier that day and celebrated by going to Lake Erie beach with Zuber’s father.
Zuber and another friend, Deonte Dillard, said they could swim. They couldn’t. After spending some time on a group of rocks shortly offshore, the friends made their way back to the beach. Brown and the two other friends reached shore. Zuber and Dillard got caught in the undertow.
Some people on the beach spotted Dillard drowning and helped bring him to land. A panicked Brown saw his friend lying unconscious on the sand and tried to revive him by pushing on his chest. Paramedics resuscitated Dillard, later taking him to the hospital.
They eventually found Zuber’s body, but it was far too late. When he was removed from the water, Zuber’s skin was discolored, his stomach bloated.
Brown’s state of shock lasted until he got home. Immediately after entering the front door he crumpled to the floor, tears streaming down his face.
Zuber was the first of several friends Brown lost over the next decade. The others involved violence that plagues Cleveland on a daily basis (Brown grew up in Cleveland Heights, Richmond Heights and Lyndhurst — all Cleveland suburbs). Tragedies like these make Brown’s struggles on the field and the national condemnation of his actions in a December snowball fight seem tame in comparison. But Brown continues to fight, narrowing his focus on a goal he and Zuber set as children — to play in the NFL.
Smith, 43, said Brown and Zuber spent practically every day together from the time they met in fourth grade until the time Zuber died. One day when the two were about 11 years old, Smith overheard the two discussing their futures. They planned on playing professional football – Zuber for the Green Bay Packers, Brown for anyone.
“It’s kind of crazy because I wasn’t playing football (at the time),” Brown said. “Now, being at Oregon playing football — it’s like, ‘Dang, I did say that as a kid.'”
The discussion stuck in Smith’s memory, motivating her to send Brown a photo of Zuber right before last year’s spring game.
“When he sees that picture, he knows what the plan was,” Smith said.
Brown’s path to the NFL has been anything but smooth. The sophomore received limited playing time as a tight end — which he began playing as a senior at Brush High School — each of the past two seasons. While Brown has a chance to be the starting tight end in 2014, he’s currently on crutches — although he said the foot injury isn’t serious.
But Brown’s football-related struggles make up a small portion of the adversity he has faced.
Brown arrived home last summer on June 16. That night, he went to a friend’s party in downtown Cleveland. The party was shut down by police, so Brown and a group of friends decided to go to the nearby Marathon gas station.
Around 2:30 a.m., a black Dodge Durango pulled into the gas station. Brown and his friends didn’t give it a second thought, even as it lightly hit a curb before stopping. The group left Marathon shortly after.
Later that night, Brown and his friends were watching the news when a headline caught their attention: “Man found dead in a truck at the Marathon.” It was the black Durango — but it wasn’t some unknown man. It was Brown’s friend, Are’es Richard, who attended the same party as Brown earlier that night.
Richard got into a physical altercation with a guard in his car after leaving the party. Three armed guards fired 17 rounds at the vehicle. One bullet hit Richard’s leg, severing the popliteal artery and vein. Witnesses later found him unconscious behind the Durango’s wheel at the Marathon. The 20 year-old was pronounced dead at MetroHealth Medical Center.
Brown felt shocked when he heard the news, but he also felt regret.
“That was hard knowing, ‘Man, why didn’t I go over to that truck?'” Brown said. “I could’ve probably saved him.”
Last December, Brown received national scrutiny for throwing a bucket of snow into a retired professor’s car on the University of Oregon campus, documented by an Emerald video. For that, he was suspended from the Alamo Bowl.
In between the snowball fight and the Alamo Bowl, Brown briefly spent some time at home — where tragedy struck again. His friend, Fela Lockhart, was celebrating his 21st birthday at a restaurant (Brown wasn’t there) and went back to his car to retrieve his cell phone only to be shot during a robbery attempt. Police didn’t arrive in time to save him.
“I feel like every time I go home, somebody dies,” Brown said.
Violence like this is why Smith told Brown not to come home over spring break.
“I’d just be scared that something’s going to happen to him,” Smith said. “It can be just wrong place, wrong time.”
Brown’s Oregon teammates Bralon Addison, Arik Armstead, Chance Allen, Dwayne Stanford and Byron Marshall make up a tight-knit group of friends that Addison compares to the “wolf pack” from the Hangover movies.
Armstead said Brown started a game where he’d pour water on sleeping teammates.
“He got me one time, but I got him too,” Armstead said. “It goes back and forth.”
Brown’s high school head football coach, Rob Atwood, also mentioned humor as a defining trait. Atwood, now an assistant coach at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, said his four sons would follow Brown around like shadows.
“He’d buy them ice cream after two-a-days if they called him King Pharaoh, or something along those lines,” Atwood said.
Brown was a two-sport athlete (basketball and football) at Brush and played quarterback, defensive end and tight end at elite levels. Atwood said Brown didn’t have great practice habits, but this was one flaw among many positive traits Brown possessed, such as intelligence.
“He learns fast,” Oregon tight ends coach Tom Osborne said. “He’s not one of those guys you have to tell five times how to do something.”
Brown said it’s not hard to stay motivated despite his friends’ deaths.
“Everybody’s lost one,” Brown said. “It’s just part of life, part of growing up.”
It helps that he’s surrounded by inspiring people, namely his 25-year-old sister, Tonika, and Smith, who raised both children by herself.
“My mom is my dad,” Brown said.
Smith, who talks with Brown multiple times a week, hopes he gets a good education and a good job, but overall, she just wants him to be happy. While he’s lost several close friends, she believes the memory of them — specifically Zuber — will only push Brown harder to deliver on their NFL plan.
“He’s doing it for himself, but also for somebody else,” Smith said.
Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415