TAMPA — In 1958, Charles Brown borrowed $500 and opened a store on Gandy Boulevard, down the road from MacDill Air Force Base, where he was stationed.
Fifty-one years later, Brown's Trophies is a $4 million business with four stores in Tampa, Brandon and St. Petersburg. The merchandise has changed; old-school metal awards have given way to less expensive acrylic, glass and plastic. There are also more trophies, plaques, cups and pins sold to a wider range of recipients than ever, from Little Leaguers to salesmen or soldiers overseas. These days, suppliers buy most of their materials in China.
But a spirit of enterprise still permeates the store, a family business with deep ties to the Tampa Bay area. Mr. Brown, who spent time and money trying to brand local teenagers with the can-do enthusiasm that had made him a success, died Dec. 30, of lung disease. He was 80.
A tackle on his Pineville, Ky., football team, "Bruiser" Brown won trophies of his own, along with partial college scholarship offers he had to turn down. The coal miner's son had no money.
He studied and taught judo in the Air Force, and led his team to a national championship. The Air Force sent him to Japan, where he became a fourth-degree black belt.
He stayed in the Air Force while opening the Gandy store to sell uniforms. He soon learned his customers needed trophies at least as much. An aunt ran Brown's Trophies in 1969 and 1970 while Mr. Brown served in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star, his family said.
He retired in 1970 with the rank of master sergeant. His relationship with the military never waned, however, and accounts for a steady stream of requests for individual awards, or "challenge coins," to be handed out by the likes of Gen. David Petraeus (who designed his own shield-shaped coin emblazoned with the word "Excellence"), and his boss, Adm. William Fallon.
"We have a very close relationship with the (MacDill) base," said Charles Brown Jr., who took over his father's store several years ago.
Brown's Trophies opened a store on Tampa's Florida Avenue and on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg in the 1970s. A Brandon location came in the 1980s.
Between 1994 and 1999, Mr. Brown poured tens of thousands of dollars into the Spirit of Tampa Bay Boys Basketball Club, a league he founded for kids ages 13 to 19. He paid his employees to register players and travel with six teams around the state, paying for all uniforms and meals. He sometimes found jobs for players.
"He had a spirit to achieve," his son said. "He told them, 'This is what I've done with my life. I had nothing when I started.' It shows what can be done."
Several players went on to college basketball, including Nick Smith, a 7-foot-2 Bloomingdale High standout who played at the University of Illinois and Antoine Broxie, who played for the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers. Local politicians, from Hillsborough commissioners to the mayor of Tampa, showered Mr. Brown with congratulatory letters. The state gave him a Governor's Community Investment Award in 1998.
There was an additional benefit. "It's the fact of being able to reach these kids and mothers and fathers," Mr. Brown said in 1998. "These kids will grow up one day and buy trophies."
Not all of his moves were as popular. A decision to lease a building next door to the shop for a police DUI substation drew the ire of a nearby tavern owner and coincided with the store's windows being shot out by gunfire. "We came to work one day and had 15 bullet holes in the glass," said the younger Charles Brown, 56.
A stroll through the production area shows just how far Brown's Trophies has come in half a century. A machine jealously clutches an engraving rod, waiting for instructions from a computer. Another burns its First Place letters with laser beams.
In a small back room, 40 gold plastic cheerleader statuettes kick in perfect unison, like the North Korean army on parade. They will go to cheerleaders of the Town 'N Country Vikings, a youth football team. On the next table, another 40 football players burrow ahead, looking for a crease.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]