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Brooksville youth get legacy of NFL great

Today, the Jerome Brown Community Center officially opens, a monument to a hometown hero and an oasis for the young people he cared about.

Kevin Stewart, 13, and DeJuan Roberts, 14, walked listlessly around Tom Varn Park on Friday afternoon, offering the eternal complaint of young people in Brooksville.

"In the summer, most of the time, we just go out of town and go to theme parks," Roberts said.

"In Brooksville, that's all there is to do," Stewart said.

That will change, as of today, with the public opening of the Jerome Brown Community Center. The Jerome Brown Family Fun day, from 9 a.m. to noon, will feature games, activities, guest speakers, food, entertainment, and a chance to see the new center, which is just off Darby Lane in Tom Varn Park in Brooksville.

Friday was also, in its way, a fun day, though one that mostly featured frantic preparations for the opening; the pauses to eat city-provided pizza in the center's kitchen were relatively brief.

In the entryway, inmate laborers scrubbed the tiles engraved with the names of center donors. City Clerk Karen Phillips pushed a broom. Calvin Brown and his sister, Cynthia Brown-Jackson, arranged the artifacts of their brother's college and professional football careers in the center's meeting room.

The room began to take on the look of a crowded storage locker because of all his honors: his Hernando High helmet, covered with yellow panther-paw stickers awarded for outstanding plays; a picture of Brown at a Pro Bowl with other former University of Miami players, including quarterback Jim Kelly and defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy; a bronze plaque, as heavy as a weight plate, he earned for making the All-Madden Team.

But Calvin Jones said he is standing in the biggest monument to his brother's career, especially because it emphasizes Jerome Brown's commitment to young people.

"That's what the family wanted from Day One," said Brown, 30, a teacher for the Hernando school system. "We wanted something that would have his name on it, and something that would reach out to the kids."

Young people still respond to Brown and his legend, said his brother, who also coaches a winning Little League baseball team.

"The kids are always asking me, "What would Jerome think? What would Jerome do?' I say, "He'd be so proud of you; he'd probably throw you a party.' "

Even with the power of Jerome Brown's name in Brooksville and the NFL, building the center has been a long process.

Nearly eight years have passed since Brown died in a car accident in Brooksville with his 12-year-old nephew, Gus Brown.

Friends immediately began discussing a community center, though the idea really got off the ground in 1995. That is when Keith Jackson, who played with Brown on the Philadelphia Eagles and visited Brooksville for the annual Jerome Brown Youth Football Camp, collected pledges from other players for the center.

Phillips, the city clerk who also has served as treasurer for the fundraising effort, said the cash donations total more than $300,000. Businesses have also donated goods and services, she said.

The city won a state recreation grant that will give it $99,000 to pave the center's parking lot, as well as build a bike trail and basketball courts nearby. The Rotary Club of Brooksville donated money to complete the landscaping outside the center.

The outside of the 11,000-square-foot center was completed last year just before the camp. The inside, with shiny white tiles just inside and a gym floor rimmed with dark green tiles the color of Brown's old Eagles' jersey, was completed just before the arrival of the players this year. (They will participate in the fun day rather than holding a separate camp.)

Or at least, Phillips said, it is close to being finished. The center needs equipment, including games and a refrigerator, before it is truly complete. Supporters hope people who visit the center this weekend will contribute to bring in these last touches.

"In a way, it's good for it to be austere-looking," Phillips said. "Then maybe people will see what we need."