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Jerome Brown center opens; "He's smiling'

Published Sep. 27, 2005

The late NFL star's family and friends see his dreams come to life as children flock to the new community center in Brooksville that bears his name.

The large piece of marble in front of the newly opened Jerome Brown Community Center is inscribed with the late NFL star's vision for such a building, but on Saturday morning, a more accurate representation of his dreams could be seen crawling all around the monument.

Posing for a picture in green-and-white uniforms were the members of a youth baseball team from the Kennedy Park Little League, sponsored by the Jerome Brown Youth Foundation and coached by his brother, Calvin.

"This is a great remembrance of Jerome," Calvin Brown said of his brother, who was killed in a 1992 auto accident, cutting short a promising NFL career for the defensive tackle. "We can look at this community center as a representative of Jerome, because it's going to help kids, it's going to help this community, and it's a positive thing. That's Jerome. I can just sit here and watch, and as you go inside, you can feel the welcome that everyone gives you as you walk in."

Inside the center, children like Bobby Conway, a first-grader at Brooksville Elementary, bounced from one activity to the next. There were free-throw shooting contests, softball pitching games and other booths that had children winning everything from pencils to Beanie Babies to sunglasses.

The blue helium balloon tethered to Conway's wrist didn't keep him from expertly tossing a softball through a canvas target against the wall for a strike. He won a plastic baseball key chain for his efforts, so it didn't matter so much when his balloon slipped loose and slowly rose to the ceiling, joining a half-dozen others marooned there. Not to worry: There were enough balloons to keep everyone smiling.

"Every time I come to Brooksville and see his family and friends, I know that Jerome lives within us," said Darrell Fullington, a former NFL player who was Brown's roommate during their freshman year at the University of Miami. "Today, he's smiling. I know he's got a big smile on his face, and he's laughing."

A charity golf tournament followed Saturday afternoon, with a musical performance by the Jerome Brown Community Choir. Perhaps the only things missing at the center at Tom Varn Park were parking spots, and the turnout was encouraging for organizers and Brown family members who raised more than $300,000 in donations to make the center possible.

"It took longer than I anticipated, but I can wait," Calvin Brown said. "Jerome wanted to see this come about. This is a center that can help this community out, bring this community together. It's something that he envisioned, and that's the main thing."

Just months before his death, Brown and several fellow NFL players held a football clinic for about 300 children in 1992. That tradition continued each year until Saturday, when the memory of the county's greatest football player could expand to something more permanent.

"I think it's a dream come true for Jerome's family and the community," said former Philadelphia Eagles teammate Keith Byars. "You travel around the world and you see monuments and buildings with different names, and you don't necessarily know the story behind the names. For the people in this community, Jerome was someone who they could touch. This building hasn't been here for hundreds of years, but it will be. His legacy will continue to go on."

Byars remembered when he held football clinics for children in his hometown in Ohio, and Brown told him how he wanted to do the same back in Brooksville.

"He was able to do something for his community," Byars said. "He'd talk about it all year, before the camp, after the camp, because it made him so proud."

With the center up and running, the next challenge _ long after the balloons have drifted back down to the gymnasium floor _ will be making the green-and-white center a fixture in the community. In the outfield of the baseball field next door, a small group of children tossed a football around.

"It's what we envisioned and more," said Carey Carlson, a member of the center's board who helped organize its fundraising. "After five years of working hard with the city's help and the Brown family's help, we were able to build something I think will endure the test of time."