'No excuses' mentality drives Notre Dame safety DJ Brown beyond father's loss to long-awaited homecoming

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame safety DJ Brown was a promising baseball player in Maryland's youth leagues, where he was coached by his late father, Dr. Derek Brown (right)

BALTIMORE — DJ Brown figures he was 7 years old the first time he set foot in the home of the Baltimore Ravens.

From 2007-2016, Notre Dame’s senior safety would attend one or two games a year with his father, who had a pair of season tickets.

“Whenever he had a free ticket, I would get a chance to go, which was awesome,” Brown said. “Whenever his friend couldn’t make it, he would bring me along, which was always cool.”

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Brown, 22, easily rattled off the names of his boyhood heroes from the Ravens: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jamal Lewis and later Anquan Boldin. Brown knew the memories would come flooding back Saturday afternoon against Navy, when he finally got a chance to play at M&T Bank Stadium.

Brown made two tackles in No. 18 Notre Dame's 35-32 win. He played 43 defensive snaps against the tricky Navy triple option and had an end zone interception wiped out by his holding penalty.

Playing about 25 minutes from his home in Annapolis, Md., where his boyhood bedroom is still lined with classic team photos of the Ravens, Brown had a rooting section of 30-plus friends and family members in a club-level suite.

Notre Dame safety DJ Brown (second from right) at a baseball game with (l-r) his grandfather Gilford Brown, late father Dr. Derek Brown and older sister Maya Brown

Grandfather Gilford Brown was there, as was Aunt Rhonda Green, Uncle Darryl Green and his cousin Myles. CJ Thomas, Brown’s best friend since elementary school, planned to make the trip with his father from New York City, where CJ is pursuing a master’s degree at St. John’s University.

Tony Parchment, DJ’s godfather, was there, as was Dr. Tony Johnson, godfather to DJ’s younger brother Trent, now a senior football standout at the same high school, St. John’s College Prep, where DJ starred as a cornerback.

“The thing about DJ is not only is he a great player, but he’s so smart and well-liked,” said Joe Casamento, 75 and semi-retired from coaching after Brown helped St. John’s win its first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title in nearly three decades. “He could talk to kids, and they would listen because he wasn’t arrogant. You knew he was sincere and he was trying to help.”

Notre Dame safety DJ Brown (2) tackles California wide receiver Mavin Anderson (11) during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Older sister Maya Brown, a financial advisor at 25, also was on hand with their mother, Dr. Chimene Liburd Brown, an internist.  

It was Dr. Johnson, a dentist, who typically accompanied Dr. Derek Brown, owner of Winning Smiles Orthodontics, to the Ravens games.

“We have a tight-knit friend network,” Dr. Liburd, DJ's mother, said in a phone interview. “When DJ would go, usually that person was not available for whatever reason. He always enjoyed going to those games with his dad.”

Unspeakable tragedy

No matter what Brown did on the field in this bittersweet homecoming, it would pale in comparison to the strength he summoned six years ago.

Dr. Derek Brown was just 47 years old when he died of a heart attack. It happened on Dec. 3, 2016, near the finish line of a 10K race at the annual Reggae Marathon in Negril, Jamaica, an event the Browns had enjoyed numerous times with friends from their college days.

Dr. Derek Brown, late father of Notre Dame safety DJ Brown, was a practicing orthodontist in Maryland for nearly two decades.

The race started at Long Bay Beach Park before sunrise at 5:15 a.m. Twelve hours later, after frantic attempts to revive him that included an emergency transfer to a hospital in Montego Bay, the father of three was gone.

His wife, admittedly “in a complete daze,” doesn’t remember what she said when she called home to inform their children. She uses words like “shock” and “disbelief” to describe what her children were experiencing.

“It was hard,” Dr. Liburd said. “It was really hard.”

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Thirteen days later, as the family was about to leave for the funeral at Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie, Md., DJ Brown approached his mother with a solemn request.

“I want to speak,” he said.

She looked at her son, a 16-year-old high school junior, and asked if he was serious. One look at his expressionless face provided the answer.

“I spoke first, and then I let DJ speak,” Dr. Liburd said. “It was absolutely amazing.”

'Above and beyond'

Clutching notecards and keeping his emotions in check, Brown looked out at an overflow gathering of mourners and spoke calmly and firmly about the lessons his loving father had instilled.

All those youth baseball and football practices and games they had shared as player and coach. All those extra pre-dawn workouts he and Trent had gone through at their father’s insistence.

All those reminders of the importance of setting goals and putting in the work required to achieve them, whether that be in soccer or wrestling or track or karate.

(r-l) Notre Dame safety DJ Brown and lifelong friend CJ Thomas wore the green on St. Patrick's Day at an elementary school party. Thomas, now in graduate school at St. John's University, hopes to attend Brown's game against Navy on Saturday, Nov. 12 in Baltimore.

“I think that’s where DJ gets his drive and understanding that he’s got to go above and beyond to be the best,” his mother said. “The whole idea of being a diverse athlete and being exposed to different types of sports was instrumental in his development that Derek was really focused on. I mean, he was fanatical about extra practices.”

She laughed softly at the memory.

“It was almost dizzying the amount of extra stuff that Derek did for all three kids,” Dr. Liburd said of her husband of 20 years. “It was the footwork, it was the speed training, it was always outside of practice. And Derek always told them: ‘I don’t want to hear any excuses. Get your a-- up. We’re going to practice.’ “

Notre Dame safety DJ Brown (left) earned his black belt in karate at age 10 while growing up in Maryland.

And then Dr. Derek Brown’s oldest son put the notecards down and looked out at all those familiar and hurting faces. They nodded and repeated after the poised young man as he recited from memory “Excuses,” the motivational poem that has been an essential part of Black Greek life for as long as anyone can remember.

“Excuses are tools of the incompetent. Those who specialize in excuses seldom excel in anything else.”

At that moment, DJ Brown made it clear to everyone in attendance that this tragedy, while devastating and impossible to comprehend, would not break him. The young man who now holds a finance degree from Notre Dame had listened closely to his father.

Long before becoming a member himself of Kappa Alpha Psi, DJ Brown knew excuses were never allowed.

“Someone told me at the end of the funeral that it was the most inspirational funeral ever,” his mother said. “Everyone has a piece of Derek in them because of the things that he shared with them, whether it was advice or just him lending an ear. It really was an emotional funeral, and I think DJ really brought it home with his ability to speak to how important his father was in his life.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.