March 1, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It was a bright December morning, and Katherine Brown was sitting on a bench overlooking San Diego Bay. The warming sun was almost tardy, slipping from the skyline behind her, and enveloping the walkers and the strollers in that perfect moment that only the City by the Sea can offer. In the distance, Coronado Island - with its warships and its vacationers - lay waiting the transition that would take it from the sunrise in the east to the stunning sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
A lady she was, this mother of the guy who was in his third season as the Texas Longhorns football coach. And yet, she was so much more than just that.
If it is from our parents that we get our qualities, Mack Brown was definitely his mother's son. In his dedication of the book, "One Heartbeat," he had written this: "To Dad and Granddad, whose examples led me to become a coach...to Mom and Grandmother, for their strong will and confidence...."
Katherine Brown exuded that. If you sought words to describe her, one would be "strength" and another would be "passion." Mixed with all of that would be "grace" and "dogged determination." Above all, Katherine Brown was a fighter.
Her last battle ended Sunday, when the ravages of pancreatic cancer finally won out over a human spirit that would reluctantly leave the confines we have come to know as our earthly body. When I think of Katherine, I will take some liberties with the great country gospel song the Kyle Sisters made famous here in Austin.
"I'll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan," they sang. "I'll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand...." More appropriately for Katherine, it should be "I'll be waiting, hitting golf balls from the sand."
Sports, and her kids were her life for 81 years. Folks in Cookeville, Tennessee, say the only child of "Jelly" and Mary Ellen Watson may have been the best basketball player ever in the county. She was a cheerleader and intramural champion at badminton and tennis at Tennessee Tech University, she finished as high as fourth in a national seniors golf tournament, and at least a half-dozen times she won the city championship - even though she didn't take up the game of golf until she was 59.
With three sons - Watson, Mack, and Mel, Jr. - she celebrated successes and was both a confidant and an example of how to treat people. She was a mirror of her outgoing, football coaching, Dad, and possessed the wise and thoughtful ways of her mother as well. It isn't hard to see why Mack is Mack, when you study the Mom who was in his life for his 58 years.
That is why the scene in San Diego is so vivid. There she was, her bright eyes reflecting a smile that always seemed to come from within. She had the same dry sense of humor that she gave to her son, the Texas football coach, and she loved to laugh. She was swapping stories with singer Larry Gatlin, and greeting strangers wearing burnt orange and Oregon green. And when I heard she was so sick, it was there that I wished I could take her back to.
Or maybe, better still, to January 4, 2006, when she got to celebrate her 77th birthday with a BCS National Championship. She had reminded Mack before the game, "You know, January 4 is my birthday."
To which Mack replied, "For at least 52 of my 54 years, I have known your birthday, Mom."
Such was the relationship of the mother and the son. As a pain of undiscovered origin began to attack her body, trips to Austin and bowl games got fewer and fewer for Katherine Brown. That National Championship game in the Rose Bowl was her last trip to a Texas bowl game. But with e-mails and text messages, and almost daily phone calls, Tennessee and Texas stayed close.
At the same time, Katherine had moved from a golf course home in Florida back to the foothills of the Tennessee mountains, to Cookeville - her home and place where she had raised her three sons. There, her youngest son Mel was one of the city's most liked people. Soon, oldest son Watson, a distinguished college football coach in his own right, moved back to coach at the local university and her alma mater, Tennessee Tech.
She lived her final days in a house not far from the small farm from whence they would travel to see Watson and Mack play football at Putnam County Senior High. When the two went off to college, Katherine and her husband, Melvin, Sr., would load young Mel into the back of their Oldsmobile and head to the games of the Vanderbilt Commodores and eventually the Florida State Seminoles. One of her toughest moments came when as coaches, Mack's team played Watson's. Hard for a Mom to choose sides, especially when she was bust-your-buttons proud and the biggest cheerleader for both of them.
What people remember about Katherine is the same thing folks think of at Texas when they talk about her middle son, Mack. She was genuine. She had a great gift, the ability to spare no words and tell you exactly what she thought - to be frank and honest and caring and heartfelt at the same time.
By the time Mack came to Texas, his Dad and Jelly and Mary Ellen Watson had died. Only Katherine remained from the deep roots from which the sons were raised. When Watson moved to Tennessee Tech, it wasn't unusual to see Katherine at their games or at one of his press conferences. For years, after Mack and Sally Brown had taken their summer vacation to the mountains of North Carolina, he and the brothers would gather at the end of the time, just before he and Watson began their fall training. Wherever Mom was, they would congregate for a visit and a golf game.
People were special to her, because she was special to people. Gatlin, a Grammy award winner, drove the 80-plus miles in the snow from Nashville to Cookeville to sing gospel songs to her when he heard she was ill. Vince Young pulled off the side of the road on his way from practice for the Pro Bowl in Florida and called her. Hundreds of text messages and phone calls came in support.
In the book, "The Match," the author includes a tribute to the late golfer Byron Nelson that was delivered by Ken Venturi at Nelson's funeral. And again, with apologies, here is a version just for Katherine Brown:
"This is a day that had to come," he began. "but we never prepare for it.
"Some people come into our lives and quietly go away. Others stay for a while and leave footprints in our hearts and we're never the same because of it. They give strength in times of weakness, courage in times of fear. And love in times of doubt....
"There is a deep loss and sorrow in times like this. But there couldn't be a lot of sorrow unless there was a lot of happiness."
Every time I think of Katherine Brown I will smile.
Thursday night Mack Brown had rushed to Cookeville to see his Mom, expecting to find her in a coma. Instead, she was awake and asking for him. That was the fighter she was. Mack flew back to Austin for the Longhorns' first practices Friday and Saturday, and returned to Tennessee Saturday night. As he was leaving practice on Saturday morning, headed for visits with junior recruits in Austin, Mack talked about the pain, and the fact that God has a way of sending his angels to carry home those who are hurting so.
"She's had a good life, and I had a great Mom for 58 years," he said, and then he added as his voice trailed: "But I will miss her...because I like her."
Katherine Brown sat by the Bay, as the sun rose over the city. She was, in order, a mother, a lady, an athlete, a great storyteller, a better listener, and most of all, a friend.
Funeral arrangements are pending and will be posted at www.MackBrown-TexasFootball.com when available.