Dustin Browne isn’t the kind of kid people usually take a chance on.
His story began because of his work on the mat. But as he shared his life and the Observer staff heard from those close to him, Browne’s story became about something much more than his impressive record on a high school sports team.
A native of Liberia
Browne, 18, is not perfect. He’s been in trouble on more then a few occasions. He can be tough to predict and quick to feel overwhelmed.
He grew up in Liberia – where the national literacy rate hovers at about 61 percent – with his father. Browne’s mother left the family before he was 1 year old.
His father struggled with the responsibilities of raising children. When Browne was age 8, he and his older brother were sent to live in a foster home in the United States.
Accounts vary, but it’s clear Browne had a tough time during those early years in the States. He was separated from his brother, Charlie, and he bounced around to at least five different foster homes.
According to Browne, the number is “more like six or seven.”
It was at Highland Creek Elementary in Charlotte that Browne, for the first time in his life, had someone really take a chance on him.
He became good friends with Zachary Meade, a student in his fifth-grade class, whose mother, Kim, was a teacher’s aide in the class.
Browne would follow “Ms. Kim,” as he called her, around the classroom and jump at any opportunity to visit his friend’s house.
“A lot of people looked at him like he had behavior issues, and they didn’t see a good future for him,” Kim Meade said. “I always thought that if someone would just love him, then he would be different.”
Three years later, Browne asked the Meades if they’d consider becoming his foster parents.
Shortly thereafter, he moved in with the family.
“It feels a lot better to be with them,” Browne said. “ … My mom left when I was 9 months old. Now, I feel like I have a mom and dad. And when I’m here, I don’t think about my (biological) parents unless they call. That sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. I’m in a better place.”
Abuse, then culture shock
Moving in with the Meades didn’t magically solve all Browne’s problems. Things continued to be difficult for the then-freshman, whose elementary education had suffered.
“It was part(ly) culture shock and part(ly) the abuse that he’d gone through when he was younger that made things tough on Dustin,” Kim Meade said. “He’s had it rough. He was kind of on the streets with no one taking care of him at one time, and he didn’t get a good educational foundation when he was younger.”
Both Browne and Zach Meade joined the wrestling team their freshman years – a decision their mother encouraged.
Zach Meade eventually lost interest, but Browne never has.
He called her ‘Mom’
It was Kim Meade’s biological children – Zach and Carli – who first noticed it.
“Mom, I think Dustin just called you ‘Mom,’ ” they told her.
Kim Meade shook her head.
“No, he didn’t. You guys are hearing things,” she said.
Then, one day, Meade heard Browne call her “Mom.” He quickly corrected himself and apologized to “Ms. Kim.”
“If you feel comfortable, I’d love you to call me that,” Meade answered.
“I think he just wanted someone to say it was OK,” Meade said.
From then on, it was “Mom.”
Struggles with behavior
Browne’s issues remained, however. They ultimately came to a head when his social worker took him out of Mallard Creek and the Meades’ home between his sophomore and junior years.
“He was removed from our home because of his behaviors and was away from us for (almost eight) months,” said Kim Meade, who would pack her family into the car for the 90-minute trip to Browne’s group home for a visit once each week.
Both Browne and the family worked hard to repair their relationships. Eventually he was placed back with the Meades about midway through his junior year.
At first, Browne seemed to have regressed. It was clear that he was worried the only real family he’d ever had might abandon him. It was a wake-up call.
“Things happen for a reason,” Kim Meade said. “I was depressed when he left because, to me, he was my son. Ultimately, it made both of us stronger.”
Mallard Creek agreed to allow Browne back and, according to Kim Meade, has gone above and beyond to support him, as teachers and coaches check in regularly.
“I couldn’t ask for better teachers and coaches,” she said. “They made it happen, too. It’s not just my family; it’s a lot of people that believed in him.”
New coach, new role
Mallard Creek High hired Ben Barry to coach its wrestling team at the beginning of this season, and one of his very first decisions turned more then a few heads.
He named Browne as one of his three senior captains.
“From an outsider’s point of view, he might not have seemed like the right choice,” said Barry, who has led his team to a 21-8 record this season and a second-place showing in the MECKA 8 4A conference championship.
“But I took the gamble and empowered him. I don’t think he would have had the success that he has if I hadn’t. My gut just told me that this boy needed a chance.”
Browne has flourished under Barry’s guidance. He finished the regular season with a record of 42-10 and three tournament wins while wrestling mostly at 138 pounds.
Browne’s style on the mat is one that seems to perfectly suit the now 5-foot-6, athletically-built senior.
“He just wrestles like a natural,” Barry said. “He uses real good instincts. And he’s not afraid, which allows him to do some gutsier moves.
“He goes for whatever feels right inside him. It’s impossible to teach what he does, and, quite honestly, you wouldn’t want to teach kids without his athletic ability to wrestle like he does.”
Almost every match, Barry sees some move from Browne that seemingly comes from out of nowhere.
“There’s been many times where he’ll be on the bottom, reach between his legs and put the guy on his back,” Barry said. “Things you just don’t teach. It’s just his gut instinct; and for him, it works.”
Browne said: “Everything comes natural to me. Just by seeing other people wrestling, I pick up the moves. Through watching television, I can pick up a move. I don’t think about it. It just comes to me.”
Out of his shell
Wrestling has been Browne’s outlet. It’s helped him develop in ways that go far beyond his obvious physical growth.
“For a lot of these guys, wrestling is such an intimate thing – to be out there on the mat and have everyone see if you’re weaker or stronger than someone,” Barry said. “I think Dustin actually craves that. I think he needs that competition and challenge to see how he stacks up.”
Once a quiet, self-conscious kid, Browne has come out of his shell as one of the Mavericks’ captains and most consistent scorers.
“It’s a nice feeling to see how far he’s come,” Kim Meade said. “He’s so happy. All his awards are up on his wall in his bedroom. He never used to look at himself much. Now, he takes a million pictures and videos, and in them, he smiles.
“Dustin and I have been through a lot. I’m very tough on him. I’d love to write a book about the journey we’ve taken. We just need a great ending. I’m so happy with how far he’s come. I’m so proud he’s taken this family, embraced it, and done well. At one time, a lot of people didn’t see the potential in him.”
The Mavericks’ motto this season has been, “Wake up, step up, never give up!”
It’s fitting in Browne’s case.
“When I look back on how far I’ve come since I was a freshman and how people look at me now, it’s something,” he said. “People are like, ‘He went from this to being … not the best, but doing well and showing everyone that he can go out there and give his all.”