When the news about Kelby Brown’s fourth ACL tear came out this month, the universal reaction was one of sadness.
But Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said he has come to see it as an inspiration.
“It was more inspirational, in the end, than I ever dreamed it could have been,” Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe first found out about Brown’s injury via text, and he was out of town and didn’t see it on his phone right away.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Our trainer texted me and said, ‘Kelby hurt his knee. I don’t know yet to what degree. I’m concerned that he has torn it again,” Cutcliffe said. “As soon as I got it, I called. And by that time things were moving fast. We got him into an MRI that afternoon and got the confirmation. By that time I had been on the phone with Kelby, been on the phone with his parents.
“At first, there was hope that maybe, just maybe, it was partial. Maybe the MRI or the examination would provide hope.”
But by the next day, that hope had been extinguished, and Brown’s career was over. A right ACL tear had cost him the 2012 season. Now his left one would keep him sidelined for a second straight season. And as a sixth-year player, that meant his time on the field was done.
Brown, a 2014 team captain who starred at Charlotte Christian, told Cutcliffe he wanted to tell the team.
“I’ll tell you, we were all just crushed,” Cutcliffe said. “But the inspiration was Kelby Brown. He had a big ol’ smile and was handling himself like that champion that he is. He was telling them that he was staying in school, focused on getting his graduate degree in divinity (Christian Studies), that he was looking forward to taking on a different role as a coach. Really it went from being the most horrific thing you could feel to an inspiration.”
Brown, a linebacker who had started 29 of his 32 games in three seasons, instead will be a student assistant this year, so he still will be around the team.
“His presence will still be felt,” linebacker Jeremy Cash said. “The type of person he is, he is staying strong in his faith and his belief that everything happens for a reason. Obviously no one can replace Kelby – those are pretty big shoes to fill – but we have some younger guys that are going to have to step up.”
Before Brown had his surgery, Cash and other teammates joined him on a trip to a nearby lake for his birthday. With person watercrafts and tube rides, they tried to keep his mind off of his impending trip under the knife.
But even another surgery experience didn’t beat Brown down.
“When he had surgery, I went over to his room that night,” Cutcliffe said. “His mom and dad were there, he was surrounded by friends and players, Noel Durphy, our strength coach, and his daughter. In the center of all of this is Kelby sitting in bed, and he is eating hospital food like he is eating the best food on earth. And smiling. And I just shook my head. God is good. He has equipped this guy with everything he needs to be successful.
“I had a conversation with his dad about that. It could be worse. He could be a kid laying there with no other talents, no real opportunities in life outside of football. Kelby is going to do whatever he ends of choosing to want to do, whether it’s being a physician, minister or football coach. Or all three.”