Football: Brown recovers at home after life-threatening incident
After junior receiver Roman Wilson caught a game-winning touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter against Harvard in the football team’s homecoming game on Oct. 20, members of the team could not contain their excitement. The sideline erupted with players jumping and yelling, celebrating an inexplicably strong fourth quarter performance and an improbable 39-34 comeback victory.
Miles away from the Princeton sideline, sophomore cornerback Khamal Brown watched his teammates celebrate. He was streaming the ESPN3 feed of the game on an iPad from his hospital bed at Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton.
Less than two weeks earlier, Brown had been rushed to Capital Health after he became sick and unresponsive in afternoon practice on Oct. 9. Doctors performed an emergency operation to drain out blood that had accumulated in his brain and later determined that the rupturing of an arteriovenous malformation — or AVM, an abnormal connection of veins and arteries — had caused the blood spillage.
The AVM was likely present since birth, and there is no reason to believe the rupturing was at all football-related. Brown has been in stable condition since being released from the hospital in late October and will take the spring semester off from school to recover at his home in Atlanta.
In fact, Brown said he was fortunate that the rupture occurred during practice, where teammates were keeping an eye on the skinny, carefree kid from Atlanta whose 51 tackles in 2011 overrode doubts about his 180-pound frame. The assistance of other players and the University’s sports medicine staff proved crucial in helping Brown survive the potentially fatal episode.
“Had I been in my room by myself or something I would have been in trouble,” Brown said. “Football saved my life.”
About midway through the Tuesday afternoon practice, Brown and his former high school teammate, senior receiver Tom Moak, found themselves on opposite ends of a one-on-one drill with receivers going against cornerbacks. Moak, whom head coach Bob Surace ’90 described as a “big-brother mentor” to Brown, said he hadn’t noticed anything unusual in Brown’s behavior during the drill.
During the next period of practice, a special-teams drill, Brown was watching from the sidelines. Moak ran up and down the field as part of the drill, and when he stopped close to where Brown was resting, Brown approached him and said he had a headache.
“He understood that if he ever had a problem he could go to me,” Moak said. “Once I knew he was coming to Princeton, I told his dad that I would look after him and make sure everything was going well for him, and I took that role seriously.”
But Moak had to continue practicing, so he told senior safety Mandela Sheaffer to keep an eye on him. Sheaffer, a Student-Athlete Wellness Leader who had been trained to notice and assist teammates in need of help, was in the same position group as Brown. Sheaffer thought back to a moment during a drill about 10 minutes earlier when Brown said he couldn’t remember what drill he had just done.
“It didn’t seem serious at first,” Sheaffer said, noting that Brown’s statement seemed more like a “brain fart.”
Brown said he recalls having a heavy headache and feeling very confused. The last thing he remembers from that practice is asking a teammate if they had already done special teams, which is one of the final periods and a sign that practice is about to end. Brown had approached some of the coaches by himself and told them he wasn’t feeling well, and they told him to sit down on the sideline.
At that point, Sheaffer, Moak and Brown himself figured he had a concussion. It certainly would not have been unusual, as Surace estimates that six to seven players get concussions each year. But the Ivy League has strict rules to try to prevent head injuries sustained in practices, and this particular practice contained limited contact.
“It felt like I had a concussion, but we didn’t hit during [that] practice, so I couldn’t have gotten one,” Brown said.
While Brown was sitting on the sideline, Sheaffer noticed that his condition began to worsen rapidly.
“It went off a cliff,” Sheaffer said. “He kept saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what’s going on.’ ”
Brown could not remember having conversations he had 10 seconds before. He was crying uncontrollably, and he could not explain why.
Sheaffer grabbed him by the arm and took him over to Director of Athletic Medicine Services Dr. Margot Putukian, who was standing on the sidelines, as she often does toward the end of football practices.
“I don’t know if he even knew he needed help,” Sheaffer said. “I don’t think he was even in a frame of mind to know that he needed help.”
Brown told Putukian he had a headache, and Sheaffer added that he was having trouble remembering things. Putukian, who was granted permission by Brown to speak about his case, also noticed that he was having difficulty focusing. She began conducting a neurologic exam and sideline concussion test. She asked him questions testing his orientation and memory — such as what year it was and whether the team had won its previous game — as well as checking his balance, ability to follow her finger and ability to move his extremities.
Putukian realized quite quickly that Brown was struggling and decided he needed to be transported to the emergency department at University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. Brown was brought off the field in a stretcher and became nauseous.
But the symptoms kept getting worse, which signaled to Putukian that it was something more serious than a concussion. When Brown arrived at Caldwell Fieldhouse, he vomited and then laid down on the floor, saying he wanted to go to sleep. He became much less responsive at that point, and Putukian — an expert on head injuries who has worked with both the NCAA and professional sports leagues on developing concussion regulations — decided Brown needed to be sent to Capital Health, a trauma center with a neurosurgeon who could perform an emergency operation, instead of UMCPP.
Putukian noted that it was critical that Brown’s teammates recognized early on that something was wrong and got him help quickly.
“It’s a reminder for everyone, from the kids all the way up to the coaches, that there can be unusual things that sometimes present themselves in strange ways,” she said.
The ambulance arrived during the last period of practice, where players and coaches still thought Brown had a concussion. Surace took the assistant coaches into the locker room and lost his temper. There had been a program in place for the past two years to prevent concussions, and Surace did not understand how a player could sustain one during a no-contact practice.
“What are we doing in a walkthrough that makes guys get concussions?” an angry Surace asked the other coaches at the time.
When Surace arrived at the hospital 45 minutes after practice and saw Brown on the bed with a tube in his head, he realized it could not have been a concussion after all.
The rupture had caused blood to spill out into his brain, and Brown received immediate surgery when he arrived at the hospital to relieve the pressure in his head from the blood buildup.
Once practice ended, Moak drove to the hospital with sophomore receiver Matt Costello, Brown’s roommate. In the car, Moak got a call from Brown’s father, informing them that Brown was going into surgery. He said he was shocked, but he was relieved once he arrived and saw that the initial operation had been successful.
“I was just glad to see that he was awake and he still had a smile,” Moak said. “He was talking just like his old self. Obviously, he had tubes coming out of his head, but it was just good to see him.”
The operation was successful, and Moak then went to the airport to pick up Brown’s father, who had scrambled to catch one of the last flights from Atlanta.
A few days later, Brown underwent another operation to permanently remove the AVM.
Brown was released from Capital Health toward the end of October. He doesn’t remember much from his time at the hospital; he said he was “in and out” and can’t completely remember visits from teammates and friends. He remembers the last couple days of treatment more clearly, as well as returning home to Atlanta a couple days after his Oct. 29 birthday.
For Surace, the experience of sitting in a hospital waiting to learn of the status of one of his star players was eerily familiar. After he was hired in January 2010, Surace visited former running back Jordan Culbreath ’11 when Culbreath was recovering from aplastic anemia. And last winter, Surace rushed to Philadelphia from a recruiting trip in January to visit running back Chuck Dibilio ’15 after he had a stroke.
“We’re very fortunate to have the people around that helped these events from becoming tragedy,” Surace said, emphasizing that all three incidents were very rare, non-football-related conditions. “All three times, we barely avoided a major tragedy.”
Brown said he has been encouraged throughout his recovery process by thinking back to how well Dibilio — who was his roommate in the Freshman Scholars Institute program in the summer of 2011 — carried himself after suffering the stroke.
“It’s pretty crazy that it happened with both of us,” Brown said. “It was a lot easier to deal knowing that somebody so close has gone through something similar. Seeing him be able to deal with it really helped me. Knowing that it could be done, having someone so close to me go through that made it a little easier on me.”
Finally sure that Brown would be OK, Moak returned to campus on 3 a.m. Wednesday morning after spending the night at the hospital. He said it was difficult to begin preparing for that weekend’s game against Brown while still unsure if his teammate and friend would suffer from any type of long-term cognitive damage. But he found that he and his teammates had something else to motivate them.
“It makes you work harder,” Moak said. “Having Khamal to play for helped us in that game and the Harvard game.”
The Tigers crushed the Bears 19-0 that Saturday. After the game, Moak and Surace traveled to Capital Health to deliver Brown the game ball.
Since being released from the hospital, Brown has been recovering at home in Atlanta. He experienced mild headaches at first but has not had any problems in the past few weeks. He has been running and doing some light lifting, and he said that he’s back to normal, cognitively.
He went back for a checkup in early December, in which doctors cleared him to play football. Brown has just two seasons of eligibility left because he played four games this season, so he does not plan to play next fall when he returns to campus as a sophomore. He hopes to get back on the field by his junior year, and Putukian said that if his recovery continues to go as planned, he would be allowed back on the field for the 2014 season.
Freshman cornerback Anthony Gaffney had a strong season at cornerback this year and was named first-team All-Ivy. Surace said that when Brown returns, he and Gaffney will make an excellent pair of cornerbacks.
Brown was recruited as a wide receiver, but Surace switched him to cornerback during his freshman-year training camp to try to shore up a struggling defense.
“As skinny as Khamal is, he’s one of the toughest guys we’ve ever had. He wasn’t just a cover corner — he was physically a very good tackler,” Surace said. “I thought he’d have the physical ability to cover guys, but I didn’t know how good his tackling would be, and he answered that question freshman year during training camp.”
For the rest of this school year, Sheaffer said teammates will miss the funny, carefree presence of Brown, the breakout rookie who surprised everyone last fall and did not stop excelling on the field until these unfortunate circumstances forced him to.
“He’s always been that young gun, that really skinny kid that can play,” Sheaffer said.
And come September 2014, Brown hopes he can be once again.