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A heart condition forces Penn State running back Journey Brown out of football for good

Brown, the Nittany Lions’ leading rusher last season following his 202-yard performance in the Cotton Bowl, was diagnosed in early September. Second opinions confirmed that he could not play again.

Penn State running back Journey Brown carries during the first half against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl last season.
Penn State running back Journey Brown carries during the first half against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl last season.Read moreRoger Steinman / AP

Penn State’s Journey Brown, a redshirt junior whose sensational late-season performance in 2019 vaulted him to consideration for national awards in the 2020 preseason, must retire from football because of a heart condition, head coach James Franklin announced Wednesday night.

In a statement he released on his Twitter account, Brown identified his ailment as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where abnormal genes in the heart muscle cause the walls of the heart chamber to become thicker than normal, reducing the amount of blood taken in and pumped out to the body with each heartbeat.

Franklin said Brown was first diagnosed with the condition in early September. He said internal testing and second opinions confirmed what doctors at Penn State had thought all along.

“Journey Brown will no longer be able to play football,” he said. “It was discovered through a routine COVID-19 test, although it is not COVID-related. We’ve been working through this and dealing with this as a team. Journey’s one of the most popular and respected players on our team. The entire organization has rallied behind Journey and his family. We need Nittany Nation to do the same, as I know we will.

“Journey’s handled this unbelievably well and I know he’ll be extremely successful in whatever he decides to do. He’s been serving as an assistant coach, running backs coach. He’s been very involved. He’s been traveling to all the games and all those types of things.”

Brown led the Nittany Lions in rushing last year with 890 yards, a 6.9-yard average, and 12 touchdowns. He rolled up 593 yards on the ground in his last five games, including a program bowl-record 202-yard performance in the team’s Cotton Bowl win over Memphis.

Brown’s late burst was remembered in the preseason. The 5-foot-11, 217-pound Brown was named to the watch lists for the Maxwell Award, the Paul Hornung Award, and the Doak Walker Award, and he was named preseason All-Big Ten by two publications.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Franklin said. “When we found out about it, you’re in shock. You feel physically sick about it. So you hurt for the kid. Obviously, it’s magnified because of all the conversations that were going on nationally about Journey and what he was going to be able to do this season. But I’ll tell you, the kid has been phenomenal. He’s handled it better than, I think, anybody I’ve ever been around.”

Brown, who ran a time of 10.43 seconds in 2017 for Meadville High School to break the PIAA Class AA record held by former Penn Wood star and Olympian Leroy Burrell in the 100 meters, sat out his first season at Penn State and carried the ball only eight times as a redshirt freshman before blossoming last year.

“After all the waiting and watching, I finally had the opportunity to showcase what I was born to do, and hopefully set myself up to achieve my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL,” Brown said in his Twitter statement. "Unfortunately, the dream will never be realized.

“The pain of not being able to play the game I love any more hurts and I can’t explain how I am feeling right now. However, I can walk away from the game knowing I truly gave my all at every practice, on every down and in the locker room every day. You never know when you will play your last snap, but I know I left it all out there and have no regrets.”

Franklin often has expressed his admiration for how Brown handled adversity in his life. Since enrolling at Penn State in 2017, Brown has lost his grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, two cousins, and a close friend. When Brown was first diagnosed with his heart condition, Franklin felt he would “stay positive and focus on the blessing.”

On Wednesday, Franklin’s voice cracked when he called Brown “a special kid.” He expressed confidence about his future.

“He’s going to be very successful,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if he wants to stay in football or whatever he decides to do, but he’s going to be unbelievably successful. I know our team is going to continue to support him and rally around him.”