When Ja’Juan Seider took over as Penn State’s running backs coach in 2018, one of the players buried on his depth chart was a track star from a small high school in northwestern Pennsylvania who finished his career with 7,027 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns.
Redshirt freshman Journey Brown rushed the ball only eight times that season as the team’s fifth running back. He was one of four backs in Seider’s room in 2019 and split playing time with the others before exploding in the final five games to become one of the Big Ten’s top rushers entering this season.
This was supposed to be Brown’s time, using his blend of speed and size (5-foot-11, 217 pounds) to attract NFL scouts. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., had him as his No. 4 running back in the draft. But a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy ended Brown’s season before it could start, and forced him on Wednesday to give up football for good.
And no one felt worse over Brown’s fate than his position coach.
“It’s tough, man,” Seider said Thursday in a Zoom conference call with the media. "We were just starting to see the best of this kid. No doubt in my mind he was going to be the best running back in college football. It [stinks] he had to go through this because I know how hard he worked up to this point. The kid didn’t take a break this whole offseason. Now I’m just trying to help him find what’s next.
“There was so much adversity and he never let it break him. Just a tremendous kid, my heart breaks for him because it’s more than football. He’s like a son to me and it hurts because I can’t do anything. That’s kind of where I’m at with it.”
Since the season began, Brown has worked as an unofficial assistant coach working with the running backs — sophomore starter Devyn Ford and two freshmen, but without sophomore Noah Cain, who suffered a season-ending injury on the Lions' initial possession of the season.
“He’s doing a great job of mentoring them,” Seider said. "A cool thing for him, he finally felt like what he was to Saquon [Barkley] and Miles [Sanders] – ‘I’m the big guy, the big brother that these young guys want to look up to.’
“And not just the running back room, because everybody will tell you in this program, he affected everybody, every position. That’s the type of kid he is. He’s just an affectionate person. When he comes around, your day gets brighter because of the type of attitude that he puts out there in front of you.”
Brown, of Meadville, Pa., led the Lions in rushing last season with 890 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. His season was capped by a 202-yard performance at the Cotton Bowl, the most rushing yards by a Penn State back in a bowl game.
In an interview last April, Seider said Brown showed abundant patience and an excellent work ethic, learning his first two years in the program what it takes to be an elite college running back and translate his speed (a record 10.43 seconds in the high school 100 meters) to football.
“He’s got freakish athletic ability and strength that he’s finally tapping into,” Seider said then. “The thing that I was so impressed with in the bowl game was finally getting him to play as fast as he is. I thought he finally started to trust his track speed to football.”
While Seider has welcomed Brown’s mentoring of the running backs, he said the most important part is helping Brown continue a path to his degree as a recreation, park and tourism management major.
“Without football, you’ve got to look to something else,” he said. “I know he was motivated and driven to get to the NFL, which we all felt like he was on that path to do. Now it’s just try to find out what’s next. I don’t want to push coaching on him. I want it to be something that he wants to do. But I think the most important part is to keep him engaged, keep him doing stuff, instead of sitting home in the apartment and having that pity party.
"I don’t know where it’s going to go for him, but I’m happy he’s here with us. That’s what I tell him all the time: ‘Man, listen, I know it [stinks] that it’s over right now. But I’d rather have you here for the next 40-50 years of my life knowing that you’re alive until we figure out what’s next.’ So I’m going to be diligent in that part of it, helping him grow, taking that next step.”