GREENVILLE, N.C. — The 11-hour bus ride from Greenville, N.C., to Orlando was excruciatingly long for the East Carolina University football team, but particularly so for wide receiver Trevon Brown.
While his team was riding away from a storm, Brown's family was stuck in the middle of Hurricane Florence.
With no cell-phone reception, Brown felt helpless.
"It was tough, not being able to talk to my mom and sisters and them, … it was tough just not being able to hear their voice[s] and what was going on," Brown said this week after a morning ECU practice.
While Brown and his teammates face a major challenge when East Carolina visits Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Saturday's American Athletic Conference game, it can't compare with the devastation his family dealt with last month.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Brown is a tough-as-nails receiver, a certified NFL prospect, but his grit can't match that of his mother and two sisters during the storm's torrential rain and flooding.
His family lives in Wilmington, N.C., known for being the hometown of NBA legend Michael Jordan.
A little more than two hours southeast of Greenville, Wilmington was among the cities that suffered considerable damage from the storm.
"We have had $220 million so far" in damage from hurricane, "and that was as of last week, and we have over 1 million cubic yards of debris that are on the streets," Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo said.
Throughout the city, crews can be seen picking up debris.
"In Wilmington, it was about 32 inches, and, in some isolated spots, 40 inches, so it was a considerable amount of rain," Saffo said. "It was a slow-moving storm and did a lot of damage, and we have a lot of cleanup to do."
Brown's mother, Twanna Brown, had to evacuate her Wilmington apartment. She stayed briefly at the apartment of the girlfriend of another son, Marcus Johnson. She also stayed at a hotel for a few nights before returning.
Brown's sisters faced a much-greater challenge.
At first, they and their nine children stayed with Johnson and his child, but squeezing into a two-bedroom apartment was trying.
In addition, one of the sisters, Tasheena Barnes, had the roof of her Wilmington home cave in, making it uninhabitable. The other sister, Lateshia Hill, had so much damage to her apartment, and the odor was so pungent, that she could barely use it.
The sisters looked into staying at shelters, but they were full.
"Plus, two of the shelters ended up being damaged, and they had to be evacuated," Barnes said. "We couldn't find a place."
Hill and her four children stayed with her mother at first, but the apartment was too small.
"The kids came back, and they slept on the floor, but it was uncomfortable, and they had to find something different," Twanna Brown said.
The sisters eventually decided to live out of their cars. For eight days and seven nights, Barnes and her five children and Hill and her four children slept in their two vans outside Hill's apartment complex.
"Sleeping in the van was horrible — the kids were uncomfortable, aggravated and hot," Barnes said.
The only respite from the searing heat came from the vans' air conditioners.
"We did what we had to do by sticking together," Hill said.
Getting a good night's sleep was a major challenge.
"We had to take turns sleeping, because it was pitch black, and one of us had to watch the kids," Barnes said.
Twanna Brown was able to cook and bring over food every day.
The family also saw the charitable side of others. One person donated 10 gallons of gas.
"The different resources, the churches, and other organizations, really did a good job helping everybody out," Twanna Brown said.
Performing in face of adversity
Facing the threat of Florence, ECU announced on Sept. 11 that the football team would not travel to Blacksburg, Va., to play its scheduled game that Saturday at Virginia Tech. On Sept. 12, the team boarded a bus on its Greenville campus for Orlando, to prepare for its next game, at South Florida, in Tampa, on Sept. 22.
Greenville didn't get hit as hard as projected. The university weather station recorded 8.98 inches of rain from noon, Wednesday, through 5 a.m., Monday, an ECU official said.
ECU (2-2) practiced in Orlando before playing in Tampa, losing, 20-13, to one of the best teams in the conference. An 80-yard South Florida touchdown run broke the 13-13 tie in the fourth quarter.
Brown had a productive game, catching six passes for 99 yards. He was still worried about his family, even though he was able to communicate with them. Still, playing the game was difficult.
"It was tough, but I had to come to the conclusion that, between the lines, I had to think about football, and my future for my family, and I believe that if I did the right thing and played well on the field, I was setting up to give them a better life," Brown said. "Even though this situation happened, that is the mindset I kind of had, but it was also tough to think about."
Before the game, he received a major pep talk from his mother.
"I told Trevon, 'Don't worry about us; just go out and play your game, and we will be all right,' " his mother said.
Brown has faced his share of adversity, including being forced to sit out the 2016 season for academic reasons. He rebounded from that and is slated to graduate in December with a degree in entrepreneurship.
"He wanted to leave last year [for the NFL], and I told him, 'Trevon, don't leave without that degree,' " his mother said.
For Brown, that is a source of pride.
"I would be the first in my family to graduate from college," he said. "It would be a blessing to be a college graduate and would make my mom so happy."
The NFL remains a realistic dream.
"He is a National Football League player," ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said. "He frames the ball as well as anybody I have been around. He is a playmaker, really physical. He is 215 pounds and 6-2, a big man."
If the NFL becomes a reality, Brown, the youngest of the four children, hopes to take care of his close-knit family.
"It would mean everything for me to be in the NFL just to help out my family," he said.
And that is why, while he is relieved that his family survived the hurricane, the pain of the ordeal won't go away.
"For something like that to happen, it just made me sick to my stomach what everybody had to go through," Brown said.
And, just as his mother reassured him during the hurricane, Brown did the same to his family.
"I told them it is just a matter of time when all our lives are going to change."