As a former standout running back at Penn State and an NFL veteran with the Houston Oilers, San Diego Chargers and New York Giants, Gary Brown learned to overcome obstacles with hard work, discipline and a positive outlook.
As running backs coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he preaches the same message to his players. It’s one that has worked for him on and off the field, considering he has also overcome the double whammy of having kidney and colon cancer at the same time.
But now Brown finds himself in a fight he can’t control — a situation he can’t battle with hard work and determination. His 15-year-old daughter, Malena, his first-born and a freshman at Keller High School, has chronic myeloid leukemia and needs a bone marrow transfusion to ensure her long-term survival and improve her quality of life.
No one in their family is a match.
So Brown and his family are partnering with Children’s Medical Center and Bethematch.org in hosting a bone marrow donor registration drive Friday, fittingly on Valentine’s Day, at various Children’s Medical Center locations across North Texas.
“I’m trying to hang in there,” Brown said. “The whole bone marrow thing is scary. With no match, it’s even scarier. We have to pray we are going to find one. We don’t have a timetable. All we know is it’s not going to be good if she doesn’t get one.”
Currently, there are no matches for Malena on the national bone marrow registry. Making it doubly tough for Brown’s family is that she is bi-racial. Her dad is black and her mom, Kim, is white.
Blacks make up only 7 percent of the entire registry and it’s just 4 percent for people of mixed races. According to the Bethematch.org, only 66 percent of blacks compared to 93 percent of whites find matches at all. Again, that number is lower for those of multi-race backgrounds.
This is the reason Brown is trying to use his prominence as an NFL coach to help his daughter as well as create awareness in the black community and other ethnic groups about the desperate need for bone marrow donors.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing,” Brown said. “I don’t know if we are aware of the need or what. But as an African-American, I have to be a voice and let people know we need to be more representation in the registry. This is about my baby girl, but it’s also about so many other people in need.”
It certainly has been quite the year for Brown and his family — putting the frustration of another disappointing 8-8 season for the Cowboys in perspective.
He was hired by the Cowboys in January after being fired following the 2012 season along with the rest of the staff in Cleveland. He moved to Dallas to begin coaching while the family stayed back to finish the school year.
On May 28, a few weeks before the family was to move to Dallas and roughly two years to the day that Brown had colon cancer surgery, Malena was diagnosed with leukemia.
To her credit, Malena has tried to stay positive. She acknowledges having her low moments, crying to herself in her room, but remains optimistic.
“It’s been up and down,” Malena said. “When I first was diagnosed, it was hard. It was the same hospital that my dad had his surgery in. But it was also a relief knowing what was wrong with me. It’s scary, but I try to stay positive. My family and friends keep me positive. I know everything is going to be OK in the end.”
Again, it’s been quite the ordeal for Malena, who not only found out she was moving away from her friends, but diagnosed with cancer and had to start over at a new school.
“I’m a social person,” Malena said. “I make friends easy. It was hard to tell them I had cancer. I don’t want them to freak out. Then it was awkward when I had to wear a mask at school.”
Of course having a sense of humor helps.
The craziest question she got from a student was “how did you get cancer?”
“I was like, ‘I don’t know. I guess I went to the store to pick it up,’ ” Malena deadpanned. And because she looks healthy and beautiful, kids have asked if she really has cancer, causing her to stare in wonderment.
What wasn’t funny were the weekly blood transfusions and having to miss the past three months of school because of her cancer. She returned to school Wednesday for the first time since October. She is feeling better.
It also helps that football season is over and Gary is home every night. There were times during the fall when he would leave the Cowboys’ facility and head straight to the hospital to be with his daughter. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett were very supportive, allowing Brown to leave when necessary to be by Malena’s side.
Most of the time it was his wife, Kim, who provided the emotional support for Malena and their other two children, Tre, 8, and Dorianna, 10. Kim was the one making the weekly trips from Keller to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.
“I haven’t had a decent night sleep since May 28,” Kim said. “If I knew there was a perfect match for Malena, it would be easier to deal with. I’ve leaned on my family. I leaned on God. I’ve leaned on my husband.
“Gary has the football mentality of learning how to handle losses, adversities or facing change by staying positive and moving on. But this is totally out of our hands. This is something you just can’t fix. It’s in the hands of the doctors and the Good Lord above. All we can do is pray and hope for the best.”
What they need is a bone marrow match. What they need is people, especially of color and of bi-racial heritage, to get registered to help Malena and thousands of other cancer patients who need transplants.
“This is bigger than football for me,” Brown said. “You put so much time and work in it that losing a game hurts. But I come home and my daughter is dealing with life or death. So I am asking people, everyone to get registered.
“It’s not hard and it’s not invasive. It’s a just a swab on the cheek to get registered. You have to be at least 18 to be put in the registry. We are trying to find a match for her so we can keep her here.”