A Tale of Two Athletes

August 2016. Robin Afamefuna steps onto the grounds of the University of Virginia for the first time; it was his first time in the state of Virginia, his first time visiting an American university. One year earlier, he was playing club soccer he was in the talent factory for Borussia Monchengladbach, one of the most successful clubs in Germany’s highest league, the Bundesliga. For Robin and other soccer players rising through the ranks of European super-clubs, his logical next step was not necessarily a move to the United States. But after a turn of events, and two years later, Robin is the captain of the University of Virginia’s top-ten ranked soccer team.

August 2016. Anzel Viljoen enters the University of Virginia as a first year, her first time stepping onto the grounds of the university. A little under a year earlier in November 2015, she graduated high school in New Zealand. Her path to the next level of athletics could have gone two different ways, but she chose the one less travelled in moving to the United States. After navigating the recruiting process on her own, Anzel landed a spot on a nationally ranked American field hockey team. Two years later, Anzel is a regular on the field hockey team, even landing a spot on the 2017 All-ACC Academic Team.

The two athletes are now thriving as students and as athletes at the University of Virginia, but how did they end up in the small town of Charlottesville, VA after growing up on opposite sides of the world?

Robin Afamefuna, 2018. Photo: UVA Media Relations

Robin Afamefuna graduated high school in 2015, with plans of pursuing a professional soccer career. Growing up in the youth clubs of Germany’s Bundesliga, his future looked bright. His plan changed after tearing his meniscus, forced to sit out for the next six months. “[Robin] was starting to think of different options” when a recruiting agency, Monaco Sportstipendium, sparked his interest in American universities. This was a new, exciting opportunity, and Robin decided to pursue a collegiate soccer career, training under coaches in the United States. Through this presentation, his path to the United States became clear: complete a few placement tests, send out a highlight tape, and wait for the offers. Robin’s talent caught the eye of many schools, and quickly received attention. Overwhelmed with choices, Robin “received about 28 offers from different colleges. I had all those names in front of me and no idea which colleges were the best ones, so I had to do all the research.” While the agency spread the word about his talent, Robin was on his own when it came down to his decision. “After the coaching staff reached out to me, I finally made my decision to come to UVa. Because the whole program, academics and athletics, was just so good.” Robin made a difficult decision in leaving Germany, but he felt that it was the best opportunity for him to create his own path in soccer.

Anzel Viljoen, 2018. Photo: UVA Media Relations

Anzel Viljoen had some friends attending American universities, but didn’t know much about the schools or even the different field hockey programs. It was a tough decision between going to a completely new country or staying in New Zealand for school, and it was definitely not the most common, as most of Anzel’s childhood friends did not move for school. The opportunity to pursue both academics and athletics was one she had to take, as it would help her reach her athletic and career goals for the future. Once deciding she wanted to play field hockey for a university, Anzel got straight to work. While most players used the agency system to assist in their recruiting process, she “decided really late that I wanted to come to the US, so I just took all the film that I had of playing in New Zealand and made a recruiting video and then just looked up the top ten schools in America for field hockey and sent out an email to all of their coaches.” Seems simple, but her path to UVa consisted of endless paperwork, eligibility checks, and communication with coaches. Anzel felt she was one of the only players to not use an agency. After a few Skype calls with the head coaches, discussing her place on the team, her decision was made clear. Her meticulous research on each team that showed interest proved that UVa’s program was the best option for Anzel; academically and athletically.

Men’s soccer, with 12.1%, and women’s field hockey, with 10.2%, are two sports with the highest percentages of international student athletes on their team in Division I athletics. Regardless of the sport, it is apparent that the number of internationals on these college teams is increasing. Talented athletes around the world have a decision to make in high school: to pursue their sport at the next level, or to pursue academics. For American students, the college athletics system has made it possible for the youth to pursue both. This is something that most take for granted, but it is not an option in most other countries. Robin shared his thoughts on the matter.

In Germany, we only have the chance to focus on one, academics and athletics are completely separated from each other. I feel like more and more people are trying to take advantage of that.

Robin Afamefuna

Academics and athletics are unrelated in most other countries, so most athletes choose to focus on their sport full time. It is typical for athletes to disregard university as an option, as they are trying to make teams and stay fit. Therefore, in Robin’s eyes, “it’s pretty dangerous to be honest, let’s say you fail, don’t get that trial or tryout, usually you’re just like there and don’t have anything.” One of Robin’s deciding factors was the two-in-one aspect of American universities; he could train under award-winning coaches while receiving a world-class education.

Gaining a degree while playing a sport gives international athletes something to fall back on, which is very enticing. For sports where it is difficult to create a professional career, such as field hockey, there are different incentives. Athletic scholarships do not exist in international universities, Anzel shares that “You can go to university and play your sport, it’s just you don’t get scholarships for it at all because it’s a separate thing, you won’t be playing for your university.” While sports such as field hockey do still have regional and national club teams, there are fewer incentives to maintain both, and most likely only the serious will continue to play.

Playing sports in college is a normal path for high school athletes in America, but internationally, not as much. It has become more popular for internationals to come to America because they are serious about both athletics and academics, and there are now more opportunities to pursue both through the NCAA program. With the growth of technology like Skype, YouTube, and social media, there are fewer barriers between countries when it comes to athletes and coaches. The college coaches have access to a broader range of talent, and are willing to give scholarship spots to internationals, since they have proven their dedication to their sport. In fact, the NCAA publishes that there are 17,000 international student athletes from across the world active in college athletics today.

As the pool of international talent grows, so has the industry of college recruiting. So-called “college recruiting agencies” have emerged to serve as a liaison between the international athlete and American universities. These are present in almost every country, and promise exposure to American universities in exchange for a fee, and it isn’t necessarily a small one. These agencies tour around to clubs for every sport, selling their ‘product’ of a potential scholarship to prominent colleges in the United States.

A typical recruiting website

The process seems simple: “you pay [the agency], and they take care of everything for you. They reach out to all the schools, and do all the communication for you. So really you don’t have to do anything apart from be good at your sport.” Anzel explained her view on the agency process, a route that she chose not to take by dealing with the process herself. “I preferred [doing it on my own]. But if you’re not the type of person who likes to just get things done on your own, it is helpful to have someone else. Because it is a lot of paperwork, and they can really help you settle into coming.” Shown on the right, agencies such as Monaco Sportstipendium show American universities in the best light, comparing it to college movies and showing packed stadiums at powerhouses such as Ohio State and Alabama.

Robin and Anzel came from completely different parts of the world, growing up with different plans for their futures, and different ways they believed they would get there. Both were very dedicated to their sport while also dedicated to gaining a higher education. Though the two athletes came from opposite sides of the world, they are both successful today at the University of Virginia, and believe that their paths will be followed in the future. As the barriers to entry for international student athletes are lowered, college athletics will continue to match the levels of diversity that are seen on in the wider campus body.

References

Jara, Evelyn S. “U.S. Collegiate Athletics: International Student Athletes Recruiting Process.” University of South Carolina, 2015.

“MONACO SPORTStipendium | Persönliche Betreuung Aus München.” MONACO SPORTStipendium – Robin Afamefuna Über Sein Fußball Stipendium in Amerika Mit Monaco Sportstipendium, www.monaco-sportstipendium.de/.

Powell, R. “International Student-Athletes.” NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA, 18 May 2018, www.ncaa.org/student-athletes/future/international-student-athletes.


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Life and Tennis: One and the Same

Note: All images used in this article have been provided through the courtesy of the Wiersholm family.

Just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes, California, Henrik Wiersholm reflects on the career he’s had and the one he hopes to achieve. All his life, he has been working to be the best tennis player he can possibly be, with dreams of playing the professional circuits and shaping his life in the mold of tennis. With three NCAA Championships at the University of Virginia, Henrik’s time in college has been nothing but decorated by success. But, approaching his final season in college, he must rebound from an injury that sidelined him from his passion for nearly a year, forcing him to contemplate for the first time who he is without a racket and a ball. In essence, he has come to confront the daunting uncertainty of what life has in store for him once collegiate tennis ends.

Henrik, currently 21 years old, has been playing tennis since he was five, when his parents bought a membership for the closest gym to their Kirkland, Washington home. That gym happened to also be a tennis club, and soon enough Henrik started hitting balls to himself off the wall with a tiny racket. Before long, his parents enrolled him in lessons, and even though no one knew it quite yet, he began what would eventually become his life’s passion.

Early on, his family realized the potential Henrik had and introduced him to the Junior Circuit once he was old enough. If a player wants any shot at going pro, “Tennis is one of those sports where you really have to start young,” Henrik says. So, by the age of 11, he and his family started travelling around the United States to various tennis tournaments. Once he finished middle school, he and his family started to go international, playing in some of the most elite tournaments in the world.

 

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By the age of 15, Henrik had already won the U.S. Juniors National Championships in both singles and doubles, in addition to winning the ITF 14-and-under Junior World Championships in the Czech Republic the year before.

After much discussion, Henrik said goodbye to his parents and sister after his freshman year of high school and traveled to the exact opposite corner of the country to move into the dorms of a tennis boarding school in Boca Raton, Florida. There, he trained and competed every day in an academic and athletic environment much more conducive to his lifestyle. He recognized the need to mature as well, and soon found himself with a professional mentality and work ethic unlike anything he had back home in Kirkland.

Henrik admits he was convinced he was going to play professional tennis when he was just a freshman in high school. As the third-ranked recruit in his graduating class, college was an afterthought. It was just a step along the way to reaching his ultimate goal and dream of playing among the best on the pro circuit. But after years of playing by himself and for himself, Henrik fell in love with a whole new kind of tennis when he began his collegiate career in the fall of 2018 at the age of 17.

Professional tennis is often viewed as an extremely singular sport, where players are more or less on their own, save for a few coaches and trainers. This is not the case at all in collegiate tennis, where winning an individual match is meaningless if the team falters. So, when Henrik found himself playing for the University of Virginia, fighting for and with the guys around him, he was in decidedly uncharted personal territory.

As usual, Henrik didn’t need much help adjusting to a new home. He didn’t even need much help adjusting to his rigorous training and academic schedule. Instead, Henrik found himself in the same place for months at a time and a part of something bigger than himself, two things that he had not experienced in years.

Adapting to college tennis “is one of the most challenging things [a player] can transition into,” said Henrik’s former UVA coach Brian Boland. “There is so much that they have to be responsible for”, but in Henrik’s case he came into Virginia “with the proper values, coming from a great home.”

For the first time since his childhood, he realized that the goal was not only to improve his own game, but those of his teammates as well. Henrik soon embodied the notion, as the team camaraderie and friendship he found at UVA provided a much-needed balance to the extreme mental toll tennis can exert on an athlete. According to Coach Boland, Henrik “epitomized everything any coach would want in a student athlete. He is a leader, student, player, friend, and teammate.”

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Even in the more team-oriented arena of college tennis, the sport still possesses the psychological impact of an individually focused game. “It’s easy to tie your value or your identity as a person to your success on the court,” Henrik says, explaining that “In tennis, if you lose a match, it’s no one else’s fault. You have to be introspective and ask ‘Okay, what did I do wrong?’ Because there’s no one else on the court to take the blame.”

Henrik has experienced some truly remarkable highs during his time at UVA. Henrik has a 32-1 record in ACC regular season singles matches, and has earned a spot on numerous all-tournament and all-conference teams since his first year. In addition, each of his first three seasons resulted in a hard-fought, sweetly earned NCAA Championship. In his second trip to the NCAA Finals, he delivered the title-clinching match, seeing all of the hard work and dedication crystallize into a single moment as his teammates swarmed toward him, yelling and celebrating another national title.

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Then, just before his fourth and final season, Henrik ceased all tennis activity.

A few months before in the ACC Tournament, Henrik stretched out for a ball and immediately felt a pull in his shoulder. Grimacing in pain, he fought through it and played all the way through the NCAA Championships and into the summer, until one match in July when the pain became too much to bear, and Henrik had no choice but to shut down his training. Returning to UVA, Henrik went through a battery of tests revealing a partial rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder. As his worst nightmare became a reality, doctors told him he could not play tennis for the next nine months if he wished to compete again.

Henrik had never faced an injury that kept him out of tennis for a prolonged stretch, let alone one that prevented him from basic practice. Devastated, he would be left to stand on the sidelines, taking a medical red-shirt in what would have been his last collegiate season before finally realizing his dream of playing in the professional circuits.

Instead, he was faced with rehab five days a week, total restriction on lifting with his upper body, and nine months without playing the sport he loved.

Soon enough, it began to drive him crazy.

Henrik has sculpted this mindset since childhood, to the point where it became second nature, an integral part of who he is. But, this mentality didn’t necessarily translate to the world of rehabilitation. He was used to competing mentally against his opponents and keeping his calm in a match, not waiting patiently in doctors’ offices and being told to stay off the court he desperately wanted to get back on.

“Tennis is very cerebral. There is a ton of strategy that goes into how you approach each match, and even each point,” Henrik explains. When a player steps on the court, he or she becomes their own coach, responsible for all adjustments, decisions, and mental checks. Tennis is a sport that constantly poses new problems that require new answers for every point, game, and set won or lost. Through it all, Henrik says, it is extremely difficult to keep discipline and a cool head.

Henrik had no idea what to do or expect after his injury. He reflected, explaining that “Tennis definitely becomes a part of your identity, and you can get it associated in your head that you are a tennis player. That is what you do, that is all you do. When you get hurt, you can’t play. You can’t possibly identify yourself as a tennis player during that time. So, you have to figure out, ‘Who am I really?’”

The five or more hours of his day carved out for tennis were suddenly freed up. He threw himself into academics, spent time with friends, and even picked up a guitar and started to learn. However, everything he tried didn’t feel quite right, not like it would if he were playing.

For the first time in his life, Henrik had to seriously reflect on who he was outside of tennis. It wasn’t easy, as he recalls how “There were days that were dark, there were days where I was wondering, ‘Will I be able to play again?’” It’s a feeling that every athlete hopes they will never experience, and one that Henrik had to struggle mightily with. So many athletes encompass themselves in their sport, and for good reason. It is hard to be the best when one doesn’t dedicate their life to their sport. But when things slow down, or even threaten to stop altogether, life outside the niche world of elite athletics comes into focus.

For some, it is absolutely terrifying.

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Henrik has had moments where he’s felt slightly burned out. He’s also had moments where he feels that he could have worked harder. But if Henrik has learned anything from his injury, it is that tennis is where he belongs, tennis is a part of who he is, and he loves nothing more than walking onto the court and competing.

Always thoughtful of the opportunities he’s possessed, Henrik has come out of his recovery with a new outlook and appreciation for not just tennis itself, but the value he has gained from it. Henrik explains that tennis is not all about winning championships, describing how “You’re so sure that it’s going to make you happy… but in the end you realize it’s all about the daily process of getting to that point.” Winning the championship is undoubtedly one of the best feelings there is, but he emphasizes that “Just living it all the right way – that’s where you really draw your sense of value from the whole experience,” not with a single moment, but as a collective whole.

Collegiate tennis has been a passion of Henrik’s since the moment it began, and with his fourth season approaching this spring, he is ready to embrace it one final time. But now as he stays with his friend in a Palos Verdes apartment, Henrik is pensive about what his path will be after UVA. He knows he could be playing for five years or twenty, but no matter what life throws at him, he will be ready. Although he does not have a certain idea of what his life might be like in a few years, Henrik knows that he’ll tackle that question just like each one he faces on the court: with a fierce determination and a will to succeed.

When asked what he is most anticipating after his UVA career is over, Henrik responds that he’s just excited to see how good he can be. He’s never been able to treat tennis as a profession and fully give his all to the sport that has become such a tremendous part of his life. He’s never been able to spend all day on the court fine-tuning his stroke or hit the weight room to condition his body the best he can. For him, that is all he can ask for going forward, and Henrik is ready to become the best player he knows he is capable of being.

After five years of calling one place home, he’ll hit the road once again, tackling tournaments across the country – and the world – like he once did as a teenager. Where he’ll call home will become uncertain. It could be in certain tennis hubs such as Los Angeles or Florida, or it could even be in Charlottesville. Wherever it is, he’s excited for the challenges he’ll face, the mental games he’ll play, and the problems on the court he’ll have to solve.

Tennis has been a part of Henrik’s life for as long as he can remember. It has made him the man he is today, and he could not be happier to be a tennis player. But, as he learned when he was diagnosed with a partial rotator cuff tear, the sport that has given him so much could disappear from his life in an instant. This is true not only for Henrik, but anyone who has ever loved a sport.

Henrik, after experiencing nine months away from tennis, is perhaps one of the lucky few who can fully understand what their game means to them. As he eventually moves into the world of professional tennis, that realization will be valuable, and it will also make every game, set, and match that much sweeter.

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Andrew Brown’s journey to the NFL practice squad

Bengal fans begin to fill the stadium for the first preseason game of 2018. As game time approaches, the cheers get louder and adrenaline begins to rush throughout the stadium. After endless hours of preparation, the team charges out of the locker room onto the field. A few of them are rookies, experiencing the out-of-body feeling for the first time. The audience meets them with a roar of appreciation and eagerness to get this 2018 season started.

In the fourth quarter, the Bengal’s defense lined up for a snap. To fans, this pre-season game was insignificant to their year. But to rookie Andrew Brown, fifth round pick, he would remember it forever. It was his first appearance in the NFL, and the beginning of a lot of change.

“Hut! Hut! Hut!” The throaty grunt was followed by 26 players dogpiling into a mass of people, legs and helmets poking out here and there. After the aggressive shoving and colorful language calmed down, the players begin to pick themselves up and the mass begins to slowly disperse. But one player took a little longer to rise. Andrew Brown gripped his hamstring with a winced face. He had been playing football long enough to know that something was wrong. Coaches and trainers guided Brown to the sideline and then the training room where they informed him of news he did not want to hear.

Brown had torn his hamstring in his first NFL game appearance. At this moment, Brown’s outlook on football took a 360° turn from when he began the sport.

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When Andrew was just 10 years old, his mother, Sonia Carter, died after a long fight with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and two bouts of breast cancer. “The death of my mom at such a young age molded me into the man I am today. I was able to deal with adversity, rise above it and become something of it.”

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After the death of his mom, football was his escape during his developmental years. He found his second family there, the coaches that had his best interests in mind. He made a majority of his childhood memories through it. “As a child, I was obsessed with the game of football. I wanted to play it every chance I had.” He explained how he spent countless afternoons on the field. Not because anyone forced him to, but because he loved the game. It just so happened that he was pretty good at it as well.

Brown’s high school years are heralded with accolades and unbelievable statistics. In his senior season he recorded 93 tackles, 30 for a loss, 18 sacks and forced nine fumbles. This continued domination led to Brown becoming a two-time USA Today All-American, ESPN’s No. 1 defensive tackle recruit, 2013 Gatorade High School Football Player of the Year and many more.

“I remember receiving each award in high school. Even the smaller ones, I wanted to remember that experience.” In July 2014, Brown received one of the highest awards a high school football player could be awarded. He had the opportunity to walk the red carpet at the ESPY Awards as Gatorade Player of the Year. He stopped to snap pictures with NBA star Kevin Durant and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Three years later, Brown recalls the exact feeling, “Just the look in my dad’s eyes, to see how proud he was of me. That definitely touched me and made me want to go back as a result of my accomplishments.”

IMG_6451.PNGThis was a highlight in Brown’s football memories. He remembers the satisfaction and joy that this sport had brought him and that led him to this moment. During his trip to L.A., Brown was able to get to know number one draft pick, Karl Towns. “It was an experience that I’ll never forget. I became best friends with Karl from that experience. I still talk to him from time to time.”

Meeting Durant, Winston and Towns is not his sole memory from that night. But rather his steadfast desire to earn his way back to the red carpet. At this point in his life, football began to take on a bigger meaning. He saw how his efforts could impact his future. Brown could only imagine what his next four years at UVa would hold, but he hoped that his love for the sport, his talent and his support system would guide him to the next level.

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Brown began at the University of Virginia in 2014, where he held the Defensive End position. When talking with Brown in his Senior year of college, the future of his football career was up in the air. He knew that, but he reacted with the maturity that he had learned throughout his life. “I believe that everything happens for a reason. I put a lot of faith in God to decide where I will end up.”

Brown had showcased his talents throughout his junior season and had emerged for his senior season with a resounding boom. Despite many injuries, the 6’4” senior, regarded as one of the most heralded recruits in UVa history, has lived up to the expectation. “This year’s more of an aggressive approach because it is my final year and I have to show the NFL scouts that I can play the run versus just a third down player. I’ve played the run better than I’ve ever done in my career.”

NFL talk crept in when explaining how friendships have an impact on staying with the sport. Brown still found time to talk with those that got him to this point. This included a childhood friend, Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama defensive end. The two five-star recruits formed a mutual support for one another and a love for the game. “I still talk to Da’Shaun a lot. We just sit down and talk about our problems and what our motives are. We’ve come to a collective agreement that were here for one goal and one goal only and that’s to make it to the NFL and make our families proud of us.” At this point, Brown viewed football as his potential career after college. That automatically put a more serious tone on his outlook of practice and games.

When asked if there was an individual who motivated him to finish off his final season at UVa dominantly, Brown answered, “If I could narrow it down to one, it would be my mom over top of anything. That’s my number one motivating factor to get through everything.” Brown also turns to his faith. “Growing up my grandmother kept me in the church a lot. Ever since the days when my mom would pinch me to keep me awake.” The tougher days had helped him appreciate the uncertainty of his future in the NFL at the time.

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A lot can change in one year. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Andrew Brown in the fifth round of the NFL draft. He had dreamt of this day for quite a while. “I had just gotten out of the shower and saw that a Cincinnati area code was calling. I looked over at the TV and saw Cincinnati was up to pick next.”

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There were tougher days ahead. His outlook on football would change drastically. Throughout middle school, high school and college, football was Brown’s source of family, friends and enjoyment. After his hamstring injury in his first preseason game, Brown was placed on the practice squad. He took on a different tone when discussing football in the NFL. The emotion behind the sport had been removed, it was more methodical. “My outlook has changed not by viewing football as more of a job but more of a business and that emotions cannot be mixed in with it.”

He told one reporter that his mindset was “to show everybody that the five-star Andrew Brown never went anywhere, I’ve always been here.” His statements are a little more guarded and defensive. The days of “I believe that everything happens for a reason” are replaced with “never feel complacent. Because someone out there is always working to take your job.”

Brown spent two months letting his hamstring injury heal, and worked his way back to practice. Brown was then reminded how quickly things can change in the NFL. On November 15th, Brown broke his hand during practice. Reporter’s called this a “season-ending injury.” The Bengals shelved Brown and placed him on the injured reserve list.

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The life of a IR and practice squad player in the NFL is riddled with emotional ups and downs of fighting for a spot on the active roster. NFL teams can place up to ten players on their practice squad. They can earn a minimum of $6,900 per week during the season, and can be cut at any point. If a practice squad player is cut, there is a 24-hour dead period where another team can claim them for their active roster. If he does not receive an offer from anyone else, he heads home.

When you think of an NFL player, you think of those playing on Sunday or at least standing on the sidelines. There are ten other players who are either watching from the stands or on the television from their couch. During the week, practice squad players are the first to enter the locker room. They spend countless additional hours studying playbooks and film in order to know that week’s opponent. Practice squad players have to be prepared to fill in for active players during practice. This may be the only chance they have to play with the active roster for the week.

Andrew Brown knows that any day could be his last. This period of limbo has tested him to a level he could not have expected. “There’s a lot of ups and downs right now. I’m working harder than I ever have and I know how close I am to seeing my dream.”

From pouring his feelings into football after the death of his mother, to his journey to the red carpet and now fighting to keep his career alive – Brown has been forced to re-conceptualize what the sport means to him.

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