The sanctuary of Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church was filled and overflowing Tuesday with more than 600 Tabor College students and staff, community members, and coaches and athletes from around central Kansas who came together to weave and be wrapped in a blanket of love and comfort as they paid tribute at memorial service for Tabor student-athlete Brandon Brown.
Brown, a redshirt junior on the football team who transferred to Tabor from Santa Ana (Calif.) Community College, passed away Saturday from injuries he sustained Sept. 16 in an assault in McPherson.
“We don’t understand God, we don’t understand his ways,” said Tabor College President Jules Glanzer. “But he understands us. God understands the pain of losing a son and losing a friend.”
Brown’s academic adviser, Aleen Ratzlaff, said football was a means to a greater end for Brown.
“In deciding to come to Tabor, his goal was to get his life on track, earn his college degree, and to be the father he needed to be for his two children. Football was going to make that possible.”
Smiles and laughter mingled with tears as a slide presentation of Brown with family, friends, and teammates played.
Tabor vice president of enrollment Rusty Allen challenged those assembled to bring meaning to Brown’s death.
“What if Brandon’s tragedy moves us to following Christ more intentionally so that our world becomes more like God intended it?” Allen asked.
As the service came to a close, people were mostly silent as they walked out of the church. Hugs and conversation gradually picked up as a long line of students headed back to campus. Tabor canceled afternoon classes so students could spend time together.
Above the sizzling of burgers and fries at the snack bar in the student union, the sounds of voices singing along to a ukulele could be heard. Many football players were gathered around, and junior defensive lineman Lepanona Fuimaono was jamming on the uke.
“This is Brandon’s favorite song,” Fuimaono said, as he started playing Usher’s “Nice and Slow.”
Fuimaono later explained the music was part of his Samoan heritage.
“We call it jamming sessions back home,” Fuimaono said. “Before funerals we will cook and have jamming sessions. It makes us relax and not think about too much.”
Three hours later, Fuimaono and more than a dozen players and students were still there, singing, talking, and working on paintings.
“We’ve got a lot of funny stories, too many funny stories,” Fuimaono said.
“He imitates the Star Wars character, what’s its name? Yeah, Ewoks,” Fuimaono said, laughing at the memory of the 6-foot 3-inch, 280-pound Brown mimicking the miniature creatures.
Junior linebacker Ilai Eteaki and Brown played defense together at Santa Ana before joining the Bluejays this fall.
“As soon as he found out I was coming and the other guys were coming, he wanted to come because he could get a degree and better himself,” Eteaki said.
While they are still in shock, the players said the team is motivated by Brown’s example and memory.
“More fire, more will to play for him — we want to play hard,” Fuimaono said.
“Sometimes people take practice for granted and just want to go out there and get it over with,” Eteaki said. “You look at it from Brandon’s situation, he really wanted to be here and play. Even when he was fighting for his life it just showed. It makes people appreciate the time you have and just work harder.”
The tragedy has led to personal growth as well.
“It makes us more humble, it makes us stronger inside, it makes us a different person. It taught us alot of lessons,” Fuimaono said.
“Some people pray when it’s bad, when you should pray either way. You should always have your faith in God, good, bad, medium, small, whatever. That’s something I learned coming here,” Eteaki said.
The show of support for the team has been gratifying and overwhelming, Eteaki said.
“It’s nothing like what I would see back home. Here it’s random people who don’t even know Brandon,” Eteaki said. “Back home we would have more support from people who know Brandon, but here it’s like none of these people actually knew Brandon, and they still come out to support us. I thought that was pretty cool.”