When Journey Brown was first told he couldn’t play football again, he laughed in the faces of the people who told him.
In his words, “the math wasn’t matching” because he thought his body felt good, and his mind was sharp prior to the 2020 football season — it’s easy to see why.
In what would be Brown’s final collegiate football game at the 2019 Cotton Bowl, he set the Penn State record for rushing yards in a bowl game with a 202-yard performance against the Memphis Tigers.
Heading into the 2020 season, Brown was in line to be the Nittany Lions’ feature back. However, a routine coronavirus test uncovered what could’ve been a potentially catastrophic discovery had it not been caught.
Brown was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart disease in which the heart muscle becomes thickened, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood. The diagnosis forced Brown to medically retire from football, the sport he’d been playing since the third grade, on Nov. 11, 2020.
“It was a mix of emotions. I started crying, I was yelling, I was mad,” Brown told The Daily Collegian. “Then I realized, what was I going to tell my mom? How was I going to break it to my family? Because at that time I felt like I was letting them down.”
Three years after his diagnosis, Brown is set on a return to competitive sports, only this time it’ll be on NASCAR’s pit lane. Brown didn’t take the fast lane to get there, though.
Brown remained on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff for a little bit to help out with practices, but ultimately had to come to terms with the fact that he couldn’t step on the gridiron again.
The process took “at least a year,” according to Brown. Though, he said it probably would’ve taken longer if it weren’t for his family around him.
Brown couldn’t see himself as anything other than a football player until his family helped change that narrative in his head and showed him he was a lot more than that.
During Brown’s fallout from football, his now-fiancée Deanna Carroll would also do little things to get Brown out of his room, such as going to the grocery store or taking a drive.
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“I was constantly in contact with his family, his coaches, his roommates,” Carroll told the Collegian. “We would all be texting, seeing what we could do for Journey — all that stuff.”
That was when Brown was approached with an offer from the motorsports world.
Soon after his retirement from football, NASCAR approached Brown with an opportunity to get back into sports as a potential pit crew member.
The first time he was offered, however, Brown wasn’t in the right mental space to commit, nor had he ever watched a race in his life.
Brown recalled the only NASCAR-related thing he’d ever watched was the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” starring Will Ferrell.
Weeks after declining NASCAR’s initial offer, Trackhouse Racing’s pit coach Shaun Peet reached out to Brown to check out the team’s headquarters. Brown agreed because he didn’t have a job lined up at the time.
“I thought it was gonna be a bunch of country, redneck backwoods — folks like that, drinking beers,” Brown said, “until I got down here.”
Fast forward a couple years and Brown could be the one changing the tires during live NASCAR races in the future. For the past several months, he’s been on Trackhouse’s developmental pit crew training team as a front-tire changer to eventually become a full-time pit crew member.
Brown has been impressed with the state-of-the-art technology, diverse team, shop cleanliness and the family-like nature that Trackhouse offers.
“It's like a Penn State locker room for cars almost,” Brown said. “So it just kind of dragged me in.”
While NASCAR may not be the most popular sport in the United States, there isn’t a drop in competition by any means, and especially not on Trackhouse’s pit crew. In 2022, Trackhouse’s crew was the fastest in NASCAR, averaging 11.601 seconds per four-tire change.
Since starting outside the top 25 when it made its debut at the 2021 Daytona 500, Trackhouse’s crew has risen to the top of the pit crew rankings. Peet and the rest of the team have been building a culture that looks “for world-class human beings” first and foremost, he said.
“That's why Journey was such a great fit for us,“ Peet told the Collegian. “I mean, if you look at the cards life has dealt him, he has every reason to be jaded at life, but he dances through the doors every day coming into work. We feel you win with people like that.”
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Beyond Brown’s positive attitude, which is something he had to work to get back while he was still reeling, he’s been an extremely fast learner for a guy who’s only NASCAR knowledge when he began this journey was a Will Ferrell movie.
The developmental program completely depends on the person and can take anywhere from six months to two years to complete. According to Peet, though, Brown “had the best first day” Trackhouse has ever seen. Brown just has to combine his ability with the proper work ethic, Peet said.
A lot of Brown's success stems from the lessons he learned during his time on Penn State’s football team, like being detail-oriented. Changing the tires with consistent precision is integral in NASCAR, but running toward linemen and linebackers as a running back also probably helps when Brown has to step out in front of a 3,400-pound racecar to get to the front tire.
“This is not hard for me because I've done something of this caliber before,” Brown said. “I'm very blessed to have been able to go on to Penn State and play at that level because this, to me now, is just another thing that comes natural almost.”
As far as his heart condition goes, NASCAR is a happy medium where Brown doesn’t have to exert himself for too long since he just has to run a 45-pound tire to one side of the car and run back. However, Brown did admit that his teammates tell him to “chill out” at times when the “Penn State football” version of himself comes out during workouts.
Brown has become an ambassador for heart health and said spreading awareness is one of his primary focuses right now, backed by AdventHealth, one of Trackhouse’s sponsors.
Peet said AdventHealth’s connection to Brown and partnership to Trackhouse is the “first NIL deal in NASCAR.”
AdventHealth is also the sponsor of NASCAR’s upcoming race weekend at Kansas Speedway, which will conclude with the AdventHealth 400 on Sunday.
As part of the weekend, Brown participated in a track walk on Friday at Kansas Speedway that offered free EKG’s to fans in attendance to spread heart health awareness.
Brown will serve as the Grand Marshal of the Heart of America 200, a NASCAR truck series race, on Saturday.
“What’s easier, taking a test or losing your life?” Brown said. “If you have any brains at all, it’s an easy choice to make.
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