Rebecca Page’s only link to the NFL is Jason Brown, a fellow North Carolinian, whose connection these days to the NFL is but a footnote. Once the starting center for the St. Louis Rams, Brown was cut free from his $37.5 million contract following the 2011 season. That deal, which he signed as a free agent in 2009, came with a $20 million guarantee. He wasn’t hurting for money when the end came in St. Louis.
Rather than keep chasing pigskin and greenbacks, Brown, then age 28, chose life on a tractor, tilling his 1,000-plus-acre farm, including the many acres he planted in Louisburg, N.C., with the sole intent of giving food away to the hungry.
Brown, 6 feet 3 inches and 315 pounds, is a man with a big heart.
“A genuine, good guy,’’ said Page, a former civil engineer who, through her work with Society of St. Andrew, somewhat by chance became the point person for harvesting Farmer Brown’s crops, including a recent 117,000-pound haul of sweet potatoes. “All of them . . . Jason, his family, his mom and dad . . . they are just plain ol’ good folk. A down-to-earth, close-knit, loving family.’’
None of which Page says she had a clue about before she began hearing word around Durham about Farmer Brown, the former NFL player, and the dream he had for his fertile field of kindness. She initially tried to reach him by telephone at his First Fruits Farm, but to no avail. She poked around a little more, found his place of worship, left a message there. But again . . . no return call.
“Not a peep,’’ she recalled. “I didn’t want to push myself on him. He’s sort of hard to get in touch with.’’
It wasn’t the prospect of sweet potatoes that first caught Page’s eye. It was cucumbers. The story around town was that Farmer Brown was growing cukes, lots of them, a whopping 50 acres of cukes, and all he wanted to do was give them away to the needy. A woman devoted to feeding the hungry likes those kind of numbers.
“One day, out of the blue, I get this call, and the man on the line says, ‘Come and get these cucumbers,’ ’’ said Page, recalling the day she finally heard Brown’s voice. “Honestly, I’d forgotten, it was months after I left the messages . . . it took me a while to remember what it was all about. I said to him, ‘Are you telling me this because you want Society of St. Andrew to harvest them? And he said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ’’
Society of St. Andrew, a national nondenominational organization that helps feed the needy (endhunger.org) is accustomed to such tasks, though not on such a bountiful, massive scale. Page and her SOSA cohorts organize gleaners, volunteers who typically are invited to farms to clean up, or glean, whatever stray turnips or potatoes or squash remain in the ground after a harvest.
With 50 acres of cukes to give away, Brown was proposing something different. Instead of picking up scraps, the vital bits that keep the hungry above the starvation line, Page and the volunteer gleaners were in for a full-scale harvest. The daunting prospect of such a task, Page told Brown, left her feeling as if her heart dropped to her stomach.
“Hey, it’s my first rodeo, too,’’ she remembered Brown telling her.
But the gleaners came, Page orchestrated everyone’s tasks, and the job got done. Ultimately the haul was 170,000 pounds of cukes, all of them pushed out to area shelters, food pantries, and wherever the hungry or their advocates raised a hand.
“Success,’’ recalled Page. “The cucumbers went to those who needed them. No one was hurt in the process. Everyone had fun. At times, it was chaos in the field . . . and people would come up to me and say, ‘This is so organized!’ And I’d be like, ‘Uh, really?’ But I suppose that’s the engineer in me. An engineer’s always trying to make a watch, trying to make order out of chaos. It wasn’t perfect, but we sure got a lot of cucumbers.’’
Brown’s story has gained a lot of national attention in recent days, which is a good thing. In a time when NFL players seem best known for their mistakes and misdeeds, sometimes even their inhumane cruelties, his tale resonates, especially here on the eve of Thanksgiving. He is the multimillionaire former NFLer who had to teach himself how to farm, but needed no tutorial in decency, charity, good will. Such stories are the rarest exception.
“The celebrity and allure of lots of money . . . and all of that that it can afford,’’ mused Page, “my sense is that it didn’t corrupt him.’’
According to Page, Brown has bigger plans for next year. He told her he envisions up to twice as many acres full of sweet potatoes, with even more gleaners to cull them out of the ground. He would like it all to be festive, with music playing, food grilling, kids running here and there.
“I talked to him just last night about it,’’ said Page, reached by telephone midweek, “and he’s saying 10 acres next year. Ten acres! That almost takes my breath away. He wants this big festival, with something like 700 gleaners. We’re doing all this by hand and, honestly, I’m not sure I can get my head around that.’’
Jason Brown’s field is clear, winter awaits, hunger never ends.