today is Dec 05, 2021

Alex Brown’s mom wanted him to be a dancer or a singer/songwriter, but instead, he became a star quarterback for his high school football team. So his mom did what moms do and threw herself into her son’s passion until she knew this unfamiliar sport inside and out.

She became the loudest mom in the stands at Red Bank Catholic, the mom who often gave his offensive linemen pep talks before games. And what a sight that was: Michelle Eskengren-Brown, a former fashion model from Sweden whose body was ravaged by cancer, standing at the center of a huddle and barking instructions at a bunch burly teenagers.

“You go KILL them and PROTECT him!” Eskengren-Brown would holler, and the half-grinning linemen would promise to do as they were told as her oldest son beamed.

Alex Brown was still referring to his mom in present tense as he told this story, and that’s understandable. He still believes his mother is with him on this wild football journey, and given all that has happened over the past two weeks, no one can offer a better explanation.

Eskengren-Brown lost her 13-year battle with breast cancer on Nov. 11. The next day, Brown had the game of his life in a 58-34 win over Morris Catholic in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA Non-Public B playoffs. He passed for 238 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for another 76 yards and two touchdowns, pointing to the sky after each time reached the end zone.

Eight touchdowns. And that was just the beginning.

“Yesterday, I lost my amazing mother. Today, I scored eight touchdowns, thank you for watching over me mama,” he tweeted before he fell asleep that night with a video clip from the game, and in the hours that followed, the sports world wrapped him in a hug and still hasn’t let go.

ESPN picked up the story on its Instagram page, and NFL legend Tom Brady — one of Brown’s heroes — responded with words of encouragement. Several TV networks and cable news stations got wind of what happened, with some asking Brown for an interview. The NFL reached out, with commissioner Roger Goodell telling Brown about his losing his own mother to breast cancer.

It was overwhelming, so Brown did the only thing that felt right. He kept telling stories about the woman who has inspired his football career.

He kept talking about his mom.

“My mom was an awesome person,” he told me this week. “She was kind, caring, loving woman, insanely strong as everyone knows now, very artistic. She was a tough girl but she was very fun. I can name a million things. What stays with me the most was how she would always care for everybody else before she cared for herself.”

This has been a difficult month for high school sports in New Jersey. In Wall, a town is reeling from hazing allegations that have dredged up years of systemic bullying. In Union, a community was stunned when a school superintendent prematurely canceled a playoff game because of COVID-19 and then sued to reverse his own decision. In Ramapo, a legendary head coach collapsed during a practice and later died in emergency surgery, gone at 59.

Brown’s story is a reminder of all the good that can come from high school athletics, and it’s one we should all be grateful for this Thanksgiving. This was a sad tale, to be sure — ˜I still cry everyday,” he said — but also one about a team and a sport that rallied around a family in need.

And, at the middle of it, there’s a strong teenager who loves his mother.

“I didn’t even think she was going to be able to come to the games this year, and knowing she was there watching us — watching me — was a great feeling” said Brown, who will play collegiately at Bucknell next season. “I can’t even describe how proud and happy I was to see her in the stands.

“She would send me videos when she couldn’t be at the games when she was too tired or the chemo became too much. She would send me videos screaming in the house, ‘Go get them!’ And when she was at the games, she was always the loudest, even at the end.”

He remembers the early days in her battle with breast cancer. Eskengren-Brown had hair that Alex described as “awesome and long and beautiful.” He and his younger brother, Markus, adored it. She knew she might lose it because of the chemotherapy, so she slowly prepared them for that day. She cut it shoulder length at first, then cropped it short, then bleached it blonde so they didn’t freak out as it started to fall out.

Eskengren-Brown, a successful New York City casting director whose friends included supermodel Cindy Crawford, never wanted her illness to keep her sons from enjoying their childhood. She did everything she could to keep things normal in their Rumson home, and when the illness worsened near the end, she was often the one apologizing to her boys.

“I was like, ‘Mom, you can’t say that,’” Alex Brown said. “She didn’t want me to deal with all of this as a child, but God has a plan, and if this is what it’s meant to be, then she just made me stronger. I thank her every day for that.”

He has shown that strength, not just on the football field but in how he has handled everything else — the well wishers, the interview requests, the school work.

Mike Lange, the Red Bank Catholic coach, wasn’t sure what to expect when he visited the family’s home the day Eskengren-Brown died. He said goodbye to his quarterback, not knowing when Brown would be ready to rejoin the team.

“I’ll see you at practice in 20 minutes,” Brown told him.

Red Bank Catholic topped St. Joseph of Hammonton, 21-10, in the Non-Public B semifinals Friday night, with Brown scoring twice in the second half to complete a comeback. The team now will play DePaul on Friday at 7 p.m. at MetLife Stadium for the Non-Public B title.

Brown knows he likely is in for a flood of emotions when this run ends. Following Eskengren-Brown’s wishes, the family will have a party to celebrate his mother’s life in the coming weeks, and after that, will spread her ashes at their favorite vacation spot.

First, though, there’s another game. And with another game, there’s a chance to tell his mother’s story and honor her with his performance.

“She was sick a very long time,” Alex Brown said. “That’s why, as much as it was sad, I was happy that she’s in a better place. I love my mom and I miss her every day, and I still cry about it, but I didn’t want to see her suffer any more. I just couldn’t see her in pain any more.

“She’s still watching over me because none of this stuff would have happened without her. And I know that for a fact. I just keep reminding everyone that this is all for her.”

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Steve Politi may be reached at spoliti@njadvancemedia.com .

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