Nearly a year ago, on Oct. 13, 2020, Columbia athlete Josh Brown literally hung upside down in midair milliseconds after taking a direct hit to his left knee on a 3-yard touchdown run in the first round of the playoffs against Hazlehurst. In the moment, he thought it was like any other big hit, but as he was on the ground after being somersaulted, he knew something wasn’t quite right.
Columbia receiver Kentrell Jackson, who Brown considers to be his brother, ran over to celebrate the touchdown, but Brown told him to wait a second to see if he could walk it off. The first step he took, it felt like his knee was sliding out of place, and he knew something wasn’t right. Jackson knew it, too, when he saw Brown’s first step and tried to catch him. Brown took a few more steps towards the sideline before he confirmed it with himself.
“Something wasn’t right, so I just sat on down,” he said.
When Columbia trainer Nicole Keys ran out to check on him, her face gave it all away to Brown — his season was over. Once on the sideline, Keys called Dr. Nathan Darby, a physician at Hattiesburg Clinic Orthopedics & Sports Medicine where Keys works during the day, further confirming the bad news for Brown.
“I knew something was really wrong then,” he said.
That something turned out to be a torn ACL, an injury that could derail any athlete’s career for good if not treated and rehabilitated correctly. Brown went under the knife Dec. 29 and spent a couple of rough nights in the hospital, but he said his family and the friends who visited made it easier to bear the excruciating post-operative pain.
Columbia head coach Chip Bilderback said it was tough seeing what Brown went through because everyone in the program loves Brown.
“We know how much Josh loves football and how much me puts forth to football. To see him struggle and go through that injury during the fun part of the year — the month of November — took a little bit out of us,” he said.
It took a lot out of Brown not being able to play in the rest of the playoffs. He said he thinks he cried after every game, knowing he could have made a difference. Keys said that in the beginning, it took some time for Brown to understand the process of his recovery, but once he understood it and got over the hurt of missing the playoffs, his mindset shifted to doing whatever he could to get back for his senior year.
Recovering from a serious surgery is as hard mentally as it is physically. If someone doesn’t fully dedicate themselves to the physical therapy and put in the work outside of therapy sessions, it takes a lot longer to heal. Oftentimes, those people never get back to 100%. But Brown is wired differently. It was never a question of if he would return but when.
“I knew it was going to be tough, but I knew it wasn’t going to be that tough because of the type of person I am,” he said. “I was dedicated to get back, and the people around me were counting on me to get back and come back stronger.”
Brown’s worst moments during physical therapy, like so many others recovering from orthopedic surgery, was stretching his knee to regain his range of motion. At the end of every rehab session, the physical therapist stretched out Brown’s knee, but it wasn’t just stretching. Because the goal is to recover full range of motion, the physical therapist has to push harder and harder to force the leg to bend, which can be excessively painful.
“That hurt the most, trying to get my motion back,” Brown said.
The rest of his rehab, which consisted of squats, leg presses, heel stretches, high knees and more, was relatively easy for Brown though. He viewed it no differently than working out in the weight room — it was just another part of “the grind.” The main aspect of his recovery, however, was being consistent. If he reached a new angle in his range of motion in one session but didn’t work at it in the days leading up to his next one, he would lose that progress he made. Once he figured that out, Brown never let up.
“Josh has worked so hard and really hasn’t had many moments of discouragement,” Bilderback said. “He’s always been level-headed, knowing that this is just another chapter to (his) story.”
Brown was cleared late during the summer and believed he would be back to his old self once he stepped back on the field, but that wasn’t the case. He learned early on that he was still progressing week to week, but he said he never felt like he wasn’t going to get all the way back. In fact, he said he knew he was going to be the same explosive athlete that electrified Wildcat fans every Friday night, and there really was no other choice.
“I put too much work in not to come back through all my years,” he said.
Leading up to the season, the plan was for Brown to miss the season opener Aug. 27 at Mendenhall and potentially Week 2 against East Marion as well. But he kept progressing faster than he, Keys and Bilderback expected, and he came back against Mendenhall to catch four passes for 34 yards.
“It felt great to be back out there,” Brown said. “Now I’m just playing football.”
The Mendenhall game was just the beginning. Brown has been electric this season as a receiver with 40 receptions for 401 yards and three touchdowns and 72 yards on two carries as a rusher. His 40 receptions are by far the most of any receiver in Marion County, with the next closest player having just 12. He even dusted off his old quarterback days against Poplarville, throwing a 5-yard touchdown to Wildcats quarterback Carter Smith on a reverse pass.
Bilderback said it’s really been fun watching Brown get better and better each week and get back to playing like the Josh Brown who could take it to the house from anywhere on the field. Keys added that seeing Brown return to the field was a great achievement and is what you strive for as an athletic trainer.
“You see the work end of it, and you also see the greatest part of it. To see him able to come back and be 100% was overwhelming,” she said.
During his sophomore and junior seasons, Brown was used more as a rushing threat, running for 901 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging 9.9 yards per carry. He’s settled into his role as a true receiver this year, but the Wildcats still find other ways to get him the ball through pop passes on jet sweeps and occasionally lining him up at quarterback.
Brown’s recovery wouldn’t have been possible without Keys. While she isn’t a physical therapist, Keys learned about all of the things Brown needed to do to continue his rehab away from the clinic and put him through workouts every single day at Columbia High School.
“Everything,” Brown said of what he owes Keys for his recovery. “She really spent every day and all the time with me. Every day, during the summer, too. You could just tell she really cares about me genuinely and really wants what’s best for me.”
Keys tries to go above and beyond for every athlete she treats, and she said once the goal was set for Brown to get back for his senior year, she made it her business to make sure he would play his senior year.
Brown also credits his “Day-1s,” for being there for him every step of the way — Jackson, Peyton Anderson, Jonathan Wiltz and CJ Magee.
The plan is for Brown to play collegiately and major in sports administration. He already has several scholarship offers, including a Division I offer from Central Arkansas. He hopes to hold out in case of receiving better Division I offers — though Central Arkansas is still in consideration — but if he ends up choosing the junior college route, he will play at Jones College.
But for right now, Brown has his sights set on just one thing — state. As close as the Wildcats have been to reaching a state championship in recent years, Brown said he believes this year’s group is the best one he’s been a part of, which stems from how close-knit the Wildcats are. It’s showed up on the field, too, for Brown and the Wildcats, who are 8-1 and currently ranked No. 1 in Class 4A.
All that’s left for Brown is to hoist a state championship trophy Dec. 4 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson.