In the spring of 2007, Brandon Brown was at a crossroads.
Academics were about to keep him off the football field for the season. Despite having a full scholarship to play cornerback at UC Davis, he was struggling to make ends meet financially. And there were family issues back home in Los Angeles.
Brown was left to wonder why.
“I was trying to figure out
why I was in school,” Brown said. “I was here at Davis, and I had just switched my major from English to history, and I was wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’ I didn’t even know what I wanted.“
He knew what he was supposed to do.
He was supposed to continue following the wishes of his family.
All his life, Brown had been pushed by his mother, Linda Adkins, to go to college. By the time he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 2004, she saw to it that Brown was only two classes away from earning his associate of arts degree.
“She’s always told me, ‘You need to be a lawyer for the family. You need to make money and get your cousins out of jail,‘” Brown said. “My whole family had all these expectations and all this stuff that they all wanted me to do.“
But Brown couldn’t become a lawyer – he had to choose his own path. He had to follow his passion.
“I started to think of what I wanted to do, and I cook all the time,” Brown said. “Whenever people come to my house to visit, I make them something to eat. I ask them, ‘Are you hungry?’ and if they’re hungry, I cook them up something. I’ve experimented with all sorts of recipes, and I’ve just been inventing my own stuff all the time. So I realized that this is maybe what I want to do.“
In October, Brown made up his mind. He withdrew from UC Davis to pursue culinary arts school.
But to follow one passion, he had to say goodbye to another.
The academically ineligible Brown met with head football coach Bob Biggs in his office and told him he wouldn’t be returning to the program.
“I told him, ‘Thank you,‘” Brown said. “‘You gave me an opportunity, and I’m sorry that I ruined it. I don’t want it to seem like all kids from the inner city that you give a chance to will be the same as me. I’m just a different person, and I just have a different path in my life, and I’m sorry. I know that I’m going to miss football, and I just want to thank you.‘”
Brown felt like he had let his coach down, but Biggs knew Brown had off-the-field issues to address.
“He could never really get himself focused on just being a student and being a football player,” Biggs said. “Just too many other things going on.“
Brown shifted his focus away from his studies and toward improving his cooking skills. He held a bake sale for his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and eventually created his own business, Brandon Brown’s Cookies and Goodies, under which he sells baked goods and caters events.
He did this all while his mother didn’t know of his withdrawal from school. But she found out eventually.
Right around Christmas time, Brown’s fraternity brothers let the news slip to his aunt, who told his mother. Soon thereafter, Brown’s phone rang, and it was his mother on the other end.
She wasn’t calling to discuss holiday gift baskets.
“She was like, ‘What the heck‘ – expletive here – ‘What the heck are you doing? Take your butt back to school,‘” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Mom, this is what I want to do,‘ and she said, ‘That’s nice, but you’re the first one in the family of your generation to go to college. It means a lot to your family.‘ So I said, ‘OK. I’ll put what I want on hold for the good of the family because it’s important.‘”
Brown returned to UC Davis this quarter, but things haven’t been the same as when he left. Because of his academic ineligibility, he couldn’t return to the football program, which he says “hurt like hell.“
Still, Brown believes he is better off for having taken a leave of absence from school. For the first time in his life, he knows what he wants to do.
“One hundred percent, hands down, this is it,” Brown said. “I want to be a culinary chef. I want to have my own restaurant someday. I want to have my own Food Network show.
“College is about finding yourself, and yeah, I’ve found myself. Through this whole process, through the ups and the downs, I’ve found that cooking is what I want to do – it’s what I do best, and it’s what I have a passion for. When you can go someplace and love what you’re doing, it’s not really a job anymore. It’s fun. You’re getting paid to have fun.“
He’s even managed to win over his toughest critic.
In April, his mother called him, and gave him her blessing.
“That was the biggest weight off my shoulder,” Brown said. “That was validation. I have the go-ahead, the green light. All my life she’s been on me about being all this other stuff, and finally she is letting me have some control over what I want to do.“
Now, Brown is looking to make her proud.
The first time he ever cooked was when he was eight years old and he made his mother breakfast for Mother’s Day.
“She wouldn’t even eat it,” Brown said. “There were scrambled eggs that were burnt. I made some nasty, lumpy cream of wheat. I made some pancakes, and they looked nice on the outside, but inside they were all gooey.“
This November, Brown plans to come home early and show her how far he has come. Alongside his grandmother, who taught him basic cooking, Brown will prepare the family’s annual Thanksgiving feast.
“My mom will eat it, and we won’t tell her [I made the food] until she has it,” Brown said. “She’ll love it, and then I’ll say, ‘See, Mom. See that. I did all of that. That was me.“
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.