A Sisters Bond: Brown's Past Keeps Her Fighting Everyday
SPOKANE, Wash. - Gonzaga University women's soccer senior Susan Brown has long been used to fighting tooth-and-nail inside the white lines of the soccer pitch; fighting to win the ball, fighting fatigue in the final minutes of a match and even fighting the urge to relax when her team finally has the lead.
What you wouldn't know is that what has happened in her past is what keeps her fighting to move forward every day.
The goalkeeper from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is part of a big family, five older half-sisters, two younger sisters, a younger brother, along with a step-sister and step-brother.
Her younger sister Megan was born when she was three and a half and when her other younger sister Kristy was two. Megan, born with a hepatic hemangioendothelioma - a blood tumor - on her liver, only was able to grace this world for five months before passing away due to congestive heart failure.
"I wasn't old enough at the time to know what was going on," remembered Brown of the moment 17 years ago. "It was easy to forget, but once Kristy and I got older we were determined to incorporate something into our lives that helped us remember that Megan did live; albeit a short time, and she was very significant in our family."
The idea Brown and Kristy came up with was a tattoo that would incorporate two sets of wings with the word 'Sisters' in the middle. Their mom, Diana, wasn't too keen on the idea but embraced it when Brown turned 18.
"We had the idea for about a year before finally getting them," explained Brown. "We both got the tattoos on our back and decided to honor not only Megan but to make it about all our sisters."
Brown wouldn't know how significant honoring all her sisters with the tattoo would become until a year and a half later.
She was in the midst of her sophomore season at Arkansas State University when her then-boyfriend John Ellis got a call from Brown's mom saying she and her stepfather, Peter, were heading to the states. John of course spilled the beans to Brown that her parents were coming for what both thought was a 'surprise' visit.
"I was so excited," recalled Brown. "I posted all this stuff on Facebook about my parents coming to Arkansas and then I get to the airport to pick them up and my mom is bawling her eyes out."
Frantic moments passed as she tried to figure out why her mom was crying. She went through the list in her head; did her real father, Leo, pass away? Did her younger brother Billy - the reckless and invincible one who at that time was into dirt biking - get hurt?
Brown was finally told her sister Kristy had passed away the night before.
"I was stuck on the whole Billy thing," explained Brown. "When my mom told me it was Kristy, I didn't believe it. She wasn't a bad kid, had a good job and had a boyfriend. Nothing she did would make me believe she would put her life in danger."
What Brown would come to find out is Kristy didn't put her life in danger, it was a rare heart issue that killed her.
"She passed away in her sleep," said Brown. "She was having full, lucid text conversations the night before and then the texts just stopped. My mom found her in bed the next morning and her heart had stopped."
Brown and Kristy had a rocky relationship growing up. When her parents divorced, Kristy went and lived with her dad, Leo and there was a period of four or five years where Brown didn't see or talk to her but then, during Kristy's freshman year in 2008, she moved back in with them. In 2009 Brown went away to college but in the 10 months before she passed away, they got a lot closer.
"Kristy and I had an up-and-down relationship," Brown said. "We got a lot closer when I left for college. I think both of us realized what a big connection we had. We put away our differences. I called her all the time for advice, we talked a lot, we confided in each other."
The night before Kristy passed away, Brown had Skype'd with her for nearly an hour, talking as sisters do, about everything and anything. Kristy even had changed her Facebook profile picture to a picture of the 'Sister's' tattoo that night.
"The comfort I got in everything was that we did have such a good relationship. I was at peace with what happened because of that," said Brown
A hectic week followed, which included flying home for Kristy's funeral. Brown would return to Arkansas State a week later to close out the 2010 fall semester.
Her first stop when returning to campus was a meeting with her soccer coach. Two weeks later she would have surgery on her right shoulder. Three days after her surgery Brown was told her scholarship wasn't going to be renewed.
Brown, already struggling with the death of Kristy, was lost. She wondered if any team was going to take her having just come off shoulder surgery and admits it was a scary few weeks.
"A lot was thrown at me in a three-week period," explained Brown with a big exhale. "It would have been really easy for me to fold; my scholarship was gone, my family was going through all this stuff but I knew Kristy would have been so pissed at me for not continuing to fight. She knew where my mind was with soccer and would have beaten me if I quit because of her."
Brown, drowning in grief and the unknown, found light when she reconnected with Derek Pittman, the head coach at Arkansas State her freshman year, who was then the associate head coach at Gonzaga.
"Derek was the first one I contacted when my scholarship wasn't renewed," remembered Brown. "I was looking for him to be a reference for me, but in the end they needed a goalkeeper and the familiarity with Derek led me to Gonzaga."
She made a significant impact with the Zags in 2011, her first season at GU, and is now in her final year as a Bulldog. She admits her new optimistic outlook on life has her pushing herself as far as she can go on the field and has her wanting to fight to take this program to the next level.
"I have fought through a lot in my life," Brown said honestly. "I have a lot of scars; scars are part of my past. They aren't ugly scars; they are reminders of what I have gone through and what I have persevered through. I believe for me to keep fighting is what continues to help me make it through. There is never going to be a point in time I am not thinking of my two sisters that passed away. Those memories help me push on; help me make it through all the hurt and pain. If I can get through that I can get through anything."
The memories of her sisters will be with her Friday when she and the Bulldogs look to take down Pacfic-12 Conference member Oregon State in the program's first nationally-televised game. GU faces the Beavers Friday at 4 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks.