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HAZELWOOD: Brown persevered through pain to maximize athletic career

Mark Hazelwood • Updated May 14, 2019 at 1:42 AM

Can a simple smile and a hug all be worth it?

The pain threshold endured was visibly tough while watching Norwalk senior Austin Brown play basketball, and now tennis. Just the thought of the long-term pain likely headed his way is even more distressing.

Brown is clearly a gifted athlete. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) playing soccer and had surgery in August 2017. Brown missed his junior season of basketball, but came back this past winter to become the team’s top defender on a league and district championship team — one that goes down as a top 5 season in program history.

On Wednesday, Brown will compete in the Division I district singles tournament at Bowling Green State University. On the doorstep of the state championships, he recently became the seventh player in Norwalk tennis history to reach 100 wins.

But here is what makes watching Brown compete so fascinating: He’s an even better student who doesn’t have to endure the pain.

Brown isn’t going to play athletics in college. He’s already going into the Ohio University honors program while majoring in exercise physiology. As long as he maintains a specific grade-point average, Brown already has a seat reserved in medical school on his path to become an orthopedic surgeon.

It all begs the question: Why go through it? Since February, Brown has dealt with constant swelling and pain in the knee area. There was even a time where it was thought he’d need a second surgery.

“It’s just something about my need to compete,” Brown said. “And just making my family proud. It’s just something when I win a match and when I come off the court — even if the match doesn’t even matter — I see my grandpa (Keith Chapin) smiling.

“He comes and gives me a hug, and … it’s all for that. Even if it does mean knee replacement one day.”

On top of that, Brown has an insatiable desire to perfect everything he does. Even now, he points out his 4.15 GPA isn’t among the top 10 in his soon-to-be graduating class.

“I slacked off a little as a freshman, and it really bugs me now,” Brown said. “Again, it’s just something you have to live with.”

That aspect is apparently also quite visible at home.

“Austin really loves sports, and he’s never going to quit something,” said younger brother, Wyatt, a junior on the NHS tennis team. “We’re both really competitive, but the thing with Austin is, he’s never going to stop.

“He’s obviously one of the best players to come through the tennis program, and he’s at the top of his class in academics. Austin is someone I look up to a lot more than just on the court.”

Norwalk tennis head coach Chris Higgins has seen the best of the best in the elite program as a player and a coach. But even he admits Brown is in a different class.

“Austin is really hard on himself,” Higgins said. “A lot of times coaches are the one pushing the athletes. But it’s nice to have an athlete that pushes himself like he does.”

It also goes without saying, Brown is one of the smarter No. 1 singles players to come through the program. Higgins noted he studies everything there is to know about potential opponents.

“It’s nice to be able to have conversations like that,” Higgins said. “Sometimes he outthinks himself, which is OK. Because in the end, I know he’s always out there thinking on the court. That really gives him an edge over a player who is even with him — and a lot of guys weren’t even with him.”

Brown said he’s spent most of his life involved in 4-H work and farm chores, which has prepared him for strenuous days and activity.

“Every day in the summer, we get up early and wash 20-something heads of cattle,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but just being out there with my family definitely is worth it, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.”

But even the hardest work at times isn’t enough to prepare Brown for the daily pain tolerance. As his career wraps up over the next week, he finds himself using an electronic stimulator machine after matches.

Each time he stops and slides on the court, there is a jolt sensation that goes through his knee.

“It’s a pain that you have to walk off for a little bit,” Brown said. “But the machine I use to keep the swelling down has worked so far. It’s just something I have to deal with for the rest of my life.”

If Brown’s story started with him never picking up a tennis racket until he participated in middle school teacher Karen Quillen’s physical education class and ending with 100-plus wins — it would be impressive.

But watching Brown’s Norwalk career come to a close offers a unique, if not refreshing perspective.

So much is made of the chase for athletics at the collegiate level. All the recruiting and money spent on offseason tournaments and workouts can feel endless.

But ultimately, athletics are what one makes of it. Despite the limitations, Brown clearly got the most out of his athletic experience at Norwalk — at all costs.

Sometimes the best reward is just that smile and hug from family.

“To share that experience with my friends and family is completely worth it, I think,” Brown said. “I almost felt like this was some unfinished business. I wanted to do this for the Norwalk community almost as much as myself and my family.”

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