LOUISBURG — Last spring, former UNC and NFL lineman Jason Brown surveyed massive dairy barns, a silo, newly tilled fields, four large ponds, and a large white house gleaming with fresh paint from atop a hill and said it was the prettiest place on earth.
He walked away from a multimillion dollar pro football career so he could see it every day.
Brown, 30, literally had dreamed about such a place once, but the reality of his 1,030-acre spread on the outskirts of Louisburg in Franklin County is so much better than he could have imagined.
When he looks out at his First Fruits Farm, he sees not only what is there, but what he hopes will be there and what can be accomplished.
He wants to see his farm do good things.
I want to help people, the former offensive lineman said while overlooking a field where a wild turkey unfurled its feathers in a showy display for other nearby birds.
He wanted this dream more than he wanted to make another million dollars. Thats why he didnt pursue opportunities to play in the NFL another year or two.
My agent tells me Im crazy, Brown said. Nobody walks away from the NFL. You dont walk away from a multimillion dollar contract. Most players scrape and claw and hold on to try to squeeze out one more season. But Ive got another dream.
When he sees the ponds, he envisions dozens of youngsters learning to fish. He hopes the fields one day will be dedicated to providing fresh produce to shelters and food pantries. He imagines school groups coming to behold the scenery and watch deer and turkeys and perhaps even see the nesting eagles and long-legged egrets.
Muscadine grapes have been planted and orchards of apple, pear and plum trees have been laid out.
Brown has weighed more than 300 pounds since he was a high school senior at Northern Vance High, but his dreams are much bigger than he is.
Goodbye to football
Brown grew up near Henderson and was a highly recruited 315-pound, high school football player. He was a member of the national honor society and won three state championships in the shot put and discus.
He signed with North Carolina and was a three-year starter at center. He was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2004 and was taken during the fourth round of the 2005 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens.
He started some at left guard for the Ravens during his first two seasons and started every game at center during 2007 and 2008. He signed a five-year contract with the St. Louis Rams worth $37.5million, including a $20million guarantee, and started every game in 2009 and 2010 and 14 during 2011 before being released in March 2012.
San Francisco, Carolina and Baltimore contacted him about possibly joining their teams, but he decided his dream had been postponed long enough.
It was his dream, said Tay Brown, his wife. You get accustomed to a certain lifestyle and suddenly you leave that for something entirely different. But this is what he wanted. He was really sought after by teams to keep playing, but he wanted to do something else.
There was some uncertainty, but I have faith in God and in my husband.
Brown said he wanted to move to the next stage in his life.
It was time to start giving back, he said. God has blessed us with this place and I am to be a steward, to use all these good things to help other people.
Former N.C. State wide receiver Torry Holt played with Brown with the Rams and remembers him as a good old country boy.
I remember Jason always being very strong in his faith, Holt said. He was never down and out and was very encouraging to everyone. I think his faith had a lot to do with that because he was definitely a believer.
Brown was looking at a nearby tract of land that really didnt fit his vision when the old Mort Harris Dairy farm was mentioned. The old dairy now is his First Fruits Farm, named because he intends to give away the first part of the harvest every year. He did not say how much he paid for the property.
There is a lot of history here, he said. Mr. Harris was a pharmacist and really well respected in the community. He did (help) a lot of people around here. I want to continue that legacy.
Brown is not a farmer and neither is Tay, a dentist who is not practicing now as she home schools the children, son J.W., 6; daughter Naomi, 21/2; and Noah, 1.
She often asked what he wanted with a 200-acre farm, but now she sees his dreams barely can be contained on 1,000 acres.
Tay is from San Francisco and met Brown while she was in undergraduate school at Duke.
He was this Southern gentleman with great charm and manners, she said. He worked with his father in landscaping and he lifted weights and he had rough hands. He apologized once to me because his hands were so callused.
But I told him that I loved him. The man I fell in love with worked with the hands and made things. I love those calluses.
Browns dreams are coming with a dose of reality. Many of the squash and cucumbers he had planned to give away were not harvested this summer because of heavy rains. The apple, plum and pear trees need time to mature.
He has learned the areas needs far outstrip his ability to give even though he believes the effects of good works can be multiplied 100 fold.
Think of a watermelon seed, he said. A 50-pound watermelon comes from one little seed.
He is planting seeds throughout the community, but Brown doesnt want to attempt to solve problems by writing a check.
Were planning some fishing derbys for our area youth next spring, he said. We want to get them on the farm and take them fishing but also try to talk to them about values and making the right kinds of decisions.
He know the value of someone taking a personal interest in a child. He grew up admiring his brother Lunsford Bernard Brown II, who was seven years older. Lunsford was serving in the U.S. Army and was killed Sept. 20, 2003, in Afghanistan when a mortar round hit his tent.
He was my mentor, Brown said. He was always extremely tough on me, but I always knew he loved me and wanted the best for me. It was tough to lose him.
Brown has the view of his dreams on his farm, but finding his niche of service is taking more time.
He is researching what sort of vegetables are the best to be grown for food pantries. He is looking at what needs to be done to conserve the wildlife on his farm. He plans to become more active with his work at Freedom Life church in Henderson and in a ministry he set up during 2008, Wisdom for Life.
I want to support him, but sometimes I have to slow him down, Tay Brown said. Hell get up and say he wants to do this, and this, and this, and this. He wants to make something with his hands. I have to tell him there are so many hours in a day.
But there is just so much to do, he said. I know that it is going to take time, but the dream is still strong.
Brown and his family moved into their newly renovated farm house Tuesday. There are plenty of boxes that need unpacking, but they plan to take a break Thanksgiving Day. He is thankful for what he has been given and thankful for what he hopes to do.