Howell Brown III’s 13-year-old life ended last Friday.
Despite the best efforts of medical experts at Duke Children’s Hospital, as well as specialists who also treated him in Florida and New York, brain cancer claimed him just eight days shy of his 14th birthday.
To those gathered Wednesday at Duke Chapel to celebrate his life, though, the smiling child from western North Carolina left behind enough good for his positive impact to reverberate for years and years.
“I’m going to speak of Howell Brown III in the present tense,” Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said during his eulogy. “Because he is not gone. His influence will live and live and live.”
Raised in the tiny mountain town of Clyde west of Asheville, Howell came to Durham in November 2012 with a malignant tumor growing in his brain.
Beginning at the age of 9, he endured surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation as doctors attempted to kill the disease that also spread to his spine. He learned to walk again but was routinely confined to a wheelchair.
When he encountered people, though, he left most with a brighter outlook.
“He himself was a healer,” Cutcliffe said. “Healing each one of us in a manner that was needed every step of the way. He was everyone’s special gift from God. Everyone.”
And the coach truly meant everyone.
“I think if Howell Brown had five minutes in the same room with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” Cutcliffe said, “all of our problems would have been solved.”
Cutcliffe met Howell in 2013 during a visit to Durham’s Ronald McDonald House, where Howell and his single mother, Sue, were staying near Duke Hospital.
That visit began a bond between Howell and Duke’s athletics department, particularly the Blue Devils football team. He often visited practices when he was able. The players on Duke’s successful football teams in 2013 and 2014, which posted records of 10-4 and 9-4, thought of him as part of their team.
Anthony Boone, who quarterbacked those teams that claimed the most wins the program has ever posted over a two-year period, traveled back to campus from Charlotte to join the mourners for Wednesday’s funeral.
In addition to delivering the eulogy, Cutcliffe will wear a hat with the initials “HBIII” on the side during Duke games this season. He’s already taped a video message about Howell that will be played at Wallace Wade Stadium when Duke opens the season Saturday night against N.C. Central.
Saturday would have been Howell Brown III’s 14th birthday, and it’s fitting that Duke and NCCU will meet on that day.
Back in 2014, NCCU coach Jerry Mack participated in a news conference with Howell and Sue Brown where Howell was awarded a football scholarship with the Eagles.
Howell spent time bowling, playing table tennis and foosball with the Eagles players and coaches.
But he loved Duke, perhaps almost as much as he loved NASCAR, country music and John Deere tractors. Everyone who attended his funeral was given a John Deere cap, in the classic green color, with “HBIII” stitched on the side.
Cutcliffe recalled one of the final times Howell visited during a Duke practice earlier this year. The coach gathered the team around to hear from Howell.
“He was asked to give our players some advice,” Cutcliffe said. “You could have heard a pin drop in our practice facility as they stood waiting.”
Then Howell said, “No matter how hard it gets. No matter how much it hurts. You keep it together in love.”
The Blue Devils stood quietly.
“They knew what he said was true,” Cutcliffe said. “And Howell, you did that with amazing strength and grace.”
Brown’s service Wednesday included the playing of “Amazing Grace”, “Angels Among Us” and, in closing, “Jesus Loves Me.”
Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews and Col. Glenn McNeill, Jr., commander of the State Highway Patrol, led the reading of a prayer. Because Howell had been named an honorary trooper, the patrol’s Honor Guard provided full honors for his service.
The mourners chose to focus and tell stories not about how cancer ended a life too soon, but how young Howell Brown III taught them how to live and love.
“It was, in fact, a story about life and how you live a life,” Cutcliffe said. “None better than what this young man did.”