Hayden and Hilton Brown were separated by nearly 400 miles when they learned the news no young person wants to hear.
With Hilton in the fall of his senior year at San Antonio’s Reagan High School and Hayden playing baseball at Murray State College in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, their mother, Dina, was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Approximately two months after Hayden and Hilton Brown reported for their first baseball season at Northwestern State, Dina Brown passed away Oct. 13, 2018, after her battle with colon cancer at age 48, two weeks shy of her 49th birthday.
When the Demons take on Louisiana Tech (28-16) at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Northwestern State’s annual “Fork Cancer” game, Hayden and Hilton Brown will be together, playing on the same side in honor of their mother. Half of the proceeds from each ticket sold will be donated to the American Cancer Society’s Natchitoches chapter.
“You never really expect anything like this to happen,” said Hayden, a junior infielder. “It really came out of nowhere. She was healthy. It can really happen to anyone. It’s God’s plan, but you never know. It’s nice to bring awareness so people understand it can happen at any moment to anyone.”
Although the brothers were nearly 400 miles apart upon hearing of their mother’s diagnosis, they arguably have been as close as ever since August. Part of that is the circumstance of playing on the same college baseball team. An equal part was their mother’s battle.
Having each other to lean on made things easier for both Browns.
“We’ve relied on each other for a lot,” said Hilton, a freshman infielder who has started the past 19 games at second base. “I know it’s tough, and one of us may have a bad day, but it’s nice to have someone there for you and vice versa. We know what we’re going through. We know how important it is to be there for each other and continue to talk and not keep it all in, which is important. I’m not afraid to tell him how I feel.”
Hayden and Hilton are two of Paul and Dina Brown’s five children. Hayden is the oldest of four boys while sister Hannah is the oldest child.
Hayden’s presence has helped Hilton adjust to college life on and off the field while dealing with a situation for which there is no instruction manual.
In Hilton’s first start for the Demons (25-18), he made an error that led to a two-run first inning at Louisiana Tech on March 5. Hayden had some words of advice for his brother in the dugout – a bit of wisdom that played a key role in the Demons’ 8-4 victory.
“I just told him to relax and go out and have fun and compete,” Hayden said. “He’s been playing the game a long time. He was nervous. It was his first start. I told him to relax and do what he’s been doing his whole life.”
So what did Hilton do? He delivered three RBIs, including the go-ahead, two-run double in the Demons’ five-run ninth inning.
Coincidentally, the game in Ruston should have been the Browns’ second game at J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park. The first was when Northwestern State traveled to Ruston to face Louisiana Tech in a fall exhibition game Oct. 26 – one day before what would have been Dina’s 49th birthday.
The double was the first of several big hits Hilton has delivered in his freshman season.
Included in those were his first two career home runs during the Southland Conference series against McNeese on April 19-20. As Brown neared home plate after his second home run, he looked skyward and pointed his right index finger toward the clouds.
“It was definitely a special moment for me, knowing she was up there smiling down on me,” he said. “She was cheering me on. It’s tough, because she never got to witness a (college) game, but I know she’s been with me for every single one.”
Both Browns said their mother’s battle with cancer drew them closer. Both also agreed on the importance of what happened in late October when the Demons coaching staff showed up at Dina’s funeral in San Antonio.
“It was a special moment to see them walk in,” Hayden said. “We knew they were there for us. It really brought peace to my mom and dad. Whenever we came on our visits, they were very family focused.”
Making the trip to San Antonio was never in question for the Demons staff, which was in the middle of fall practice.
Similar to what Hayden and Hilton faced a year earlier, the NSU staff learned from Dina’s battle and the Brown family’s situation.
“Going there for the service, it was tough,” third-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “I’m sure they’ll tell you the same. I’ve been fortunate. I haven’t lost a parent. I haven’t lost a grandparent, which is unusual for someone in their 30s.
“I didn’t have any advice for them. You just love on them and be there for them. I got to see their dad and their two brothers at Stephen F. Austin (this past weekend). Their little brother was out shagging balls in the outfield with us. We’re so grateful to have the Brown family as part of ours and the affect they’ve had on us.”
The Browns were a religious family before Dina’s diagnosis, but Hayden and Hilton both said learning of their mother’s cancer strengthened that aspect of their life as well.
Initially, there were questions not unlike others have at the time of a life-altering revelation.
“At the beginning, it was hard not to (question),” Hilton said. “After a few talks with our parents, they said, ‘We don’t blame you for questioning Him because, what we’re going through, not a lot of kids your age have to go through.’ The type of cancer my mom had is very rare in women. They said we understand what you’re going through and the thoughts you’re having, but God has a plan. You have to go with it and trust it. He’s not going to do anything to hurt you. It was a lesson and brought our family closer. It definitely strengthened our faith.”
It does not take much to see how close Hilton and Hayden are.
When Hayden began to explain the significance of the No. 9 to the Brown family, he was overcome by emotion before Hilton stepped in.
“It’s a big number in our family,” he said. “We’ve all worn No. 9 in all our sports. Our mom wrote something for us before passing. We have it framed in our house. It talks about the importance of nine, and how it’s the number of perfection (biblically).”
And as brothers do, when Hilton tried to recall what his mother told his family upon learning of her cancer diagnosis, Hayden took his turn to relay his mother’s message.
“She said it will be a long process, but this process will bring people closer together,” he said. “It definitely did.”
Photo Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services