Penn State's Journey Brown announces he's medically retiring after heart condition is diagnosed

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

Penn State head coach James Franklin struggled to hold his emotions when talking to reporters after practice.

The past six months have been one of the most difficult times imaginable for his program, from losing star players to navigating COVID-19 protocols, to being separated from his wife and daughters.

To, of course, losing three times to start this delayed season.

On Wednesday, it only got tougher as he announced that running back Journey Brown would never play football again.

Separately, Brown detailed on social media that he is suffering from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick, making it more difficult for blood to be pumped through the body.

Penn State running back Journey Brown carries the ball to the end zone for a touchdown against Memphis in the first half of the Cotton Bowl.

Though Brown had sat out these opening games of 2020, the severity of his previously unrevealed condition seemed uncertain. Franklin had not even ruled him out of playing again this season until Wednesday.

"It’s heartbreaking ... and when we found out about it you’re in shock. You feel physically sick about it and you’re just in shock. You hurt for the kid," Franklin said. "Obviously, it's magnified because of all the conversations that were going on about Journey and what he was going to be able to do this season."

And yet he's "handled it better than anyone I've ever been around."

Brown not only won the starting tailback job midway through last season as a sophomore, but he increasingly dominated opponents down the stretch, culminating in a 200-yard rushing day in the Cotton Bowl victory against Memphis.

He was poised to be the top running back in the Big Ten this season and beyond. His position coach, JaJuan Seider, had talked this past spring about how he was only truly beginning to mesh his elite track and field speed with his football skills.

Then, when the season finally did begin, Brown could only watch as his backup, Noah Cain, was injured on the first drive of the season's first game.

"He's going to be unbelievably successful, and I know our team will support him and rally around him," Franklin said of Brown. "I know how much they rally around situations like this and he’s going to need it. It's not just for the short term but it’s long term.

"Journey Brown is like a son to me, he really is."

Running back Journey Brown celebrates his touchdown against Memphis at AT&T Stadium.

Moving on to Nebraska

The football finality of Brown's diagnosis is just the latest off-field distraction the Lions have been forced to overcome since the season began again with preseason camp in September.

Because of COVID-19 concerns, they have split up each day for practice, using three locker rooms. 

They finally held their first in-person, team meeting on Tuesday — as they social distanced in the cavernous Holuba Hall.

Previous large meetings were done via video conferencing.

"I felt connected to the team like I haven't felt in a while," Franklin said. "I think they felt better and I know I felt better getting up in front of them, face-to-face."

He said the best practice of the season followed.

He also reiterated how often he does count the blessings for his family and his team, despite their uncertain path, on and off the field.

He mentioned an emotional celebration of sorts when offensive lineman Juice Scruggs finally got back into a game this season — his first since being involved in a serious car accident last year.

For now, they will keep preparing for a road trip to Nebraska, an unexpected battle of winless teams.

"We have a chance to experience some joy on Saturday, and that’s where all of our focus is," Franklin said.