John: I am John Dowling and I’m here for Model citizens Magazine with Gary Brown on the phone. Welcome, Gary.
Gary: Thank you, John, how is everything?
John: Everything is great, thank you. I wanted to let you know that Rhonda Klch from Equity First Foundation has nominated you as a Model Citizen for November, congratulations.
Gary: Thank you so much. It’s such an honor.
John: It is well deserved, Gary. For our readers and your fans could you please share with us a little bit of how you got started with philanthropy and why?
Gary: Do you want the abbreviated version or do you want the real true story?
John: I want the whole version and if we need to edit it for the content we will, but for this interview, I really would love the whole story.
Gary: Awesome! So I was an NFL player. I went to Nassau Community College and then Georgia Tech. From there I played in the pros with several different teams, winning the Super Bowl, the whole nine yards. I always said I would like to give back, but I never had time. The game, all the things that I was doing, always came first, having fun and hanging out and taking advantage of my fame. After my football career, I went through a little bit of a depression. Coming back home and having to move back into my childhood neighborhood, my childhood household, and my childhood bedroom, it was a reflection on how I went full circle. I traveled all around the United States Europe Canada and there I was back again. The journey was over. I’m back in my Brentwood bedroom and it was a hard pill for me to swallow.
John: It would be a hard pill for anyone to swallow. To go from fame and fortune to a working man again.
Gary: Yes, and that was even a hard pill to swallow because now I was trying to get a job and it was hard. People would say that I was overqualified, that I didn’t want that kind of work. They said, ” you’re a Super Bowl champion!” As much as I agreed with them, I was willing to do anything. The first job I took was a maintenance job. I was literally cleaning toilets, things of that nature and so that is a long way to go from the Super Bowl stage to cleaning toilets. Since that job, I took on a construction job, security work, and all kinds of things. One day while I was at work I hurt my back. I thought it was just a pulled muscle, the athlete in me thought it would be fine with a little rest and putting ointment on it, it’ll get better. But a few weeks later it was still bothering me so I started to seek medical attention. It didn’t get better or worse for a little while, then months after it got so bad I was paralyzed.
John: Oh my God.
Gary: Being paralyzed was something that took me to an even darker place.
John: I was paralyzed myself, once for about two weeks.
Gary: Were you really?
John: Yes. I was.
Gary: This is why there’s a lot about me to talk about, just from my brief conversation with you before. I like to deal with good people who have a good story and a good heart. Not everybody that says they have a good heart, does. That’s why when you find good-natured people, you hold onto them.
John: Absolutely, without question. What happened with your back?
Gary: I had to get emergency spine surgery. It wasn’t to help me walk again, it was to limit my pain and to stop me from getting worse. I did the surgery with the notion that I would never walk again and that was devastating. I’m an alpha male. I don’t need anybody for anything. I always categorize myself that way; I can do it, I’m good, I’m fine. But there I was at a point where I needed everybody for everything.
Then one day I was in my home, in my wheelchair by myself, listening to this guy, Nick and he was saying that if you want to get over your problems, help somebody else with theirs. At first, I thought I’m crippled, nobody wants me. Who can I help? But I actually took his advice and went around the corner to the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization, and volunteered to help them. The day I volunteered, my life changed. I can’t tell you that there were singing angels, but it did change my life.
John: I understand what you’re talking about. I totally get it, Gary. I don’t know if you know my story, but I was sick for a very long time. I almost died. I had to walk enormous amounts to stay alive. I went through many surgeries also. My way of surviving was like you, living in gratitude and paying it forward as the medicine for the limitations I developed.
Gary: It does a lot of things. Helping others puts whatever you have going on in perspective and it helps other people with theirs and it gets your mind off your own problems. Now, at this time, I had nothing but time. I’m paralyzed. I’m stuck at home. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I was just riding it out at home in self-pity, but this gave me the opportunity to get out of the house and learn to be a part of society again. The day I volunteered, things changed for me. I should’ve played lotto that day, I might have hit it.
Volunteering opened my eyes. I started sleeping differently. I started being different. I started looking at things in a totally different way. All this led me to do more. It was like a drug. I wanted more. So I started mentoring and to volunteer more. Then I decided to start my own not-for-profit which I did with a childhood friend of mine.
John: What not-for-profit was that?
Gary: The Gary Big Brown 68 Foundation.
John: I love it!
Gary: When I started that, I was doing whatever I could do to earn a dollar and donate it to people who needed it. We started out giving to different organizations like the Suffolk County Breast Cancer Coalition, things of that nature, whoever needed the money. If I could get a gig, I would do it. I would use my celebrity to make money so that I could give it back. Sometimes it was as simple as a chicken wing contest and all you can eat events. I don’t eat fast or a lot, but I’ll do that for charity. But then my buddy robbed me and that hurt my heart.
John: What happened?
Gary: He stole from me at one of the events we did. He stole all the money. It cost us our lifetime of friendship, wasted it over paper, over dollars. It hurt my heart because the money was gone and I didn’t want to press charges against him and so I paid all the money back to the people that needed it, the ones I was giving the money to which took the rest of my savings, it wiped me clean. I was very frustrated to have been in that situation so the first thing I did after that was to learn more about how not-for-profit’s work. The more I learned about how they work, the more I saw the ugliness of deceitful people and their nonprofits.
John: That’s very why am very careful with Model Citizens Magazine. I do a lot of research on someone before I write about them.
Gary: Yes, and there’s a lot of red-tape and a lot of ins and outs. There are a lot of people that just want to look good and I’m not talking about anybody in particular, I’m just saying in general.
John: Definitely, we’re on the same page. A lot of people use not-for-profits for not good reasons.
Gary: I wanted to learn everything inside and out. I had the opportunity to sit on a board of the Red Cross and I took it. I worked with them and I’m actually still on the board. It was such an eye-opening experience finding out how it all has to moves, how many tasks are involved, and how best to hold people accountable. There’s always is negative talk about the Red Cross, but I see firsthand what they do. They are not just at some disasters, they are at all disasters. They don’t pick and choose what they can handle, everything that goes on, they are there for everybody. Many people don’t get understand that worldwide.
John: Hurricanes, tsunami‘s, tornadoes, anything. You always see them there.
Gary: They are always there. There is nothing too big or too small. If your kitchen caught fire right now, you would have blankets, you would have a hotel room, you would have food and clothing all due to the Red Cross with no strings attached. That is a service that they provide.
I joined every committee so that I could learn how to run my own nonprofit and that got me in the realm and the circle of nonprofits. I started to give back more and more. The more I did that, the more I felt good, the more I felt human, the more I felt I was back in society. Now I’m on the Board of Directors for the Guide Dog Foundation also and the Gary Big Brown 68 Foundation is still operating, I shifted the whole mission to mentoring and caring for underprivileged youth and their families. I say that in those words because you have to be very careful and precise about how you label your business. I don’t want to just take care of the kids in need, because what I saw when I want to hospitals was not just the child who was sick and getting a lot of attention, and don’t get me wrong, they need that attention, but if you look over on the couch in the corner there’s always a sibling there that’s taking that journey with their parents. Their playtime is cut short, their extracurricular activities are cut short. So we aim to also help siblings, the brothers, and sisters because they are going through something as well.
John: Of course, and it’s amazing that you thought of this.
Gary: Then there are the parents. A lot of marriages don’t survive sickness or other bad things happening because they are going through such a trying time themselves. So I try to take care of underprivileged kids, sick kids, and their families. This led me to do so much more when I started that program. I wondered where I could find the perfect kids to mentor to and then…I’m like wait a minute! The perfect kids are right down the block at the local shelter. So that’s where I went to help the kids there that really need your help. They just don’t want it, they need it.
John: I couldn’t agree with you more. My father grew up in a boy’s home because his father died when he was eight. He became like a rebel when he was young, but later in life when he retired from the Carpenters Union, he went to work for the New York City Department of the Homeless and dedicated twenty years to taking care of battered women shelters, orphanages, and mental mentally challenged adults. He brought me there and I saw how many people were actually suffering. It was mind-altering.
Gary: It’s so funny that you mention that because one of the big projects I do now, that I’ve been doing for probably seven years, is to help provide food at my local homeless shelter here in Brentwood. It started as a woman’s shelter, but the homeless need was so big that they could not turn people away. The facility was so overwhelmed with the response that they had to hand it to a bigger agency because they couldn’t keep up and run it the way it needed to be run. So now they are providing the help all these people need.
John: I would walk into a shelter with my father, and my father wanted me to see this because I was rather privileged. I was making a lot of money as a professional photographer and living in a penthouse in New York and when I when to visit the shelters, I saw hundreds of families sleeping in cots, military-style. It was a mixed environment with not only mentally challenged individuals, really mentally challenged people who lived on the street most of the time, but also corrupt kind of mafia-style or gangs that that would troll through the centers looking to steal or take advantage of the homeless in any way that they could. It was mind-blowing and they treated my father like he was a savior because, if he got a phone call on Christmas Eve and found out the heat wasn’t working in a shelter he would say he had to go. If he wasn’t able to find someone to fix it then he would fix it himself. He had about 260 or so guys on call, but sometimes he would put on his toolbelt and would go fix the heat for the families. It was just amazing what I saw so I think that’s wonderful what you’re doing to help the homeless. It’s a subject very close to my heart. So, you do a lot of philanthropy, a lot of charity work.
Gary: Yes, absolutely! I’m there all the time because I believe that when you go through something in life, you realize how precious it is. All it takes is a little bit of time to change somebody’s life or the way they look at something, or to change their focus or process. Why would you not do that? If you could help somebody, all the better, and all it takes is a little bit of time, and so why not? That is my mentality. I’m a walking billboard of that. People say, Gary, you’re everywhere. I am and I know I’m there for a reason. I’m there for a cause. When I walk into a room, I look for that cause and it’s about giving, caring, and loving. You hear bad news every day on the news, it’s all over the place, I go out to spread the good news and share and to make people smile. That is how I can help somebody that needs help, that’s my mission.
John: That’s amazing and just so that you know this is the Model Citizens Magazine, Living in Gratitude, and Paying It Forward issue. So what you’re saying will really resonate and speak worlds to our readers and your fans.
Gary: I don’t know how many pages you are using but I could fill up a whole book. There’s so much that I’m going through with mentoring with motivational speaking, with dealing with athletes that are coming up short or injured, there’s always something. I’m from Brentwood. I was born in Amityville, and when I was born in Amityville in the 70s it was a very crime-ridden place to live.
John: I grew up in East Meadow, so when you speak about Brentwood and Amityville, they are definitely tough towns. A lot of drugs and violence. It wasn’t so safe, my friend moved from East Meadow to Brentwood and died two years later.
Gary: At one point it was designated as one of the most dangerous places in New York, in all of New York. I was born and grew up there and my parents were lucky enough to move us out to Brentwood which was a better place. Now it’s not looked at as a better place, but I wouldn’t change my growing up for anything. It made me who I am and I am thankful for where I came from. When I tell people, and I do interviews, especially out of state, I don’t say I’m from New York, I say I’m from Brentwood, Brentwood New York. And I say that with pride for a reason because I am proud of where I came from. There’s a lot of good that comes out of these places, but you’re only going to hear about the bad. My goal, my job is to talk to kids about following in their dreams and letting them know that no matter what your dream is, it is possible. But you have to work at it, you have to put yourself in a position to be lucky. I’ve heard before and I’m so sick of people saying, “Hey Gary, you’re just lucky.” No, I’m not just lucky. I worked my butt off to get lucky. I worked my butt off to be in a position to be lucky. You don’t see all the failures I’ve had, but I worked hard and I didn’t let setbacks deter me. I kept going. I don’t sit in my bed. I’m walking right now because when they told me I wouldn’t walk anymore after my surgery. They had to call in what they called “manpower” to get me from my surgery bed into my hospital bed. I said well if I’m never gonna walk again can you big guys stand me up and let my feet touch the ground one time? And they did that and I said can you come back tomorrow and do it again?
Every time I see them, I said manpower, you got to come in here so my feet can touch the ground! That’s the personality and the attitude that I took with me after the news that I was never walking again. You see me and now I walk with a cane or with a walker. I’m always in pain, but some days are better, and others are a lot worse. I never walk into a place and complain that I feel like crap today, or it’s an ugly day out. I’m always thinking it is a great day to be alive and I’m going to make the best of it. So that’s my motto, that’s what I follow, and that’s the way I live my life. If you have negative energy and a negative personality, I don’t wanna have anything to do with you I can do that by myself.
John: Believe me I fought for my life for twenty years and my situation was kind of complicated, most of the readers know it, but long story short, I’m very lucky to be alive. In 2018 after twenty years of waiting for them to fix my heart, they were finally able to go in and do it. They fixed my leg, the arteries to my brain and brain, and had new medications. My whole life started over, so I know the struggle with life and death.
Gary: Wow, you have you had a burden that’s for sure.
John: Yes, I had a genetic mutation that was destroying my arteries and I had to walk to grow new arteries. Now you had an amazing football career, and for those readers of ours who aren’t familiar, why don’t you share a little bit about your career because it was amazing?
Gary: I was a blue-collar football player. I say that because I’m the offensive lineman and offensive lineman are in a position where when the team scores touchdowns and wins games the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and defensive guys all get credit for that. When the team loses, the offensive lineman always gets the blame.
John: I played football my senior year of high school. I will tell you right away, it’s the lineman that does all the work. Without the lineman, you don’t have a team
Gary: Yes and I really wanted to be a defensive lineman, but at Nassau Community College where I played and first made the transition to offense. I originally tried out for the defensive lineman position but didn’t make the team. I thought my football career was over right out of high school. You know, having a dream of playing professional ball was there, I just wanted to be the best me that I could be, and the coach then told me that the offensive line coach liked me and if I was willing to play offensive line they would let me on the team. So I jumped at the opportunity. That’s a lesson learned for a lot of people. For kids especially, because a lot of kids won’t change positions because of their egos, or because of the title that comes with it, maybe it’s less fame or a lesser position. But I took that opportunity and I learned how to play offensive line with a defensive mentality of hunting. I thought, I’m gonna make you quit and I’m going to do better than you. I’m not going to be the reason why we lose this game. That mentality got me to get a scholarship to Georgia Tech. Many players were coming out of high school, a couple of division III, maybe one or two bad division II’s, and now here I am being sought after by every school in the country as a Division I player. I’m like, “Oh look mom I made it! I’m going to play Division I! I’m gonna play on the television.”
I went to Georgia Tech and played there for two years, but I had a knee injury and halfway through the season and they told me my season is over unless I had surgery. If I did the surgery I might be able to play the last game. I elected not to do it just to come back for one game. I’m still not thinking professionally yet, and so I did not take the surgery but I did end up coming back for the last two games. I played against a guy named Mitch Davis who was going to tie a record and I played really well in that game and it got me noticed. After that, I was lucky enough to be drafted to the NFL in the fifth round to the Pittsburgh Steelers. There are more stories in there for you as well. After getting onto the Steelers and playing against Kevin Green, Gregg Laurie, and all those guys, I made it I was put on a practice squad for development, which I was happy to do. I couldn’t wait to sign a contract, but you have to go on waivers for 24 hours. During those 24 hours, Green Bay picked me up. I was like, I didn’t know where Green Bay was. I’m from Long Island so I didn’t know where I was.
John: I know you as a Green Bay Packer.
Gary: Yes, a lot of people didn’t know that I was drafted by the Steelers first. I also played with the 49ers. But when I went to Green Bay and played there for a few years, I was lucky enough to start the Super Bowl seaso.n I did not play in the Super Bowl due to an injury but right after the Super Bowl I did get knee surgery and my career was shortened because they didn’t think my knee surgery turned out well. To prove myself I went overseas and played in Europe which got noticed and so I could play again in the United States. I came back and played a year with San Francisco and then I finished my NFL career and went back to Europe because I love to compete. I love playing sports and I figured that would be better than coming home and joining the real world and getting a regular job. When I went back overseas I had another knee problem which slowed me down and I ended up finishing my career in Canada. After three more years there, my career ended with my last knee surgery from sports.
John: Now you’re doing some other things aren’t you? I saw, I think it was on Facebook, that you run your own Keller Williams team don’t you?
Gary: Yes. I have a partner Elisa (name?) and our team is the “Keller Williams Points North Team of Champions”. We are trying to change the culture of real estate. Elisa is an amazing real estate agent and I’m new in the field, I’ve been doing it for about a year. But really, I’ve been doing real estate my whole life with different investments. I realize the passion, the business aspect of it, was missing. A lot of agents are money hungry and it’s all about them. Buying a property can be very scary for somebody especially for the first time and especially with their life savings that they’ve been working their whole lives for. So I go about it with a little more compassion and understanding of people who have never done this before and are new to this. I walk them through it and I love it.
I’ve been approached to get involved with many different business opportunities, but it’s always been for the benefit of somebody else. This is the one thing that I realized I can do that if I put my heart and my talent into it, I’m going to get out what I put in. That’s all any athlete ever wants, to be paid what they’re worth. I know that I do everything with Elisa with a professional mentality. I want to be the best at it and do it to the best of my ability. I want to get everyone around watching the show, my show, and if you’re my client, I’m going to put on a show for you. I will make the process as easy as possible. This is why I teamed up with Keller Williams. I was introduced to them through Pink Tie.
John: Yes, I’ve done a lot of work with Pink Tie. I’m a huge supporter of theirs. I’m not sure if you know, but I do a lot of work with Mike and Rich.
Gary: Yes, and they’re awesome guys. They have an awesome concept. I love the Give Back program. Everything that we do is about give back opportunities for us. There’s not a dollar made by me on my company that doesn’t give back to Pink Tie and other charities. That’s what makes it a full circle for me. With that being said, we do so many different things with so it gives me another platform to tell my story, to help people in another way, as well as use my celebrity. It’s probably the first thing I did for profit in fifteen years, so I’m honored to be part of Keller Williams and honored to be involved with Pink Tie, and of course, honored to be with Elisa and her team of champions. I’m looking forward to the future. It’s looking big and bright.
John: Gary I am honored to again have the opportunity to interview you and work with you. Even we’ve crossed paths so many times in front of my camera. It’s nice to hear your backstory. You’re always such a gentleman and so kind to people. I noticed that about you and that’s why when I knew when Rhonda from Equity First was friendly with you, I asked Rhonda about interviewing you but you didn’t even know who I was. I told Rhonda that I thought you’d know me if I told you how often I’ve observed what a giving person he is. I’ve observed you so many times and feel you really deserve the recognition, and you do, even though you don’t want it, you deserve being recognized as a Model Citizen. Congratulations on your nomination.
Gary: Thank you.
John: Thank you for the interview. I hope that we can hear more updates over time as you continue what you’re doing and your philanthropic efforts, your mentality of giving and paying it forward, and certainly from all of your words living in gratitude.
Gary: John thank you so much I would really like to sit down and talk with you some more about something called Play For Your Freedom. I met the gentleman that started it about six years ago at his first event. He wanted a professional athlete to come and support his event. He didn’t know what to expect out of his event and I didn’t know what to expect by going, but I said if I can walk it, I can make it.
There I am with my walker, handicapped. I told him I wasn’t sure if he wanted me there, but he was like hell yeah, I’ll take it! I went to the armory and our job was to greet a busload of veterans that were coming from the hospital. They are dealing with PTSD and are in the local VA hospital. We were getting them out to play a little catch, a little flag football, two-hand touch football. They got off the bus smoking butts and shoes untied, very relaxed. After we stretched and did the anthem we got into playing. The kids and everybody came out to watch and they were diving, they were sweating, they were high-fiving. I thought it was going to be a good day and it turned out to be a great one because after that we had nurses and therapists and doctors calling us and asking what happened out there? We thought maybe we did something wrong, but they told us that the patients were in the hallways laughing and joking, and high-fiving and meanwhile they could never get them to talk. They told us that after our event, they were different people.
I think it just had to do with reminding them to have fun like they were kids. We got their minds off of their problems, off of being in the hospital. We weren’t there to judge them or evaluate them or test them. We were just there to deal with them and have fun. Right after the event, we did take pictures and I did some autographs. Since then we are probably in 15 or 20 different VA hospitals, before the pandemic, and of course, since the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot of zooms and trying to do every other week with a couple of the hospitals joining together. We do them from Syracuse to Chicago to California. The guy that runs it, he started as a stranger that I met on the football field, David Lionheart, and now he’s one of my dear friends. What we do and what he’s built is absolutely amazing, and that’s another way I give back. I never served in the military, but it’s my way of saying thank you to all our veterans that allow me to be who I am and do what I do and play professional football and be a celebrity.