Why UConn football player Rayonte Brown feels 'blessed to be alive' nine months after health scare

UConn redshirt sophomore Rayonte Brown started as a 270-pound offensive lineman. After having two surgeries on his lower intestines and losing 85 pounds, he moved to tight end. (UConn / Contributed photo)

UConn redshirt sophomore Rayonte Brown started as a 270-pound offensive lineman. After having two surgeries on his lower intestines and losing 85 pounds, he moved to tight end. (UConn / Contributed photo)

JIM PIERCE

STORRS — Through the weeks hospitalized in Hartford and the months spent regaining strength back home in Baltimore, Rayonte Brown never let football goals and dreams escape his mind.

So taking the field as a starter at tight end for UConn last week against Syracuse and preparing to play this Saturday before 100,000 fans at Michigan have been particularly rewarding experiences.

“Because there were times back then, after the surgeries and all, I didn't think I'd be able to get on the field again in that capacity,” Brown said Tuesday as the Burton Family Football Complex. 

Brown, once a 270-pound offensive lineman, wasn’t feeling well last winter. He couldn’t hold down food, was losing weight. He wound up in the emergency room in December, and almost immediately the operating room. He underwent emergency surgery to correct lower intestinal issues, and another surgery to address complications days later.

When he was discharged about 2 ½ weeks later he was a shell of himself, down to 185 pounds, a bean pole at 6 feet 7 inches.  

“Seeing myself in the mirror, before I went home, it just didn't look like me,” Brown said. “So after that, I made a commitment to just fight and keep going to get back to where I was at.”

Brown is back up to 245 pounds and back on the field, in a different role. He took the spring semester off and returned to campus this summer. It was sometime during preseason camp in August when Brown, recognizing he hadn’t yet bulked up to offensive line standards, approached coach Jim Mora about a position change.

“I said, ‘Have you ever played tight end?’ and I don't think he said yes,” Mora said. “But in my opinion, it's one of the great stories in college football this year. ... It deserves to be recognized. The great stories don’t come just from the teams that win all the games and have all the national media coverage. There are so many great stories in college football and this is one of them.”

What, exactly, happened?

Brown explained, without much elaboration, while surrounded by about 15 strangers, most of them holding microphones. He said his lower intestines were tangled and surgeries were performed to untangle them. He also mentioned having gastric bypass surgery but said his weight loss was due to dietary restrictions.

Some of it was confusing. But what’s clear is that Brown went through a trying time and feared for his life at one point. His parents — like him, unaware of the severity of the condition at the time — joined him in Hartford for his hospital stay after he called home to say he was being rushed to surgery. 

Brown, the youngest of three children, is thankful to be alive and healthy.

And to be playing football.

"I've been a fighter my whole life," he said. "I had a goal to get back here. That's all I was thinking about, just getting back. I'm glad to be here and still be a part of this.”

Brown had played a little tight end at Dundalk High but only as an underclassman. 

“It's an incredible story, it really is, to think about where he was when I first got here,” Mora said. “I didn't meet Rayonte until one day during our summer camps, our youth camps, and this kid walks on the field and up to me and says hi. I had never met him and I had been here since November, and this was June. I thought he was a basketball player because he was (6-7) and rail thin.

“For him to fight back the way he has is just so inspirational. And to find his way in a starting role last week, I'm beyond words to think about what he did. He earned it. He worked for it. He endured some serious hardships. He spent a lot of time in the hospital. I'm sure he had doubts. But he came back strong.”

Recruited by Randy Edsall, Brown redshirted the 2019 season. After the Huskies skipped the 2020 season, he debuted last year, appearing in 10 games. Edsall retired after Week 2. Lou Spanos served as interim coach the rest of the way. Mora was named the program’s next coach after Week 9, in mid-November, right around the time Brown was starting to struggle with his health.

Brown, a redshirt sophomore, said being absent for Mora’s first few months and meeting many members of the coaching staff months after his teammates made him feel as if he was a freshman all over again.

Mora said he considers Brown an NFL-level offensive tackle.

“And he will grow back into that over time,” Mora said.  

“I'm just blessed to be alive,” Brown said. “I feel great right now. I'm 100 percent healthy. It was a real difficult time, but I've gotten past that hard part of my life.”

Brown is content to contribute wherever coaches say there’s a need. He blocks well but hasn’t caught a pass yet this season. He would like to change that Saturday at the Big House.

“It's going to be a great experience,” Brown said. “It’s going to be great to get out there and play in front of fans that I've seen growing up, watching all my life. Being in that environment is just going to be what we live for.

“It was on my mind the whole time. As I was laid out, I was just waiting for my opportunity to get back to being here. Being away from the guys that whole time was really hard on me."