In the nearly five years Howell Brown III was in Durham for cancer treatments, he touched the lives of many — including those in Duke’s and N.C. Central’s athletics departments.
Howell, a huge NASCAR fan who loved playing with John Deere tractors, was just 9 when he was diagnosed with Stage IV Pineoblastoma. According to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hopsital’s website, Pineoblastoma is an aggressive and rare type of tumor of the brain’s pineal gland, “a tiny organ located deep inside the brain that secretes ... a hormone called melatonin, which controls sleep.”
In November 2012, Howell’s mother, Sue, brought him from Asheville to Duke Children’s Hospital for treatments. He had surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and an infusion with his own stem cells. Along the way, walking and eating disorders complicated his condition. In 2015, he learned the cancer had spread to his spine.
Howell died Friday at age 13.
Throughout his illness, Howell became a source of encouragement for others and touched athletes and coaches at Duke and N.C. Central.
“Don’t give up. Just keep fighting through it even if you don’t feel like doing it...” Howell said the day he signed a football scholarship with N.C. Central. “You’re going to go over the waves and the waves, and you’re going to eventually hit the smooth part.”
Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and his players met Howell during visits to Duke Children’s Hospital in 2013. Cutcliffe invited him to practices and to hang out with the team.
In 2014, working in conjuction with Team IMPACT, a Boston company that connects seriously ill children with college sports teams, Howell spent the football season attending N.C. Central’s practices, games and social events.
That same year, during a time Howell was declared tumor-free, he signed a mock football scholarship with the Eagles and attended a press conference to celebrate the event. He played table tennis and bowled with the team’s players and coaches.
In February 2016, the Make-A-Wish Foundation sponsored a trip for Howell, a huge NASCAR fan, to attend the Daytona 500.
Howell did his best to help others facing health scares. In April 2016, not long after Charles Westfall, a Duke fan from Morrisville, had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and was told he might need a heart transplant, he received an encouraging call from Howell. Westfall’s former roommate had met Howell at the Duke football office and gave Howell Westfall’s number.
“He left a voicemail describing what had happened to him, how it took a year to re-learn to walk after his cancer had spread to his spine,” Westfall said Sunday. “I can still hear a semblance of that message in that mountain twang in my head.”
Photojournalist Viviane Feldman of Hillsborough, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill last May, published a photo essay entitled “HB3 and Me” about Howell’s battle with cancer.
On Saturday, the day after Howell died, condolences from the athletics programs poured out on social media.
“This Young Angel on Earth changed many lives for the better in 13+ years,” Duke football coach David Cutcliffe posted on Twitter. “He’s now an Angel of Heaven. RIP HOWELL BROWN lll.”
“Rest In Peace Howell Brown. Thank you for touching our lives & uplifting us with your spirit.” N.C. Central’s athletics department tweeted.
“Thankful to have known Howell Brown!” former Duke football player and current assitant coach Cody Robinson wrote on Twitter . “He did more in his short life than most do in a lifetime! Thanks for teaching us how to live HB3!”
Jenna Frush, a Duke Medical School student who was a Duke basketball guard from 2011-15, was among a group of people who spent time with Howell daily over the final month of his life.
“He was stronger than cancer can ever be,” Frush said.
On Saturday, she posted a photo on Instagram of a smiling Howell Brown wearing a Duke T-shirt with these words:
“You’re my hero, bud,” Frush said. “I love you with all my heart.”