CLEMSON, S.C. – After Notre Dame’s upset of LSU in the Music City Bowl last December, Chris Brown texted Rob Gantt, who helped pave the receiver’s path to South Bend and back home this weekend.
“We want the real Tigers of the south,” Brown wrote.
Tonight Notre Dame will get them.
Gantt will watch from the stands with his son Chayson after making the cross-state trip from Hanahan, located just north of Charleston on the coast. They’ll bring some of Brown’s high school friends with them, a collection of aspiring college athletes who grew up inside the Park Place apartment complex. Some went on to play baseball. Others wrestle in college.
The group, which included Chayson, spent high school Friday nights hanging at Gantt’s apartment, playing video games and ordering pizza. They slept over on couches. Then they’d watch college football all Saturday. Gantt, who works at the Goose Creek Gazette and covered prep sports, kept odd hours and would step over sleeping teenagers as he came and went. Before leaving he made sure the fridge was stocked.
In that apartment with those friends, Brown, still a spindly high school freshman, made the decision he wanted to play college football. Gantt approved of that aspiration. He knew where Brown could fulfill it.
“It became a desire of mine, being a die-hard Tiger, that he end up at Clemson,” Gantt said. “I don’t know if there’s any animosity toward Clemson for him now. But I think he really wanted to go there at one time.”
Clemson never offered, even as Brown took multiple visits while also winning track titles in the triple jump. He called Clemson’s interest “more talk than anything” before settling on Notre Dame. The Tigers were deep at receiver, including with eventual first-round pick Sammy Watkins.
Gantt has followed Brown’s career at Notre Dame, recording games to play back after watching Clemson.
“A big part of me will be pulling for Chris but I’m going to be vocal and loud for Clemson like always,” Gantt said. “I told him I want him to catch 12 passes for 215 yards and four touchdowns, but I want y’all to lose 31-28.”
If that happens it would double Brown’s career touchdown total, highlighting the slow build that’s been required before this homecoming. A former one-route receiver – good enough for that 50-yard catch at Oklahoma – has grown into something with more all-around qualities. It’s taken four years.
Brown put up a career-high eight catches against Georgia Tech, out-pacing potential All-American Will Fuller in receptions and targets. Brown’s touchdown against Massachusetts last week affirmed his favored status with quarterback DeShone Kizer, who hit the senior to cap a two-minute drill before halftime.
“If you ask who that leader is of the wide receiver corps, it is Chris Brown,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “So we've come full circle here from a freshman that was struggling away from home to a leader of that group.”
The same was usually true back in Hanahan. Outside the apartment complex, Brown led the group as it transitioned between football, basketball, golf and baseball to fill time.
He surrounded himself with friends who wouldn’t throw him off his athletic path while also returning the favor. Ultimately, only Brown played high level college football from that group. But the collection also produced a wrestler at Newberry College, a football player at Lenoir-Rhyne and a football player at Navy.
Brown called Gantt’s apartment the “Success House” because of its athletic updraft.
“I love those guys,” Brown said. “When people have too much time it seems they get in trouble, but we always filled it in with going somewhere and playing basketball, going somewhere and hitting baseballs … golf, we would do anything. Anything with a ball or a racket.
“Obviously we had good effects on each other.”
Brown hopes to see some of them this weekend, reconnecting with his second family. They helped keep him on a track that led to Notre Dame and now heads home into Memorial Stadium. Gantt will be watching with his son, cheering Brown while likely dressed in orange.
Brown doesn’t mind the conflicted loyalties. He just wants this moment. It’s been on his mind since the bowl game.
“It will be an amazing experience, everybody wants to be able to go back home and represent,” Brown said. “But at the end of the day you’ve got to perform.”