UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Levi Brown began looking at colleges as a high school student-athlete at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia, he had a couple things in his mind.
Firstly, Brown knew that no one in his family had ever obtained a college degree.
Secondly, he wanted to play on the defensive line in college.
Looking for a combination of academics and athletics, Brown leaned on his high school coach, Dave Hudak, for advice. It turns out that Hudak was fan of the way Penn State and coach Joe Paterno offered student-athletes elite academics and football at the highest level.
“It was a place where academic integrity and football could be put into one,” Brown said. “Growing up in a house where I was taught that sports were a good thing to have, but education was more important than that. I felt like this was a place I needed to be. The stars aligned and everything worked out.”
Following the guidance of his parents and coach, Brown selected Penn State as the place he wanted to attend. After all, it was one of just three programs that recruited Brown as a defensive player.
When he walked on campus as a student, Brown knew he had the opportunity of a lifetime and sought out to maximize what he had been given. That mindset began in 2002 when he started college. Nearly 14 years later, and Brown is still maximizing the Penn State experience.
After earning two undergraduate degrees and a successful career in the National Football League, Brown will graduate with a master’s degree this week.
“My parents wished they had the opportunity to get a college degree and a chance to make more income and have a better life than what they grew up in,” said Brown. “They instilled that into my sister (Brionna) and I. They urged us to go get an education and make our lives as good as they can be.”
Knowing his football career could end at any moment, Brown worked tirelessly to achieve whatever was necessary to have a successful life after his playing days ended. From the moment he arrived, Brown still recalls words of wisdom Coach Paterno instilled in him.
“Coach Paterno reinforced the fact that football is here in the present, but it’s just a game,” said Brown. “There are more important things in life, and you need to be contributing member in society. Education is one way to do that. Having people like my family and Coach Paterno in my corner really pushed me to be a better person so that I could do these things in my life.”
Things didn’t exactly come easy for Brown in his first year at Penn State. Staring at becoming academically ineligible to compete on the football field, Brown turned to Todd Kulka and the academic support staff as mentors to help shape the rest of his time in the program. It was the first time in his life he’d been away from home, and the transition into college life was entirely new for the North Carolina native.
“It came to down to me bearing down and focusing on what I needed to do,” said Brown. “If you wanted to be serious about getting a degree, you needed to focus. Having the academic staff in my corner really helped me turn things around that first year. And I just grew from there.”
On the field, Brown overcame the hurdle of switching positions, something he wasn’t too keen on at the time. But Coach Paterno had a vision for Brown as an offensive lineman. He knew that Brown could be successful, and in hindsight, it’s safe to say that Brown can’t really argue with the decision.
After redshirting in 2002, Brown started 45 of his 48 career games on the offensive line, earning second-team All-American and All-Big Ten honors in back-to-back seasons (2005 and 2006). Brown was instrumental in helping Penn State win the 2005 Big Ten championship and the 2006 Orange Bowl, earning a 20-5 record his last two seasons.
After three and a half years, Brown graduated with a degree in labor and industrial relations in December 2005. Rather than take the easy way out and have a light class load as a senior, he sought to finish a second degree.
“When I went college, I just felt like, ‘look, I’m here and I need to make the most of this opportunity,’” said Brown. “I’m getting a free education and you get to play a sport that I loved. I tried to make the most of my opportunities.”
In December 2006, Brown earned his second undergraduate degree in psychology. He then shifted attention to a master’s degree.
“I told myself, if I’m going to be here, I’m not going to just take a golf course just to be eligible,” said Brown. “I wanted to make the most of it, and see what I could do with the opportunity. It worked out.”
The standout left tackle got a jumpstart in the master’s program for human resources and employment relations because he had some room for a couple course spots to fill. A full course load in a master’s program leads to completion in two years.
However, that third degree took a backseat when Brown was selected by the Arizona Cardinals as the fifth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, which is the highest Penn State selection during the past 15 years. In seven NFL seasons (six with Arizona and one in Pittsburgh), Brown played in 81 career games, which included 79 starts at tackle.
Despite making a living in the pinnacle of the sport he loved, Brown always had the master’s degree on his mind.
Through the National Football League’s tuition reimbursement program, Brown decided to finish what he had started in 2007. So in 2011, he began taking one master’s course via Penn State’s World Campus during each offseason. Brown worked as an intern at a law firm during the process, and he recently finished the research portion of the program by assisting a company with its human resource practices.
“With the NFL reimbursing it for me, there was no reason not to take advantage,” said Brown. “At any time during my career, I could have gotten injured and cause my career to be cut short and not be able to make the money I was able to make. I needed to have something to fall back on if things didn’t go the way I planned. That’s what I did, and here I am ready to finish the masters program.”
Having been part of a team nearly his whole life, Brown has aspirations of continuing to help lead individuals in the workforce by getting a foot in the door to do human resources work with a company.
Brown has been married to his wife, Lynette, since 2009. The two met at Penn State. Currently in the process of moving from Chandler, Arizona, to Austin, Texas, the Browns have three children, twin daughters, age 3, and a seven-month-old daughter.
When he opted to attend Penn State, Brown told himself that he was not going to pass up an opportunity to succeed. As the first member of his family to earn a degree, Brown will now have three diplomas from a world-renowned educational institution.
Penn State and football opened the door, but it was Brown’s drive and initiative that fueled a journey maximized to its fullest.
“If you are going to start something, you need to finish it,” said Brown.