One day, Brown approached the boy. What is your deal with me? Brown asked.
Then that giant man, all 6-foot-4 and 350 or so pounds of him, dropped to his knees.
Dean Brown reached out, and his massive arms pulled the boy into an embrace.
The boy stopped swinging and started to cry.
By late afternoon on Nov. 29, Brown was ready to be discharged from the Cleveland Clinic. He had passed all his tests. Doctors were preparing to prescribe antibiotics, but one asked Dean to stay just a while longer to monitor him. If everything is OK, Dean said, then there's no reason for me to stay.
They asked him to walk around the emergency room to check his oxygen levels. He passed out before he finished the lap. In a matter of seconds, Dean came to. He returned to his room and lay down on his bed. He was dead moments later. The autopsy revealed that a blood clot passed through his lungs.
The first emails among the 1988 team members went out that night. Mark Green was headed to a golf outing in Orlando to join three former teammates: George Streeter, D'Juan Francisco and Corny Southall. Southall got the news before his flight left. The rest learned upon their arrivals.
"We haven't even made our way to the hotel," Green said. "We were all in the airport in Orlando, just looking at each other."
So began another of the rounds of mourning that had occasioned this team over 24 years. This, though, was the only one juxtaposed against wild celebration and runaway hope. Notre Dame was playing for a national championship again, finally. It was very literally the moment they'd all been waiting for. And Big Happy was gone, leaving a hole in the middle of all the joy.
"It's certainly bittersweet, absolutely," Pritchett said. "The loss of Dean is more important to me than Notre Dame winning a national championship. Notre Dame winning the national championship is important, but this is a loss of a teammate; he left behind kids and family.
"Yes, I wish nothing more than for this team to win the national championship and beat Alabama. It would be great for Notre Dame. I've been pulling for them with all my heart all year. At the same time … this is the death of a teammate."
Said former linebacker Stan Smagala: "To lose Dean Brown — I'd rather have Notre Dame go 0-8, 0-9 and not lose that individual."
A good number of the 1988 squad gathered at the McKinley Grand Hotel in Canton the night before the services for Dean Brown and slung stories about their beloved teammate. Tony Rice talked about how Brown kept him out of trouble more than once. They filled the room with laughter before they said goodbye.
And many of them will travel to south Florida, on similar itineraries to the one Brown planned in the back of an ambulance in late November. There are plans in the works to gather as a team, along with Holtz and former defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez, and even if they can't get tickets to the title game they'll tell still more stories long into the night.
"Dean would want us to go out and enjoy what's going on," Stams said. "There's going to be a little bit of a somber moment or two, but that's not what Dean was about. Dean would want the guys to get together, tell the stories and share the laughs and enjoy the moment for him. To me, that's the best way to reconcile it."
The memorial program handed out at Dean Maurice Brown's funeral service featured a picture of his warm, hulking face in a wide smile on the cover, with a short obituary inside. It mentioned that he was an all-star football player and a member of Notre Dame's 1988 championship team, which the memorial described as one of the best undefeated teams in college football history.
On the back was a poem: Chief Tecumseh's words of wisdom. It was included because it was an inspiration to Dean. It speaks of enjoying life and serving others and abusing no one. It speaks of not being afraid to die. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home, the last line reads.
The email about Dean Brown's death circulated late on Nov. 29. When he received it, Michael Stonebreaker absorbed the news and then hit "reply all."
"I just want to say," Stonebreaker wrote, "I love each and every one of you mugs."