Spring 2021 Magazine

Life's trials and tests have helped Vanderbilt's Tyler Brown become one of NCAA's top pitchers

When the Vanderbilt baseball team finds itself in a tight situation, needing a steady hand to help it prevail, the ball often gets put in the right hand of sophomore Tyler Brown. The 20-year-old was an All-SEC relief pitcher this season, leading the conference with 14 saves and helping the Commodores win 49 games in 2019, tops in Division I.

>> Subscribe to Sports Spectrum Magazine for more stories where sports and faith connect <<

“Because to Tyler, that’s not pressure. That’s just competing,” Vandy head coach Tim Corbin told the Tennessean. “Life has thickened his skin. He’s had experiences you and I have not had.”

The tough times began when he was 9 and his mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that builds up in bone marrow and crowds out healthy blood cells. Four years later, after ups and downs and multiple strokes, Cindy Brown passed away on Aug. 3, 2012.

Her health put a strain on her marriage, which ended in divorce after Tyler finished fifth grade. Tyler doesn’t have a relationship with his father, and spent much of the rest of his childhood living with various families. For a time he was with his Little League coach, Greg Ramsey, and his son Walker, a close friend of Tyler’s. At 17, Walker died of a seizure.

For another period of time, Brown lived with his mother’s friends, Jimmy and Amie Walker. Within two years, Jimmy died in a car crash.

At 16, Brown was adopted by Brandon and Koren Oswalt. Brandon was one of Brown’s summer baseball coaches, had lived a similar life and could relate. The two would often go fishing together, where they would pray and discuss life.

“Brandon just came into my life,” Brown told the Tennessean. “God was present when we met.”

From there, Brown thrived on the baseball field and attracted attention with his 95-mph fastball. Vanderbilt was one of the schools interested, and one of the best programs in the nation. It had just won the 2014 national championship when Corbin traveled to Ohio to see Brown.

But the young flamethrower threw out his arm as he tried out for Corbin. He tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, forcing him to sit out for more than a year. That effectively ended the college recruitment process — or so Brown thought.

“His backstory helped us stay on him,” Corbin told the Tennessean. “If he was tough enough to get through all that, he was worth taking a chance on.”

Entering college, Brown had already experienced more trials than many do in a lifetime. But even more came his way. Two weeks before arriving in Nashville, Brown’s girlfriend, Jocelynn Butcher, became pregnant. He feared telling Corbin, but the coach assured him the team would support him.

And on March 22, 2018, Isabella Rose Brown was born — but then suddenly taken away. She was barely breathing due to a Tetralogy of Fallot, a condition that limits oxygen because of holes in the heart. Isabella also had Down syndrome.

Her heart temporarily stopped during her first heart surgery at 5 months old, and six months later she was taken on a life-flight helicopter with respiratory syncytial virus, pneumonia, bronchiolitis and a collapsed lung. The holes in Isabella’s heart had quadrupled in size.

Another surgery was successful, and Isabella is a happy, healthy 1-year-old getting ready to watch her daddy play in the NCAA Tournament.

Ranked No. 2 in the country, Vanderbilt is among the favorites to not only reach the 2019 College World Series, but among the clubs that figure to challenge for the national title. The Commodores have won 22 of their past 23 games, a run that made them the first team to sweep the SEC regular-season and tournament titles since they accomplished the same feat in 2007.

Vanderbilt, which is hosting one of the 16 opening-round regionals, will face Ohio State on Friday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). And when Brown gets the call to take the mound, he’ll do so knowing he’s been tried and tested in so many ways, all of which have led to a growing relationship with Christ.

He found God and learned to forgive through his experiences with his father. He experienced God’s love when a loving family understood him and adopted him into their family. He marvels at God’s blessing of a child.

“I can sit here today,” Brown told the Tennessean, “and tell you that I don’t deserve all the ways that God has blessed me.”

RELATED STORIES: 
MAGAZINE: Florida State baseball coach Mike Martin is the seminal skipper
New York Mets catcher Wilson Ramos reveals remarkable story of faith behind tattoo
Chicago Cubs’ Steve Cishek keeps Bible verse in back pocket to ‘put everything in perspective’