In a coaching career that spans four decades and half of the state of South Carolina, Jerry Brown has been the head of many football teams. But the most important team that Brown has been a part of is the two-member squad formed when he married Mary Ames Brown nearly 33 years ago.
Through the years, Mary Ames Brown has been instrumental to her husband’s success as a coach and a mentor.
“There’s a song that says ‘you raise me up to more than I can be,’ and that is truly the best way to describe what she does for me,” Brown said. “I stand on her shoulders, and she allows that.”
Spring Valley opened the season with a victory against Lower Richland this past Friday and has an open date this week.
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Through 33 years of marriage, Mrs. Brown has supported her husband’s mission in a thousand ways – from mailing out parent letters and maintaining scrapbooks to opening her home to his players, to baking thousands of her famous motivational cookies.
“I will do anything I possibly can to help him,” she said.
Together, coach and Mrs. Brown have had a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of student-athletes over the years, because of their tremendous teamwork.
When Spring Valley announced Brown’s hiring in April, then-principal Baron Davis said the Browns were more of an asset to the Vikings as a package deal.
“She’s a part of this program and always has been,” said Vikings athletics director Tim Hunter, who was an assistant coach during Brown’s first stint at Spring Valley in the 1980s.
“Seeing the relationship her and her husband have in front of the players, the way she supports him, it’s just a very good example for our kids to see,” Hunter said.
If ever there were perfect pedigree for a coach’s wife, Mary Ames Brown has it.
Mary Ames grew up in an athletic and competitive family in Columbia; her father and brother, both Deane Fowble, played football at South Carolina.
Coach Brown was working part-time as an assistant for the younger Fowble at Richland Northeast when he hired Mary Ames to work at one of his fitness centers.
“He was my brother’s friend and I didn’t think he was really interested in me, especially because I was older than him,” she said. She was also divorced, with three children. But Brown was undeterred.
“I had to fire her so that I could go out with her,” he said.
In 1982, they were married, and two years later, Brown became a head coach at Spring Valley.
“She’s always been an ideal coach’s wife,” Brown said. “She’s been real active with the kids, and we have the same kind of heart for the kids.”
Mrs. Brown understood the personal sacrifices that would come along with being the coach’s wife, and she was glad to make them, because she shares a profound belief in his mission.
“He really loves to win, but the main thing is that he wants to teach these boys about life, and how to live it well. I just try really hard to do what he needs to accomplish that,” she said.
Beyond that, she believes in her husband, his story, and his capability.
His father left when he was young. His mother died when he was a teenager. And then he lost a full scholarship to Furman when he was injured in the Shrine Bowl. While coaching at Fairfield Central, Brown took night and weekend courses at Carolina for five years to earn his doctoral degree.
“He is not a man who has had it easy. He does not do things the easy way, and so he is really able to talk to these kids in a way that they understand,” Mary Ames said.
The way she champions him, and his team, is a tremendous gift, coach Brown said.
“I believe when the wife cherishes the husband’s work, the husband will cherish the wife, and that’s how it has been with us,” he said.
On three occasions, the Browns had football players live with them for different reasons. One was a boy who had been rejected by his most recent foster family, and was at risk of being sent to a group home in the Upstate. Mary Ames, once a volunteer guardian for foster children, contacted the social worker and lobbied to have the boy stay at her home.
Her caring for his players is an inspiration for the coach.
“The way Coach was a father figure, Miss Mary Ames was a mother figure, not just at Spring Valley, but in my life,” said Vikings alumnus and NFL veteran Willie Williams.
Williams made it a point to keep in touch with the Browns over the years.
“Whenever I call and talk to Coach, I try to talk to her, too, because she also had a big influence on my life,” Williams said.
And while coach Brown has asked for her help with certain tasks, Mrs. Brown’s most renowned role with the team was her own idea.
“I just thought I could make them cookies,” she said of what she thought was a small gesture. “I made this big poster that said, ‘You win. I bake.’ And then I’d make them two or three cookies each, every time they won,” she said.
When coach Brown moved on to Berkeley, Mrs. Brown kept making the chocolate cookies.
“I ‘bout got sick of those cookies,” she laughed. “The season that we were 15-0, that was a looong, season.”
The cookies were a hit long after high school for some players.
“She was still sending me cookies when I was in college, and man did I look forward to those packages,” Williams said.
In 18 years at Berkeley, Mrs. Brown got the cookie tradition down to a science—four hours on Sunday after church are devoted to cookie-baking.
She was glad for a break when her husband decided to retire in 2010.
The Browns moved to Dutch Fork, to be close to their teenaged grandchildren — Ames, 16, and Edy, 14. But Mrs. Brown knew quickly that retirement did not suit the coach.
“I told him, “Jerry, get a job,” she said. “I feel like, if I had said I didn’t want to move or I didn’t want him to take another job, he wouldn’t have. But I would never do that to him,” she said.
So in 2012, Mary Ames was back to baking cookies, this time for the Panthers of Batesburg-Leesville.
And at the start of the 2014 preseason, Mrs. Brown baked three cakes for the Vikings seniors. Her pantry is stocked in preparation for a season that will, hopefully, include several hundred more cookies.
Mary Ames Brown has her own interests, such as leading a ladies’ Bible study, craft sewing, and spending time with the grandkids. But her greatest gift, through wins and losses and celebration and struggle, is her unwavering commitment to being on Jerry Brown’s team.