The story of B Neil Brown, one stripe white belt:
B Neil Brown with BJJ legend Royce Gracie
I have been asked to share my story many times, by many people. When WBBJJ asked me if I would like to share it, I knew I had to do something a bit different. First off, thank you for allowing me to share; being asked by you is truly an honor for me.
“I am a grappling amputee, and this is my grappling perspective. This is where I have been, and where I am going.”
I was a wrestler in grade school and in high school. Those are the institutions that made me fall in love with the grappling arts (I graduated high school in 1991). I was never considered the greatest, and I will tell anyone who asks, that I think I was mediocre compared to most of the guys on my small team. I would break bones and blow out knees, but I kept at it until high school was over. I came back for a year or two when I could, to help our coach with the team. Then, all of the sudden, life began catching up with me; and I found myself with work, and a family to attend to.
I had to take a break from wrestling.
I grew up in fairly rural Western Kentucky. I became a father and eventually found a career in the pest control industry. I have earned my credentials as a certified entomologist. I spent a lot of time traveling for my company. On the weekends, I would work part time at the fire department, as a fire fighter and EMT.
Twelve or thirteen years had passed since I was on the mat, when one day I ran into an old friend from high school (a fellow wrestler) and he told me about this awesome grappling sport called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I was skeptical because I had gotten old and fat. According to my buddy, that didn’t matter, because his trainer was a guy that loved to train ex-wrestlers.
I gave it a try, and I was hooked.
The first six months or so I trained with Sensei Eric Myers. I dropped thirty pounds, and was tapped out (submitted) more times than I care to remember. It took me the entire six months to get out of the wrestler’s habit of never willingly putting your back to the mat. Yes, I paid the price — but I loved every minute of it. Shortly thereafter, I began hearing about Eric’s new Brazilian Jiu Jitsu trainer (a guy named Royce Gracie, whom I had never heard of) and heard him speak with more pride about the BJJ blue belt he had earned from him, than all his other previous martial art black belts combined.
Work had me on the road, so I trained on and off for the next two years. Eventually I gained an orange belt (about the equivalent of a 4 stripe white belt in BJJ) in the Japanese style of Jiu Jitsu.
The fun finally came to an end when work moved me too far away to train regularly. I would be lucky if I could drop in to hit the mats once every few months. Eventually work would move me even further into South Central Kentucky, and I finally had to give up the mats. It would be in that far away town of Bowling Green, KY, where I would end up nearly losing everything.
In September of 2010 I came down with a sore throat. It wasn’t much of a bother. I was popping cough drops to keep it at bay. Two weeks later, and after several trips to the doctor, I was sick as a dog laying on my couch. I had finally had enough, and I did what any grown man of thirty seven would do. I called my mommy and told her that I was sick, and to come get me so that I could be sick on her couch, not mine.
That call probably saved my life.
My condition worsened. It hurt my throat to swallow. I couldn’t breathe. I could barely move. Doctors kept giving me medications and sending me home, but nothing seemed to help. Around the 30th of September I was told that I staggered into the kitchen where my family was at, sat down in a chair, and whispered “I need help.” I don’t remember that, or anything else, until I awoke from a coma nearly three weeks later.
It turns out my sore throat had actually been a MRSA infection, and had spread to my lungs and blood stream, causing sepsis. I was told that somewhere between the ER and the ICU unit, that I had died and been brought back. My body was sick with infection so an experimental medication was used to try and fight the sickness coursing through my body. The reason being was that I was going to die anyway; so it couldn’t hurt to try.
The medications worked; at the cost of both of my legs, and all the fingers of my left hand. When I awoke from the coma (in incredible pain) my fingers and feet were black and had no feeling in them at all. Once I was stable enough to be transferred, I was sent to Louisville, KY, to one of the best hand surgeons in the nation. It was there (in November of 2010) that I would have both of my legs amputated below the knees, and all, or parts of all, of the fingers on my left hand taken.
It suddenly became time to walk the long road to recovery, and to experience many setbacks. But, by October 2011, I was walking on prosthetic legs; without the aid of walker, crutches, or cane.
I set a lot of goals for myself around that time; things that I wanted to do again that I had been told I would not be able to (riding a two wheeled motorcycle again, putting on my bunker gear, fighting fires, and even getting back on the Jiu Jitsu mat). I was told all of those things might be out of reach for me, but it was my prosthetist (that’s “leg maker” in laymen’s terms) who really lit the BJJ fire under me. You see, the very first day I ever stood up and took steps on my new prosthetic legs, I told my prosthetist that I would be getting back on the mat.
His response was, “Well, I don’t know about that.” That was all it took for me to decide that I would. I hate being told I can’t do something, and my leg guru knew it. To this day, I don’t know if he was being honest with me, or prodding me into trying.
It would end up being April of 2012 before I was able to find my old trainer Eric. We became friends on Facebook, and it was there that I explained my situation and asked him if he would allow me onto his mats. Working with a triple amputee was something he had never done, but he was willing to give it a try.
That first day back in the dojo and on the mats was an emotional one for me. There I was, a freaky looking guy with no legs and no fingers on one hand; crawling around on his hands and knees on the mat. We all wondered how things might go, but we were ready to give it a try. Eric partnered me up with someone to roll with, and told me to try a simple arm bar. It definitely felt awkward, but muscle memory kicked in, and I had my partner tapping.
Eric’s only response was, “You got this, no problem. You can still do it.” And that was it, just like that I was back on the mats.
Transitioning back into training was a bit tough, and it was sometimes hard to find anyone that would roll with me (everyone thought they would hurt me). I was also still recovering from the trauma of losing my legs, so I had a lot of down time where I couldn’t be on the mats.
Another setback was when I was told that my Japanese Jiu Jitsu orange belt, while earned, was of no use to me. Eric’s academy was now under Pedro Sauer’s Gracie system. My orange belt was put away, and I started out fresh again as a BJJ white belt. In retrospect, it was the best thing for me, as I had to learn everything all over again anyway now; sans legs. It did hurt my ego a bit when we would line up at the beginning of class to show respect, and I was again down at the far end of mat, with all the noobs. However, I quickly learned, that egos can heal.
I have accomplished a lot since my illness took my limbs. I have gone back to college after a twenty year break to get my degree in Physical Therapy, so I can help other amputees. I sold my old Suzuki muscle bike, for a more timid (still two wheeled) motorcycle that I ride. I have also done some volunteer work at the fire department. The most important accomplishment of all though, is getting back on the mat, and training my beloved grappling again.
B Neil Brown performing a modified berimbolo
Between prosthetic problems, and plain old amputee problems, it would take me more than a year to get my first stripe; but I got it, and I earned it. No one thinks a thing about slapping hands and having a sparring session with me, and I tap out my partners about as often as I get tapped out. I don’t really keep count, because I always learn more from losing than I do winning, and the worst day on the mats is better than the best day laying in a hospital bed looking down at where your feet once were.
My name is Neil Brown, and I am a triple amputee one-stripe white belt under Brown Belt Eric Myers with Team Pedro Sauer. I trained today, did you?
Thank you B Neil Brown for being one of the earliest fans and friends of WBBJJ! You are a constant inspiration! Best wishes to you in your future endeavors! OSS!