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Eden Prairie sprinter Denzel Brown pushed his pace in the face of adversity

05/29/2017, 9:13pm CDT
By David La Vaque, Star Tribune

Denzel Brown has had hurdles put before him, like learning to trust.


Eden Prairie High sprinter Denzel Brown, right, the state's top male track and field athlete, got a ride to school from his Eden Prairie High School track and field coach Bruce Kivimaki at 6:30 a.m. Brown then worked to catch up on geometry in order to gr

Without parents to support him, Eden Prairie sprinter Denzel Brown catches a daily ride to school from his high school track coach, who picks up the Eagles senior at the house belonging to Brown’s summer track coach.

Brown’s mother, with whom he had been living, died unexpectedly last June, a day after he won the 200-meter dash at the Class 2A state championship.

Brown, who swept the 100- and 200-meter races in two showcase track meets this spring, is the favorite in both races, along with the 4x100 relay team he runs on, at the state track meet in June.

But without extraordinary coaching support on and off the track, Brown’s immense talents were in danger of going for naught.

Eden Prairie is Brown’s third high school, the byproduct of family moves; a strained relationship with his mother, who suffered from emotional problems before she died; and a father who lives in Las Vegas.

As he rose to prominence on the track, Brown slipped in the classroom. The academic situation became more dire as Brown grieved the loss of his mother.

Bruce Kivimaki, the Eden Prairie track and field coach, and Marc Brown (no relation), director of the Real Athletics club track and field program, became pillars of Brown’s support network. Through them, Brown found stability and began to focus on academics with the same vigor he brings to the track.

Last Thursday brought a key victory when Brown passed geometry, one of three subjects he had flubbed in the fall.

Later that day, he announced via Twitter a commitment to run at Western Texas community college. Those milestones provided fuel for Brown as he aims to complete a do-over in chemistry by the end of the school year. And he will retake algebra in summer school.

The state’s fastest high school sprinter is enduring an emotional marathon. But he’s not alone.

“Marc and Bruce working together is making everything possible,” Brown said. “It means a lot. Growing up there was really no support from anyone, so it’s a good feeling. It’s like they’re my family.”

A village of coaches

Brown grew up in the Hopkins school district and ran for the Royals as a freshman. They won the team title at the Class 2A meet in June 2014, led by Shaheed Hickman and Terrance Bowers. Brown dreamed to be like those two standouts someday.

Hopkins coach Nick Lovas expected nothing less.

“We didn’t have to coach his twitch, that natural explosion of muscle fibers,” Lovas said.

Things were better then for Brown at home. Lovas recalls the young man proudly introducing his mother at an indoor meet at Bethel University. The veteran coach also noticed, however, the way Brown “would hang around practice a little longer” and sensed “he wanted something more than a workout.”

Marc Brown, who worked at Hopkins, saw the state meet patch on Denzel’s backpack and offered to work out with him five to six days per week outside of the high school season. Their efforts helped Brown reach the state meet as a sophomore, though not for Hopkins. By that time, his mother had moved closer to her employer and Brown finished his sophomore year at Edina. He was the Hornets’ only track athlete to reach the state meet.

Before Brown changed schools, Lovas called Hornets coach David Boone. “Make sure he knows you are his advocate,” Lovas recalled saying.

Brown’s relationship with his mother soured. He said she suffered from mental illness and that personality changes, along with her working a night shift, complicated his home life. He moved in with an older brother in Eden Prairie and, two weeks before his junior year began, transferred to Eden Prairie.

This time, Boone passed the baton to Kivimaki.

“He told me Denzel was going to need some help because he struggles in school a little bit,” Kivimaki said. “Denzel is such a great kid, we all looked out for him.”

Earning trust

It took more than a year, however, for Kivimaki and his staff to gain Brown’s trust.

The day after his mother died in 2016, Brown attended the Eden Prairie team banquet. He said nothing of her death. Kivimaki didn’t find out until he received a text from Lovas.

“He said to me once, ‘All the adults in my life have let me down,’ ” Kivimaki said. “He has trust issues. He is very private and can close himself off.”

The news of the death hit Marc Brown hard. An all-state sprinter at St. Paul Highland Park in the mid-1990s, he, too, struggled with his mother at the time, and in the classroom. He offered Denzel a place to stay, paying forward similar support Marc had received from a high school coach.

But Marc Brown has implored Denzel to make the most of his chances. Marc, despite the support he got, did not graduate with his class. He later earned a GED and attended a junior college before competing and coaching at Minnesota State Moorhead.

“We talk about grades every night,” said Marc, who is completing a master’s degree in education. “He has to be a student first. I really believe it’s clicking now because he knows his potential.”

‘He was worth it’

When Kivimaki picks up Denzel from Marc Brown’s Edina home, it takes about 15 minutes to drive to school. They have a routine when they arrive each morning. Kivimaki stops to scan his entry card as Brown prepares to open and hold the door.

At 6:30 a.m., nearly 90 minutes before classes start for the day, virtually none of the 3,000 students who attend Eden Prairie are around.

Kivimaki acknowledges concerns with the perception that his motives to help a star athlete are selfish ones. The coach said he has “bent over backward for other kids” through the years, helping them afford equipment such as track shoes.

“This isn’t just because Denzel is so good,” he said. “He’s just a kid that needs more help than others.”

They head to Kivimaki’s science lab, where the teacher prepares the day’s lesson while the student-athlete readies work toward academic redemption. Sitting in Kivimaki’s office — a decorated shrine to the Eagles’ successful track and field program — Brown opens a laptop computer and gets to work.

Last week, Brown finished making up his geometry class with help from his teacher Katie Milton. Kivimaki thanked her for helping two or three mornings each week.

“He was worth it,” Milton replied. “He works hard.”

Earlier in May at the prestigious Howard Wood Dakota Relays in Sioux Falls, Brown put his talents on full display. He won the 100, 200 and 4x100 and he said he drew interest “from at least a dozen” college programs, including Texas-El Paso. The Division I program remains in his post-community college plans. That means staying patient as he takes care of business in the classroom.

“I don’t think of it as disappointing,” Brown said. “I just think of it as a process that’s going to be a little longer than I expected it to be.”

There’s a tattoo of a lotus flower on Brown’s chest, which he said represents “coming from a dark place. All my struggles, it’s just … it’s all coming together now. I’m on the way out.”

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