Suzanne Brown has a back-up plan.
She knows that there is a window in her bedroom, one right above the crate where the family’s french bulldog Penny had been sleeping. She’s on the first floor of the rambler the Browns bought six months ago. If she can’t army crawl her way under the thick, black smoke that has taken up residence in her home, or if the fire that she hears burning away in the kitchen grows too big, she has an escape route. She’s wearing boots; it is, after all, a cold February night in North Dakota. If it comes to it, she’ll just kick out the window.
Because her two daughters are standing in the driveway.
She’s not going to let this be the last time they see their mom.
But she knows what the fire is going to do. She knew it as soon as she unloaded a fire extinguisher on the flames, watching a spot next to the stove go out as the flames kept climbing. Up past the backsplash, through the cabinets, to the ceiling. This will change everything. Even if the firefighters make it in time to save the house, everything in it is a lost cause. Their clothes, their beds, their blankets, the flat-screen TVs they had just hung in their newly-finished basement.
Suzanne Brown knows this is going to turn her family’s life upside-down, and she’ll be damned if she is going to let that happen while her kids mourn Penny.
So off she goes, into her burning home, under the smoke and past the burning insulation falling from the ceiling, to get to that crate and free that yappy little pup from her tomb.
No one is quite sure how the fire started.
What they do know is that it began in the kitchen; at the stove, to be exact. At around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 21st, Suzanne was cooking dinner for the family when the power in the neighborhood went out. Kyan Brown, Suzanne’s husband and an assistant coach on the North Dakota State men’s basketball team, had just arrived back in Fargo after two days on the road recruiting. He went straight to his practice, which ended at 6 p.m., and then was en route to watch his 12-year old son Caleb’s practice. Suzanne met him there after they lost power, and she stayed until she got the call that the power was back on in the neighborhood.
So she headed home with their daughters, Khloe and Sophie.
Not 15 minutes later, Kyan got the call.
“She was hysterical,” he said. “I couldn’t make out if she was laughing or crying. I couldn’t hear words.” It reminded him, he said, of the scene from Anchorman when Ron Burgundy was in the phone booth, trapped in a glass case of emotion. He left the gym, where he heard the words that changed everything: “The house is burning to the ground.”
Kyan lined up a ride home for his son and sped home, passing people on two-lane roads, hoping that he’d pull into his driveway and find out Suzanne was exaggerating.
“I got eight or nine blocks away and I could smell the smoke,” he said. “Holy sh-t, that’s not good.”
Their street was completely blocked by fire engines. Kyan stopped, left his car in the middle of the road and took off running. What he found when he got to his driveway was that the fire department had done their job. They put the fire out before it spread beyond the kitchen. They put it out before it compromised the integrity of the structure.
The house will survive.
But nothing inside the house did. None of their furniture. None of the drywall. They will hopefully be able to salvage some of the windows and some of their clothes, but not much more than that. The morning after the fire, when the family walked into the house with their insurance agent to assess the damage, the first thing she said was, “Your wife really ran back in here?” Soot stained the top three feet of sheetrock for the entirety of the main floor of the house. The insulation covering kitchen and living room made it look like the house had received a dusting of snow overnight.
The repairs — which, thankfully, will be covered by insurance — are not going to be cheap, they’re not going to be quick and they’re not going to be easy.
The working theory is that the fire started with the stove, that it either malfunctioned when the power came back on or that it was not properly turned off when the house lost power, but the truth is that doesn’t really matter to the Brown family.
What matters is no one got hurt.
What matters is that all seven members of the family made it out OK.
When Suzanne first arrived at the house that night, she opened the door and the family’s massive and aptly-named mastiff Smokey came sprinting out of the house, but unbeknownst to her, when she went in to save Penny, Smokey, ever the protector, followed her in. He eventually made his way into the basement, where he was taken out in his crate by the firefighters.
It wasn’t until that moment that Suzanne knew her family was intact, that whatever hardships they had in front of them they would endure together.
“We’re OK,” Khloe, who is wise beyond her 14 years, said, consoling her mom. “We’re all going to be OK. We have everything we need right here.”
This isn’t a story about a team rallying around a member of the program. It’s not a story about someone overcoming adversity to achieve their dreams.
This is about a community coming together to take care of one of their own. It is a story about a family trying to find a way back to normalcy when their existence is anything but.
The life of a college basketball coach is never going to be simple. For six months out of the year, they see their co-workers more than their families, a dynamic that is exacerbated once February and March come around. There are games to scout, players to recruit, practices to plan, flights to catch.
Put another way, scrambling to keep a household with three kids that have jam-packed schedules running smoothly is the norm for Suzanne.
“The hardest part,” she said, “was feeling displaced. At the end of all the crazy, we always have home. That’s our safe place. The hardest part is knowing that at the end of the day, you’re not going home. You’re going to sit in a hotel.”
It’s more than just the comfort of your own couch or the privacy of your own living room.
It’s impossible to fathom just how much stuff you need to keep life running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, and Suzanne was facing the impossible task of trying to replace all of that without a home. She didn’t want her kids to fall behind in class so they were back in school the Monday after the fire, but they needed clothes — shirts, pants, underwear, socks — to wear.
Take Khloe, for example. Her safe space is on the volleyball court. That’s where things are familiar. That’s where she can find normalcy, by going to practice during the week and traveling to games on the weekend. She wasn’t going to stop playing volleyball, but her gym bag with all of her volleyball gear — from a ball and shoes and a jersey to things as simple athletic socks, spandex and sports bras — was sitting on the kitchen table just feet from the fire. Hell, she needed a new gym bag to keep it all in.
Even Kyan needed help. The Bison played that Saturday, and he needed a suit. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, he can’t exactly buy off the rack.
“You don’t think about all the things you need,” Suzanne said, “until you don’t have them.”
Head coach Dave Richman helped him out with that. He made a call to Halberstadt’s in Fargo and got Kyan lined up for a suit the next day. The NDSU women’s volleyball program hooked Khloe up with the gear she needed. Caleb’s teammates made sure he had what he needed and always had a ride to and from games. A GoFundMe for the family has raised nearly $10,000 to date. When Suzanne was moving into the house this week, Richman’s wife loaded up their minivan with two loads of stuff — all the things that you need to make a house a home. Cleaning supplies, toilet paper, all the way down to the simplest things in life, like a bottle of ketchup for the fridge.
“My wife, the coaches’ wives, they’ve been doing laundry and soaking clothes, going over and over and over again, to try and get the smoke out of them,” Richman said.
Even the players did their part to help out. Junior forward Deng Geu asked Kyan what his favorite restaurant is to take someone on a date, and then he and junior guard Chris Quayle surprised Kyan and Suzanne with a gift card for dinner, a night out on the guys.
For Kyan, the impact and amount of what they lost didn’t hit him until someone offered to help him move.
“There’s nothing to move,” he said.
There were some things that the family was able to salvage. Sophie’s old stuffed animals aren’t exactly in mint condition, but Suzanne was able to keep them. A blanket she had made out of all of Caleb’s old t-shirts survived, although it may not be clean enough to be anything other than a memento that’s kept out of sight. Kyan’s father passed away six years ago and the dresser he passed down survived, although it’s no longer functional.
The saying goes ‘things can be replaced, people can’t.’
But that’s not entirely accurate.
A hard drive can be replaced.
The thousands of pictures on that hard drive that documented college sweethearts becoming parents three times over?
March Madness has come to take on an entirely new meaning for the Brown family this year.
They spent nearly three weeks living out of a hotel room. Mom, dad, three kids and two dogs tasked with navigating the unrelenting schedule of a sports family without any semblance of personal space.
But that, mercifully, came to an end this week, as the Browns were finally able to move into their rental home on Tuesday. They will be there for the foreseeable future, and while it isn’t their home, it is a home.
That’s a start.
Suzanne did most of the heavy-lifting herself; Tuesday night just so happened to be the night of the Summit League tournament title game. NDSU, the No. 4 seed, knocked off Omaha to earn the program’s second trip to the NCAA tournament under Richman.
It was the first time in 20 years in college basketball as a player and a coach that Kyan earned a trip to the NCAA tournament.
“I had been in this game once as a player and three times before as a coach,” he said. “Never broken through. She’s been with me the whole time.”
She was not with him on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t just because of the move. “I had already taken some days off work,” Suzanne said. “I wanted to save the rest of my days off for the NCAA tournament. I just had a feeling we were going to win this.”
When the final buzzer sounded, as everyone’s family started making their way down to the court, deputy athletic director Todd Phelps noticed that Kyan was the only guy that wasn’t hugging his wife, or his kids, or his mom.
So Phelps did the only thing he could do.
He FaceTimed Suzanne.
“She was crying,” Kyan said. “I was crying.”
“It’s something I’ll never forget.”