Bob Brown sits in the driver’s seat of his red Polaris ATV and looks at the horse paddock. There is silence at this far end of the ranch. The distant noise of live country music roared happily from the barn and barely registered over the dry desert breeze. It is a precious moment of peace for Bob, who has done everything in his power over the last two months to stay busy and fill the silence. But consolation is always only temporary, giving way to waves of sorrow, which most days seem inevitable as ebb and flow.
He still feels like he and Chris were parked on the edge of the pasture yesterday, drinking Coors’ lights and watching the horses roam. Since last spring, when the pandemic brought Chris back home, it had been a place where father and son talked — about the ranch, about the music, about everything in between — dreaming of plans until the beer and sun of a nearby hill disappeared.
The ranch was in the middle of this future. Bob bought these 53 acres of desert wine in Temecula in December 2019, fulfilling a promise he made to his wife Erin on their first date decades ago. He planned to change from California Ranch Co. to the family shrine and cowboy paradise, complete with a salon, arenas for horses, equestrian training ground, party barn, wedding venue. But none of the Brown family — neither his older brother Nick nor his younger sister Kaylin — got to the ranch quite like Chris.
He loved cowboy hats and cut tank tops, line dance and country western bars. Chris especially loved country music. He stretched his acoustic guitar as an additional pendant. One day he dreamed of going on stage to Stagecoach, a country music festival in India that he attended every year. He had a stage name, Chris Ryan.
“If you want.” be country, then you have to live country, ”Bob told his son. So when Chris was home for days or weeks, he cleaned up the stables, fed the horses and cattle, and cultivated the land.
For the past year, as friends and family say, Chris seemed to have settled down on his journey. After playing as an offensive lineman at USC, playing briefly with the Chargers, and then turning to Washington, DC to play in the short XFL, Chris was ready to play football. He landed on the site of commercial real estate. He poured his time into the music, wrote the lyrics in his diaries, and dedicated the chords to Kaylin.
“He was finally happy where he was,” said Justin Caruso, his close friend and roommate.
Using the past tense leaves loved ones lumps in Chris’s throat. On April 17, eight days before his 25th birthday, Chris Brown was found unconscious in a friend’s pool during a party in Malibu. He died in hospital eight hours later. An autopsy later revealed his death as an accidental drowning caused by acute alcohol intoxication.
Bob Brown, months after the tragedy, remembers his son as a “father’s dream.”
He stares back at the pasture. Then his phone rings. He is needed back to the ranch, where a live band plays country music, steaks are grilled and there is a competition for horses, all as part of an event organized to celebrate his son’s life.
A short ride later, Bob climbed the steps of the ranch to the horse arena to greet the cowboys competing in honor of his son. He grabs the microphone, takes a deep breath, and spits out a welcome speech. He apologizes for the inconsistency.
“My son will be honored to be here with all of you,” he says.
He tries to put on a brave face. But when Bob reached the exit, he leaned both hands against the wall to calm himself, trying his best not to fall apart. Tears come anyway.
And I pray when I go to bed at night /
That I will wake up in paradise /
And we’ll meet at the bar where we first met
– Chris Ryan
His friends will find the diaries a few days after the party. It’s a happy discovery. Scrolling through the pages seems like a window to Chris they’ve never seen before.
“Chris didn’t share his feelings with us,” Caruso said. “So just seeing that part of him was really weird.”
Some magazines are full of lyrics, dozens of stanzas of lyrics. Others with random lists, goals and schedules. They tell the story of a year of great change and fresh ambitions, a pivot from football to its greatest passion, music.
Chris’s guitar came naturally. Because Bob and Erin bought him his first $ 25 Christmas present from Costco when he was 7 or 8, the guitar rarely left Chris’ side.
After years of lessons, his music teacher told the Browns that he had nothing more to teach their son. Chris learned from there, learning from YouTube clips, a natural ear that allowed him to pick up songs when he heard them only a few times.
“No matter where he has been or how he’s doing, it would always end up with him and his guitar in hand,” said Wyatt Schmidt, a close friend and roommate who also played football at USC. “There was nothing better than seeing a guy with his eyes closed without thinking about what he was doing, but just inventing a beautiful blues country song.” His fingers just moved. “
His athletic career tells a similar story. At first, he was a natural baseball player when he once dampened four home runs in the Little League. But as he continued to grow, football became his future. At Loyola High, Chris became one of the most sought-after offensive recruits in the country. In the end, he decided to stay close to home and, among other things, chose USC over Oregon and Texas A&M.
The first two years were rough. In 2014 he reappeared as a newcomer, then in 15 he played sparingly. “He felt like an animal in a cage,” says Bob. But patience and hard work paid off, and by 2017 he had become a top USC lineman. In May 2019 Chris signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chargers.
It was also clear to his coaches that Chris had other aspirations. He often played guitar in the locker room.
“Football was not over for him,” says USC coach Clay Helton. “Just one of those kids who was good at everything he tried.” He was as good as a guitarist and a football player. “
Chris still tried to stick to football. When Coach Chargers once asked him what was important to him, he told them that he was going through football thinking about music. Soon after, they surrendered to him and before landing with the defenders of the XFL DC, he bounced off the training team and him. He played five games and got a starting place before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the league.
“I know he still played football for me,” his father now says.
But the premature end of the season brought the father and soon to him. Bob called the year that followed a “blessing in disguise.” It brought relief and purpose to Chris, even though it was hard to give up football payouts. He focused on writing music and playing guitar late into the night. He shared each of the new songs with Kaylin.
He became involved in real estate and became an associate agent at Lyon Stahl Investment Real Estate, a commercial brokerage in El Segundo. It didn’t come naturally this time. He had to call clients cold, sometimes hundreds a day. But he was determined. He wrote down his career goals in his diary. He stayed late in the office. The last text he sent to Bob just days before the April 17 party in Malibu was a selfie from an empty office.
“Work leadership,” Chris wrote.
“It only takes one,” Bob replied.
It seemed only a matter of time before Chris found his step in real estate. That, or write a hit country song. His close friends considered his future success a complete conclusion.
Losing him was devastating. But as his friends sit around the table on the ranch, trading in stories and laughing at his intrigues, there is no doubt what legacy he has left in this narrow group.
“All the people closest to my life right now came from Chris,” Schmidt said. “He brought them all together.” I think it will stay with me the most. “
The phone rang sometime after 9:30 PM on April 17. Bob was already in bed. “Chris had an accident,” a voice on the other line told him.
Bob says he doesn’t remember any of the two-hour drives to Malibu that followed. But he can’t forget the scene after his arrival at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, where Chris’ friends stood scattered around and cried. Then he felt it was more than an accident.
Chris was on life support and joined the fan. His oxygen level was low. His body temperature was around 85 degrees upon arrival. The rest of the family arrived early in the morning.
There were so many questions, but too few answers. The report from Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office filled in only a rough outline. The investigator noted that Chris drank all day and had a blood alcohol level of 0.422. He was in the pool with 15 to 20 people when the others came in for unexplained reasons. When they returned, between 30 seconds and two minutes later, Chris was underwater and did not respond.
His death was controlled like an accident, but there was no consolation in the word. During Chris’s memorial service on May 27, Bob saw four chairs where the family was sitting, and reflexively grabbed a fifth. Every part of him felt that Chris was still there.
“The grief is that it hurts,” says Bob. “Everyone does it alone, but you do it together as a family.”
Every member of the Brown family has dealt with it differently in two months since then. For the first few weeks, Bob felt like he couldn’t breathe while tying his shoes. But he was still composing for days. He relies on his faith. He talks about accepting and relieving pain, even though he feels it is constantly exploding beneath the surface.
“He goes, he goes, he goes, he goes, he tries to be as busy as possible,” says Kaylin, “so he doesn’t have to think about it.”
Chris’s younger sister struggled with such grief with her grief. Blown photos of Chris around the ranch are difficult for her to process. He was her best friend, mentor, confidant, protector.
Only the night before had she decided to speak at his memorial. Standing on stage at the Los Angeles Coliseum, she told the story of their last trip to Chris’s favorite country West bar, how a group of older women accused them of being fraudsters trying to steal their credit card information, and how Chris released to ease the situation as she vacated the bar.
Describing their relationship was a convenient scene, with two like-minded siblings always enticing problems to laugh at them later. She’s missing those moments right now.
My friends are gone
This bottle of whiskey on my bedside table never lasts long,
I drink all by myself,
A truck and a guitar are the only things I call my own
It’s more than I need, not exactly what I want, but what can I do?
The only thing I miss is you
– Chris Ryan
Two months passed when friends and family flooded the ranch to celebrate Chris’ life. Sadness is still an open wound. But Bob prefers to ventilate it. The ranch buzzes with country music and real cowboys.
Memories and margaritas flow. Chris, spinning invisible turntables like an imaginary DJ. Chrisdancing with a cute girl in Stagecoach. Chris, devour breakfast burritos and laugh at the weirdest clips on YouTube. He lives on in the stories and there are many of them.
It’s too amazing for Kaylin to be on a ranch without Chris. A few days later, she will fly to Oahu, the date of her return is open.
But for Bob, the earth is a lifeline. She feels Chris here. She talks to him every morning. He sees his number 77 everywhere. “We couldn’t be in a better place in the world than to heal,” he says.
He points in the distance to Mount Palomar, where another USC lineman, Max Tuerk, died unexpectedly on a trip last day of his fathers. Max and Chris were friends, and Bob found out last summer and in the fall that his son was thinking about Max.
“I told him to look at the mountain, and you’ll feel it,” Bob says. “He’s always here.”
He lingers in that thought for a moment, thinking of Chris blowing a desert breeze, carrying the sound of a blues-country riff on the ranch.