MADISON HEIGHTS – It’s been nearly 10 years since Madison Heights Madison had a three-sport athlete that competed at the level Austin Brown has the past two seasons.
Valdez Showers was a versatile athlete for Madison in 2009 and 2010. He played defensive back and rushed for more 2,000 yards his senior football season, then played basketball and sprinted for the track team before heading to University of Florida as a receiver/defensive back/kick returner.
Twenty-five years ago Madison boasted another three-sport athlete who gained much attention. Brown’s father, Jim, played football and baseball for four years, and as a senior he also played on the varsity basketball team. Jim Brown was named first team all-state in football in 1992 and went on to play two seasons at Wayne State before graduating in 1998.
The past two seasons Austin Brown was named first team all-state in both basketball and football. Brown’s third sport, baseball, might be his best although he was not named all-state on the diamond last season.
Certainly many other athletes have competed at a high level at Madison over the years. The Johnson brothers, Deandre (2007 graduate) and Juan (2015), both star running backs, come to mind. But as far as three-sport athletes, the Browns and Showers are a cut above.
As far as enrollment, Madison isn’t your typical Oakland County school. Those in Rochester, Troy, Walled Lake and other communities have more than 1,000 students. Madison’s pool of athletes is not as deep with an enrollment hovering around the 300 mark. There were just under 600 when Jim Brown was starring, and 450 when Showers was making headlines.
It’s perhaps too soon to come to a conclusion as to whom of the three is the better overall athlete, but soon Austin will get his chance to prove himself at the collegiate level in two sports.
Austin Brown, who turned down scholarship offers from Division I schools for football and baseball, signed with Grand Valley State for both baseball and football. At 6-foot and 195 pounds, Brown was recruited as a quarterback and in baseball is expected to play infield and get a shot at pitching.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “My dad was excited about Marshall when I committed (for baseball). Then I told him football was my first love. Grand Valley was always there. Grand Valley was always in the picture. I committed to Marshall in August (2018), and I had time to think about it. I wasn’t going to have anyone pressure me.”
The earliest high school student-athletes can sign a letter-of-intent for baseball is November of their senior year, so Brown had more than two months to reconsider his collegiate future.
The recruitment of Austin Brown began, seriously, when he was in junior high. He has competed at a high level in both baseball and football since he was 10. He participated on baseball travel teams that took him Florida and Texas. At quarterback, Brown led Our Lady of Victory, located in Northville, to Catholic Youth Organization titles in seventh and eighth grade. His football play earned him a scholarship offer from University of Akron. Miami of Ohio would offer Brown a scholarship a year later.
Brown enrolled at Detroit Catholic Central, located in Novi and six miles from Our Lady of Victory, his freshmen year. Brown started the last 10 games that season and led Catholic Central to a Division 1 Regional Final. As a sophomore, Brown led the Shamrocks to the Division 1 championship game, although he didn’t play in the loss to Detroit Cass Tech – near the end of the first quarter of the 17-0 Semifinal victory over Romeo, Brown suffered a broken left fibula. The injury not only ended his season, but prevented him from playing basketball that winter.
The incident added to what had already been a period of change for Brown. Citing burnout, Brown gave up playing baseball before entering Catholic Central. His leg rehabilitation gave Brown time to think, and talk with his father, about his future. Jim Brown has three sons and one daughter, and nothing in dad’s life is more important than their future. In Austin’s case, at this particular time, it was decided that he should transfer to Madison, where Jim Brown was and remains the athletic director.
“I felt like I had something to give back (to Madison Heights),” Austin said. “I wanted to bring a state championship home.”
There was more. Austin’s older brother, Nick (Wallace), graduated from Madison in 2013. Extended family lives in the Madison area including Jim Brown’s father John Brown, who was responsible for encouraging his son Jim to participate in athletics in the first place. Austin has had the opportunity to play baseball with his younger brother, Dylan, now a sophomore. The move brought Austin closer to his family and, in the end, that’s what Jim and his wife, Nicole Brown, are all about.
“My dad was big into sports, and it filtered down,” Jim said. “I used to take Austin on trips (playing baseball) when he was 2-years-old. He’d pick up bats and things like that.
“I was one of the better athletes in our school, but he’s at another level. The moment was never too big for him. As a freshman, competing against (Birmingham) Brother Rice and (Warren) DeLaSalle, and competing at a high level, it was awesome to see.
“Kids and parents came out to see him play. He’s one of those kids who put it all together. He doesn’t get past the moment. Some will look past high school and already be thinking about college. He enjoys every game.”
In retrospect, the move to Madison paid off in a number of ways for Austin. One, by returning to the diamond he regained his three-sport status, thereby opening the door to play baseball in college. He admitted “he got the love back” for the sport almost instantaneously. Last season he batted .604, was 5-1 on the mound and set a school record (tied for seventh in MHSAA history) with 20 strikeouts in a game.
Two, he was instrumental in making Madison a winner on the basketball court and football field. In 2017 he led the Eagles to their first MHSAA Semifinal appearance since 2006 (when they finished Division 5 runner-up), and last season Madison reached a Final for just the second time in school history. Brown was outstanding in his team’s 50-44 loss to New Lothrop – completing 17 of 30 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns and running for 105 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. His 403 total yards tied for fifth-most in a championship game, and the four rushing TDs tied for third most.
In basketball, Madison had one of its best seasons this winter in 20 years or more. The Eagles won the Macomb Area Conference Silver with a 9-1 record and finished 21-4 overall losing to Detroit Edison in a Division 3 Regional Final. The season highlight – and one of the most exciting games in the Detroit area all season – was Madison’s 73-71 District Final victory over one of the most storied programs in state history, Detroit Pershing. Brown, who averaged 22.8 points, made the winning 3-pointer as time expired.
It’s a play his father won’t soon forget.
“As a parent, it makes your stomach turn, plays like that,” Jim said. “First, it was against Pershing. They’ve won like four (Class A) titles. It was a packed gym at (Madison Heights) Bishop Foley with a lot of local people there. And Pershing travels well, too. It’s one of those things you can’t get out of your mind.”
Through it all, Austin remains modest. Again, that comes from his family, particularly his parents and older brother. He’s confident, but not one to boast.
“You’ll see a lot of kids with his talent have a big ego,” said Madison varsity baseball coach Scott Labrash. “He’s a humble kid. It’s wonderful to see that. It’s easy on me. The little things I don’t have to remind him of. His attitude is contagious.”
Austin said he’s uncertain just which sport is his best. He did say he has more fun playing football. His father said, in the end, baseball could be his best – adding that it’s possible Austin could be selected in the June MLB Amateur Draft.
His season and career statistics stack up against most. In his two years at Madison he threw for 5,030 yards with 56 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 462 attempts. He also rushed for 2,337 yards and 45 touchdowns. Brown’s eight touchdown passes in a half in the 2017 opener is an MHSAA record and one off the record for an entire game.
Including his time at Catholic Central, Brown has accounted for nearly 10,000 yards (passing and rushing) in offense and 127 touchdowns.
But this is the most important statistic, at least on the field: As a quarterback, Austin is 46-4. He lost just two games in his 23 starts at Catholic Central.
Off the field, his grade-point average is 4.0. He received a B just once, in his freshman English class. He’s expected to finish as class valedictorian and has been selected as one of just six finalists for the Detroit Athletic Club Male “Athlete of the Year” Award.
“If I’m not busy, I don’t know what to do,” Austin said. “My dad shows me what to do, and I listen to him. I’m going to try my best to be a good reflection of my parents.”
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Madison Heights Madison’s Austin Brown has shined in football, basketball and baseball. (Middle) Brown and his father Jim. (Below) Brown breaks through the line during the Division 7 Football Final at Ford Field. (Baseball photo courtesy of C&G Newspapers.)
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
2023 Made In Michigan
July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)