In 2009, Jason Brown seemed to have it all—a successful NFL career, a lovely wife and a growing family. In fact, he had a five-year contract with the St. Louis Rams for $37.5 million, at the time making him the highest-paid center in the NFL.
Then after two seasons with the Rams, Jason's coach told him that he would no longer be the starting center. He was, in effect, demoted. But Jason found peace when he sensed the Holy Spirit assure him that his identity didn't lie in his occupation or in football. And what happened next completely took him by surprise: He felt God leading him to quit the NFL. And become a farmer. Walking away from his football career at age 29 seemed unthinkable to his friends, family and coaches, but Jason was confident he had heard God's call.
But what would this mean for his family? The change would be dramatic for both Jason and his wife, Tay. She had invested years studying to become a dentist and getting established in a practice. Moving to North Carolina to home-school their kids and help Jason farm would mean suspending her career, too.
And so began an unexpected journey that taught the Brown family how to trust God, grow vegetables and focus on what is most important in life.
Choosing to follow God
When Jason was a child, his father had a good government job in Washington, D.C. But because Jason's mom didn't feel the environment was right for their children, she and the kids moved to her hometown of Henderson, North Carolina. Jason's dad commuted—every other weekend he'd go home to family in North Carolina. Although Jason's parents made the best of their situation, Jason vowed to himself, I am never going to do that to my family. I am never going to do a long-distance relationship. But with a career in the NFL, that's exactly what happened.
Jason and Tay married in 2003 while they were still in college. After they graduated in 2005, the Baltimore Ravens drafted Jason, and Tay was accepted to the dentistry program at UNC Chapel Hill. "The early years of our marriage, it was a big struggle," Jason says. "There was a lot of sacrifice. We had separate goals those first four years during the long-distance relationship." In 2007, their first son, J.W., was born.
After Tay finished dental school and Jason became a free agent in 2009, things started to change. Jason was offered a contract with the St. Louis Rams, and he and Tay were finally living in the same city. "God gave us relief," Jason says. "At the same time, we were being pulled by the world—still chasing money, entitlement and all these things. It really was a recipe for disaster. We put on this fake facade and image for as long as we could."
Jason and Tay felt that God had given them a tremendous blessing and an awesome responsibility in their children. And the couple realized that their fast-paced lifestyle was keeping them from focusing on the kids and their needs.
Then the news came that Jason would no longer be starting for the Rams. Although other teams were interested in Jason and he could have pursued a lucrative career elsewhere, his priorities of faith and family led him to embrace what he refers to as a "humbling halt."
"The Holy Spirit revealed to me one night exactly what my family was going to look like if I continued along that path of selfishness and not putting Christ first in our lives," Jason says. "And He revealed to me that there was brokenness, there was poverty, there was divorce." Jason's response was a leap of faith: "God, I know that You can redeem our marriage. I know that You can redeem our family. What do You want me to do?"
The answer to that question came as a huge surprise to Jason. He admits, "Never did I think that God would say, ‘I'm going to call you to be a farmer.' I said, ‘God, really? A farmer? I don't know a single thing about farming. And also, why?' "
Jason wrestled with the idea of farming, studied videos on YouTube and made himself a student of other farmers. The idea took some getting used to for Tay, too. "When Jason told me that he wanted to leave the NFL," she says, "there was a moment when I was concerned. I'm definitely a planner, and it was such a sudden adjustment from what we were used to. But I made the decision to put my fears aside, have faith in God and support my husband."
So they purchased a 1,000-acre farm and moved to North Carolina. They named their acreage First Fruits Farm because Jason and Tay believed God was telling them to feed the hungry and use the farm to witness to others about Christ's love. Their first harvest was in 2014, and they donated 120,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 10,000 pounds of cucumbers to food banks.
Building a marriage
While sharing the Gospel and providing food for the hungry are highlights of their new lifestyle, one of the most rewarding things for Jason is seeing the joy in the faces of his family. With five kids — J.W., 9; Naomi, 5; Noah, 3; Tre, 1; and baby Judah — that's a lot of joy.
But with a home-school schedule, a farm and speaking engagements, Tay and Jason still have to be intentional about making time for just the two of them. "When [the kids] go down for bed at 8 o'clock at night, that gives Tay and me quality time to spend together," Jason says. They definitely have more opportunity to be together now than they did during their NFL days, and the Browns absolutely enjoy that freedom.
Jason and Tay have discovered that teamwork is key to a successful marriage. "We have to have open and honest communication with one other," Jason says. "Even here on the farm, we still have separate and distinct roles, but we come back together. We understand that we need to work together to accomplish our goals in Christ."
They make prayer a priority, too — both as a couple and as a family. "My kids need to see and hear their father pray," Jason says. "They need to see my reverence toward our heavenly Father. They need to see that no matter how big and strong of a man I am, there is an authority that I bow down to."
The Browns admit that life on the farm can be hard, but God continues to teach them through it all. Each fall, the farm hosts an event called the Harvest of Hope, when volunteers come help pick and bag sweet potatoes for delivery to food banks — no small job when you're anticipating a harvest of more than 50 tons.
God used the 2015 Harvest of Hope to help build Jason's faith. Jason and Tay were expecting about 1,500 volunteers to show up, and the forecast that day called for rain. Sure enough, the day of the harvest the volunteers showed up — and so did the rain. About 1,000 volunteers chose to leave, but as the rain stopped and the sun came out, Jason discovered that about 500 faithful people had stayed for the harvest. They worked diligently. Jason admits that the successful harvest did not happen because of a large number of volunteers, but because of "a few faithful, humble people whose heart was there to serve."
From the football field to the sweet potato fields, Jason and Tay continue to give thanks. "Looking back at it now, we wouldn't have it any other way," Jason says. "There's such a blessing in how far God has brought us in such a short period of time. It's been an awesome journey."Troy Griepentrog is a senior associate editor for Focus on the Family magazine.