All signs pointed to another big contract for NFL center Jason Brown. He’d been cut by the St. Louis Rams a few weeks earlier in 2012—a casualty of a head coaching change—but plenty of teams were still interested in the 28-year-old offensive lineman. Jason had already rejected an offer from the Carolina Panthers; another former team, the Baltimore Ravens, seemed eager to get him back.
Before talking to the Ravens, Jason and his wife, Tay, traveled to San Francisco. Tay hoped her husband would accept an offer from the 49ers. For Tay, a Bay Area native, it would mean being closer to family. It would mean coming home. But when Jason returned from the 49ers facility and opened the door to their hotel room, he told her he’d turned them down.
Tay was angry. Her husband was rejecting multi-million-dollar deals! He seemed like he was disinterested
in playing professional football—a profession millions would love to have.
“So what’s the deal, Jason?” she asked. “You turned down the Panthers. You turned down the 49ers. . . . If you’re not going to play football, what are you going to do?”
Jason took a deep breath. “God is telling me that we need to sell our home in St. Louis and move back to North Carolina,” he said. “He’s telling me to purchase some land there. Because God is telling me that . . . He wants me to be a farmer.”
Jason had actually been thinking about this move for months. He felt that God was calling him back to the basics: Family. Faith. The rich Carolina earth that his family had called home for generations. But he’d not told anyone else about this seemingly crazy seed that God had planted in him—not even his wife, not until now.
Tay stared at Jason for a minute. How could he drop this bomb on her in the middle of a marriage that was already struggling? “Jason,” she finally said, “I’m so happy God is sharing all these things with you, because He’s not sharing any of this with me!”
Jason and Tay met nearly a decade earlier, after Tay graduated from Duke University and Jason was a standout lineman for the University of North Carolina. Jason insists that Tay was literally glowing when they first met, as if God had put a spotlight on her. It took Jason just one date to know that Tay was the woman he wanted to marry.
They seemed perfectly synced: Their priorities were faith, family and education. And they both had big dreams—she wanted to become a dentist, he was destined to play in the NFL—and they were determined to pursue those dreams together.
They married in May 2005. He was 20, she 22. And at first, everything was wonderful. They lived together in a modest townhome as Jason closed out his college career—studying together, laughing together, praying together.
“And then came the call from the world,” Jason says.
Dreams take sacrifice. Tay pushed dental school back a year to help Jason deal with the tragic loss of his brother in Iraq. Then Jason was NFL bound, but he had no control over who he might play for. Any one of 32 teams might draft him, which made it incredibly difficult for Tay to choose a dental school.
Finally, they decided that Tay would apply for dental school in North Carolina and make the state home base. Jason would play football wherever the NFL asked him to. They agreed to try a long-distance marriage during the season.
“You make the best choices you can at the time with the information and the wisdom you have,” Tay says. “And when you’re 20-something years old, that’s what we thought would work out best.”
Jason ended up on the Ravens, and the separation was painful. When their first child, J.W., was born in 2007, Jason felt the distance growing between them.
“I was not offering the quality time or the emotional support that [Tay and J.W.] needed,” he said. “I was providing for my family, but there’s a huge difference between being a father and a provider.”
Because they spent so much of the year apart, Tay says that they didn’t really have each other to depend on. “We were slowly pulling apart. . . . Where it says [in the Bible] that ‘the two shall be as one,’ we were drifting, and not really being one.”
By 2009, Tay had finished dental school, and Jason had signed with a new team, the St. Louis Rams. He inked a $37.5-million deal—a record amount back then for an NFL center. They bought a massive 12,000 square-foot mansion in St. Louis—plenty of room for their growing family.
But by then, that family was coming undone. All that time away from each other had turned the couple into two very separate individuals, complete with their own interests and hobbies. “I had my ways, and Jason had his ways,” Tay says.
“Everybody says that money, it’s a blessing,” Jason says. “But at the time, we didn’t handle it well. We were not good stewards, and it was actually more of a curse because . . . it didn’t bring out the best character in us.”
“It intensified our independence rather than bringing us closer together,” Tay adds. “Jason was making money; I was making money because I was working at a dental office. So if I needed something at this point, I would go out and do what I wanted.”
Both were, by their own admission, selfish and stubborn. Both had inflicted plenty of hurt on the other, and trust between the two was, by late 2011, almost nonexistent. Their marriage was heading, in Jason’s words, toward “absolute destruction.”
And in wealth
But no one else knew. They attended church every week, smiled through their pain and said all the right things. They were, after all, role models—a power couple who seemed to have it all. Jason was an NFL star. Tay was a dentist. Who wouldn’t want to be in their shoes?
But by Christmas of 2011, Tay didn’t want those shoes anymore. She wanted out.
“I remember having a conversation with God,” she recalls. “It was like, ‘Am I going to stay or am I going to go?’ ”
She decided to stay—to stick with their marriage, no matter what.
But when she heard that Jason wanted to quit football and become a farmer, that was a whole new challenge.
Tay felt God drawing her to a Bible story—from Genesis 20—in which Abraham tells a king that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, not his wife, putting Sarah at great risk. The Bible said that “God protected Sarah” throughout that time, and Tay drew hope from that.
“[Sarah] had to put her trust in God, and God was the One who protected her,” Tay says. “That’s what God showed me. Maybe I didn’t have full faith and trust in my husband [at that time], but God [was] going to protect me.
“It was me just leaning on God,” she adds. “And I had that moment where I said, ‘I’m all in. I’m going to do this thing. I believe You have called him to this life.’ ” It was a choice.
Jason and Tay bought what would become First Fruits Farm in late 2012. They had two children at the time; now they have eight—most delivered right on the farm, one by Jason’s own hands.
The road to the couple’s healing wasn’t easy. It required repentance. It required forgiveness. And, as anyone who’s gone through the process of healing a relationship knows, moving that bond from “bad” to “good” isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Instead, the change in their marriage happened a little like gardening. They planted seeds of healing deep underground. Then they watered, weeded and nurtured them.
The healing of their marriage didn’t spring from the ground fully formed, but rather it grew day by day, week by week. Finally one morning, they found that they had something truly special: a renewed relationship.
Their farm has been fruitful, too. Since their first harvest in 2014, First Fruits has produced more than 1 million pounds of fruits and vegetables.
And Jason and Tay have given almost every cucumber and sweet potato away. Their produce goes to feed North Carolina’s most vulnerable, and that’s not all. Through multiple festivals and volunteer opportunities, First Fruits brings people from all walks of life who visit or volunteer on the farm closer together.
And to hold
It hasn’t been easy: Jason and Tay will both tell you that. Crops sometimes fail. Volunteers don’t show up.
Farming is hard work, and home-schooling eight kids adds another degree of difficulty. The luxuries and the financial security they had when Jason was in the NFL are a thing of the past.
But both will say that, as hard as they work and as tired as they get, their lives are better now. They’re together—truly together. In the past, they’d nurse grudges for days. Now they compete to repent first and seek each other’s forgiveness.
“We still get on one another’s nerves,” Jason admits. But when they argue, they often literally tell each other: “You are not my enemy.” They are partners in God’s work.
Mr. and Mrs. Jason and Tay Brown
Tay adds that she and Jason have banned one critical word from their relationship.
“We call it the ‘D’ word,” she says. “Divorce is no longer part of our vocabulary. It’s no longer a thought. The Bible says to take our thoughts captive and submit them, right? So the ‘D’ word is no longer welcome in our home and in our thoughts.”
Because of Jason’s NFL past, he naturally receives most of the press and accolades for First Fruits Farm. Tay is quieter, more retiring. But Jason stresses that Tay is the farm’s real unsung hero. Neither of them could do it alone.
“I pray for Tay more than I pray for myself,” Jason says. “I know some people say, ‘Oh, that’s so nice,’ but it’s a selfish prayer. Because I need this woman.”
For better or worse, the marriage vows say. In their marriage, Tay and Jason have experienced both. They had wealth and fame. Then they gave it all up and found the better. Each other.
First Fruits Farm
Jason and Tay Brown’s First Fruits Farm is a nonprofit ministry that feeds thousands of hungry and needy families across North Carolina with its produce, primarily sweet potatoes. It’s also a family operation, but with more than 1,000 acres of farmland, it’s far more than one family can handle alone.
First Fruits welcomes volunteers throughout the year, but especially during harvest season. For information on how to volunteer, visit wisdomforlife.org/volunteers. And if you’re not in the area (or don’t have time) to volunteer, First Fruits welcomes donations. Go to wisdomforlife.org/give for more information or to donate.