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A farewell to Neon Dion

“You’ll like him. He’s a cool guy.”

That’s what I heard after I first arrived in the Upper Peninsula when I asked about Gwinn football coach Dion Brown.

Brown died on Wednesday evening at Gwinn High School from what police described as a “natural medical event.”

I’d come up too late to take part in the annual football previews that we put out in the Journal, so I wasn’t able to build up a connection with any of the local coaches.

So when it came time to write about them again, I asked what he’s like and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a coach described like that.

The next season, I found out how true that was. I showed up to practice for an interview and to get a team photo. Dion couldn’t have been more welcoming.

He came over as soon as he saw me and gave me an honest interview. It was never coach-speak with Dion. He said exactly what he thought and always made sure to say good things about every kid.

Dion also had a way to change your mind about some preseason thoughts on his team. The assumption that year was that Gwinn was going to struggle again, but within two minutes, he had me believing that this team was on the rise and they were going to make some noise soon.

After each game, win or lose, Dion had a smile on his face and that smile was infectious. No matter how the team played, he always found positives and said ‘We just need to keep working.’

All that effort paid off in 2016. The Modeltowners made the MHSAA playoffs for the first time in almost two decades and I was at the game when the playoff berth was clinched. It was at home against Ishpeming and after Gwinn won, the smile on his face was so big that I’m convinced he was the happiest guy in the state.

There are two moments that stand out to me the most during that year. The first is when Ryan Myrehn and I called him “Neon Dion” on the ESPN-U.P. Coaches Show one Saturday morning after a Modeltowners victory.

He laughed and said he was called that when he used to play football. From that point on, he was known as “Neon” Dion to us younger guys in the media.

The other moment came after the All-U.P. football awards were handed out. I put him up for Large Schools Coach of the Year, and when I told him he won, he was thrilled.

Not for himself, but for the team. In Dion’s mind, each award that Gwinn won was an acknowledgment of everything his players had worked for over the course of the year, as well as over the past two years to help get the team to the playoffs.

Dion told me the following season that he wanted to “lay down a foundation and a structure” and that “they needed kids to buy into what we do and leave out all the negativity.”

He also said “once we put that to the side and the kids believed in themselves, we started to turn things around.”

Dion always believed in his team and he not only got his team to believe in themselves, but even us in the media.

After the Modeltowners dealt with a slew of injuries in 2017, they made it back to the playoffs in 2018. Just like in 2016, I was on the sidelines when Gwinn earned their postseason bid. When the Modeltowners defeated Munising, Dion was ecstatic. When Dion was finished talking to his team, he jogged over to me, grabbed me and pulled me in for a hug.

That’s still the only time a coach has done that to me. I guess he just wanted to share the moment with me and he made me feel like I was a part of the win, even though all I was there to do was try to write a good story.

This past season, Dion told me he was determined to get further in the playoffs. In his mind, it was nice to get to the postseason twice, but he didn’t want the Modeltowners to be satisfied with that. He held his team to a high standard as well as himself.

If there was any doubt about his dedication, I watched him participate in a drill during practice and make a play. When it came time to take a picture, he wanted to be in it and not just off to the side. He wanted to be in the middle with the kids, which showed me just how much he connected with his players.

Even though the year didn’t turn out the way the Modeltowners wanted, he still was willing to talk and shoot the breeze. We’d walk out of the stadium together, just talking about football and how proud he was of the kids, fighting till the end.

I didn’t know Dion as well as a lot of you who are reading this. I’m not a player, coach, student, teacher or even a resident of Gwinn.

But in the six years I interviewed him, I could tell he was something special. His positivity, dedication and his willingness to be a mentor to his players was obvious and that’s what I’ll remember most about him.

It’ll be strange not talking with him again this fall about his team, because he was already eager to discuss it back in November. He was a coach who genuinely loved football and enjoyed teaching the sport to kids. He was one of a kind and I’m sad that he’s no longer here.

When I came here, I was told that I’d like Dion from the start. Six years later, I can say that was probably an understatement.

He easily exceeded those expectations and he’s, without a doubt, the coolest coach I’ve ever met and his mark in the U.P. won’t be forgotten.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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