By Mickel Brann
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way
You couldn’t convince Fitzroy Brann that he wasn’t saving lives through sports and that the confines and all that fell under the purview of the Community Development Sports and Games Department (CDS&G) for which he was the director for over three decades was not sacred, hallowed space as important as any Christian ministry in the country.
An articulate and quick-witted man, he had many mantras and coined many catch phrases. He signed off on his correspondences not with sincerely, best regards or any of the established valedictions, but with “Let’s go with sports.” Give him a mic and regardless of the topic, he would talk, with example, about the equalizing power of sports. He was fond of saying that sports could take people from the pasture to the park.
He had the track record to prove it, too. From beneficial relationships forged with officials in the First World to thriving sports programs in all disciplines, spanning school, community and business, to professional training and opportunity for the people under his supervision, to carving out an impressive scholarship program, Fitzroy Brann lived his mantra.
To see a meeting of his staff held in the bleachers at the YMCA on Newgate Street, which became the home of CDS&G following relocation from an annex in the Treasury on High Street, was to witness a line-up of who’s who in sports in the twin-island nation. He had the best athletes working for him, but they did not have the luxury of resting on their reputations. He was not so much a hard taskmaster as much as he was, in local parlance, a dread leader. He pushed his staff, accepted no excuses, abhorred mere participation and embraced meritocracy. When a coach met the mark, he rewarded them with a new challenge. It was his way of saying I believe in you; you can soar, and you can have a positive impact on your community. And if he was measured in praising them to their face for fear of complacency, he was effusive about them to their peers, his superiors and sponsors of the respective programs.
His legendary straight-shooting was at once admired and feared. There was no doubt about what he thought because he made it clear. He could be as diplomatic as he needed to be, but he could tango with the best of the rebels and was often regarded as one by those in authority.
He understood ranking but sports was his boss. People knew two things for certain about Brann: if he had your back, you could rest easy he would go the distance; but if you stoked his ire for whatever reason, prepare for battle.
“He didn’t believe in talking behind back and bringing secrets about another worker,” recalls Clancy Mack of his former boss, whom he credits—alongside Pat Whyte and Taddy Arrindell—for starting him on a remarkable cricket umpiring career. “If you were coming to him, you had better come with facts, because at the next meeting he would say so-and-so told me this, and he was going to get to the bottom of it. He was a joke teller, but he was also very serious about the work and believed in driving people to excellence.”
Brann derived the greatest pleasure from upturning the status quo, specifically by using sports to develop the human resource capacity and to use people’s prowess in sports to open doors. By the mid-90s, Brann had turned a scholarship program that was already remarkable in its own right into a best practice example.
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
Khandi Jones, who at the time was a softball cricketer and netballer with the national team and who also worked as Brann’s secretary, recalls the scholarship initiative predominantly for basketballers.
“During the early 90s, Mr. Brann developed a partnership with Darryl Lamps (an NCAA division referee from Illinois), Lee Frederick and John Spezia and other coaches from the midwestern United States, and he was very instrumental in getting scholarships for over 50 young aspiring student athletes who went to university. Most of the time he put his hand in his pocket to fund the expense for visa and travel,” Jones said. She, too, was a scholarship recipient, after Brann insisted that netballers transition their skills to the basketball arena.
It was hardly ever a straight or easy road to university, but Brann, renowned for being irreverent and unorthodox, rarely yielded at stop signs, and he wasn’t afraid to do heavy lifting.
He and his team first identified an athlete, ensured that they had the will and determination and then worked backwards—and bent over backwards—to meet eligibility. No secondary-level schooling? No problem. He facilitated GED and SAT classes. No money for the college application process and to cover expenses? He canvassed the government, sponsors, cosigned bank loans and used his personal funds. Dependents unable to survive in a scholarship recipient’s absence? He took care of that too.
The program, to this day still unmatched, stands as testament to the vision. Of the scores of recipients, perhaps the individual best exemplifying this leveling of the playing field is Desiree Francis, a young netballer-cum-basketballer who last attended Greenbay Primary and who was afforded the chance at a university scholarship. She entered the US system at Kirkwood Community College, eventually transferring to Iowa State where she became the X factor in the 99-00 season. Although her professional career with New York Liberty was short-lived, Francis’ story is still a powerful reminder of what opportunity and a dedicated administrator can produce.
And it wasn’t just about education in the classroom. Brann arranged reciprocal tours with overseas-based teams, widening the exposure and opportunities for local athletes. And he believed in reward and life-changing experiences. At the end of the respective seasons, players could look forward to the selection of a team to travel within the region. This marked, for many, their first time abroad. Under his tenure, a select Parish League Cricket side could count on an annual jaunt to New York to play matches in Van Cortlandt Park.
If Brann saw untapped or under-utilized potential, he harnessed it, as was the case with commentator Austin Richards who recalls his introduction to the man after a disappointing non-selection to his community cricket team. “I was sitting under a tree in Swetes doing my thing and he heard me and said, ‘no, you don’t belong here, you belong in sports’ and he brought me to Sports and Games and the rest is history,” Richards said.
National Hero Sir Vivian Richards, whose association with Brann began in the 70s, dubbed him a “firebrand”.
“The magnitude of what he has done, he would have made over 100 percent in terms of his contributions to sports and the cultural side of things. He was always so energetic. He was always a driving force. If someone was lacking in terms of what was to be achieved, he was always there making sure that things got done, and I have had enormous respect for him over the years,” Sir Viv said.
It was this passion that drew many to him, and, as Jones noted, it transcended sports. “Mr. Brann was a community activist, a sports enthusiast and an ardent lover of culture and the arts.
“He was all about advancing all aspects of sports from the community base up to the national association. He was faced with many challenges but that did not faze him. He encouraged various communities to form executives to see to the affairs of the communities, hold fundraisers, have after-school classes and beautify their surroundings,” Jones added.
If he set a program and there was no budget from the government, Brann trawled the country for sponsors—building a relationship with American Airlines, Antigua Commercial Bank, Global Travel and Tours, and Harney Motors, among other companies—and where there was a shortfall, he filled it. Failure was never an option.
Concerned by the open use of marijuana and other drugs at community sports fields and courts, Brann dubbed the YMCA “a clean corner” and assured parents that their children would be safe there and set about to make his word his bond.
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
One isn’t revolutionary without ruffling feathers and Brann often faced political headwinds. Sometimes he would tack to the center for the greater good, and sometimes he stayed his course for the greater good. It meant that while he earned respect and admirers, he also earned detractors.
Over the decades, he had his scuffles and survived to follow the dictates of sports. But to everything there is a season. One of greatest travesties Brann faced was the ill-advised dismantling of CDS&G in 2005. The closure gutted schools, community and business league sports, scattered trained and experienced coaches in the wind without direction, halted the scholarship and other beneficial programs, and left relationships and commitments with international partners hanging.
It was a figurative amputation for Brann, who had given the best he had to give and made many untold personal sacrifices. His concerns weren’t for himself. It was for all the people who were negatively impacted, from the coaches, to the communities, to the athletes.
His family jokingly referred to him as homeland security, as he spent most of his time at home, reading voraciously as he had always done, reviving Sportscene, his publishing company, and assisting the scores that still sought him out. But there was little else funny about the situation. The truth was that officialdom had attempted to put a man who had toiled to move many people from the pasture to the park out to pasture.
But Brann remained as he always was—indomitable and inimitable—even with the challenges that came with ageing. If you rang him on the phone and asked colloquially, ‘How you do?’ He would respond, “Me do as me like.”
If you brought up sports, he regaled you with stories, schooled the listener on Antigua and Barbuda’s sporting heroes, those heralded and those unsung. He recalled the nation’s progress and missteps, noted the things that ought to be done.
To the end, he insisted that sports could take you to the moon if that was your desire and if you worked hard.
And if to anyone who asked, he told them if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve travelled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way