The biggest hit Wingate coach Joe Reich ever witnessed came on Oct. 11, 2003. No one was tackled or blocked off their feet. The only impact came from the ball and punter Chris Brewer’s foot.
“I was on the sideline,” said Reich, who just completed his 18th year as head coach. “I’m in charge of the punt team. He was punting from our own end zone, and I turned away for a second. Somebody asked me a question just as the ball was snapped.”
That meant Reich didn’t get to see the hit in question, just hear it.
“When he hit the ball,” Reich said, “you could hear the foot on the ball and the crowd go like, ‘Ohhhh!’ I’ve never heard anything like the sound of the ball coming off his foot and the reaction of the crowd.”
The result was an 89-yard punt which still stands as the Wingate school record, 23 yards longer than anything else.
“Normally, when you punt a ball that far, you line-drive it, and it rolls,” Reich said. “It went 70 or so yards in the air. I heard the sound and looked up, and … I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. The ball hit inside the opponent’s 20 and rolled to like the 4-yard line.”
In addition to punting, Brewer was also the Wingate kicker. He holds the school record for longest field goal as well.
“I remember, his senior year at West Virginia Wesleyan,” Reich said. “He had the (record) 55-yarder, and a 47-yarder (the second-longest field goal in school history) and two other field goals in the same game.”
Brewer’s powerful leg impressed then Panthers kicker John Kasay.
“I don’t remember how we hooked it up, but Chris and John ended up getting together and kicking,” Reich recalled. “John called me up afterward and was like, ‘That kid has as good a leg as anybody in the league right now. This kid is just unbelievable.’”
Brewer never kicked in the NFL. He had a brief preseason stint with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL. He spent time in the Arena League and other minor leagues, but, aside from a few scouting visits, the NFL never came calling.
“I just wish we had the connections with pro teams back then that we do now,” Reich said, “because that kid could have been a pro.”
Soon after graduating, Brewer set football aside to focus on the rest of his life.
Ironically, his post-football life was what led to him getting honored on the field at an NFL game.
“Last January, I started feeling a lump in my neck,” Brewer said in his Survivor Story video. “Two months later, I noticed it was getting larger. So I went to the doctor, and she asked me one question: ‘Have you ever had night sweats?’ I said I had, and she left the room immediately.”
When she returned, she had two referrals and a painful either-or for Brewer.
“She said it was one of two things: Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s,” he recalled. “She gave me a slip to a place where I could get a CAT scan and a slip to go get blood work.”
It was Hodgkin’s, and Brewer began treatment in April 2016.
“Luckily, it was Stage I,” he said. “I went through eight rounds of chemo and three weeks — 15 days — of radiation. Hands down, the scariest time of my life. I’ve lost a father to cancer and two grandparents. We didn’t have a survivor story in our family.”
Brewer credited the support from his football family, as well as his wife and two young daughters, for helping him get through it.
“Playing at Wingate, that community, really helped me,” he said. “Being in athletics, even aside from cancer, is one of the things that made me a fighter in everything I do.”
Reich offered support to Brewer and used him as an example to his current team.
“He always worked so hard,” Reich recalled. “I remember one time, they were doing hills. We have this really, really steep hill next to our game field. He’s not just running up the hill. He’s doing multiple reps, going up sideways, shuffling up, going up backward.”
Brewer put that work ethic to use during his cancer fight.
“One time on Facebook, he put up a picture of his (birthday) cake,” Reich said. “In frosting, it said, ‘F*** Cancer!’ I showed that to my team. That’s what you do. You fight.”
Brewer has been cancer-free for more than seven months. In early October for a home game against the Carolina Panthers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers honored him for his fight against the disease. He got to go onto the field and join other survivors to form a giant pink ribbon during a special halftime ceremony.
Brewer plans to continue taking an active role in the fight. “I want to give back to the cancer community,” he said after the ceremony. “I want to raise awareness, raise funds, so a cure can be found in my lifetime.”
If anyone could help kick cancer, it’s the guy with the powerful leg.