One more article from Bill Briggs.
'South' was truly flying at a different elevation."
Quiet death for one who lived out loud
Ex-CU football player Brandon Southward, who drowned last month,
was known as a free spirit.
Denver Post Staff Writer
Brandon Southward is dead.
That's the news, final and harsh, still too slippery for his
friends to grasp. In the words of his favorite poet: "Who could
tell them that here it would end?"
The former University of Colorado linebacker, who devoured his 28
years in bold bites that took him from snow caves to Brazilian
beaches, drowned Feb. 23 while swimming laps in a pool. That's the
news. But that's not the story.
Brandon Southward lived.
He climbed trees while naked and hiked shirtless through Manhattan
- the tattooed claw marks on his shoulders revealing a secret
persona he liked to call "my inner beast." He leapt from cliffs
into Boulder Creek and plunged into the cavernous philosophy of Ken
Wilber. He sold fruit plucked from the Amazon rain forest, got paid
to patch up surfboards and chose to ride out a hurricane in his
"Most people had a difficult time understanding what made Brandon
tick. The truth was, life made him tick," former CU teammate Ryan
Black said. "'South' was truly flying at a different elevation."
The irony that tinged Southward's final minute - a diehard surfer
perishing in calm, chlorinated water - also saturated his entire
The man with a football body and a philosopher's mind drowning in a
Florida pool. CU fans who caught the news likely recalled a
ponytailed linebacker from Colorado Springs who laid
plastic-popping licks. But friends just asked: What if Southward,
28, had been able to complete his lifelong journey of
self-discovery? Where would it have taken him - and them? His
wanderings already had taught him the hollowness of material
riches, the cracks in society's rules, the force of charity.
At 6-feet-4 and 260 pounds, he often whipped his lighter teammates
in wind sprints. His 86 tackles as a senior - second most on the
team in 1998 - earned him a rabid following at Folsom Field.
And all that hatched the final irony: A football obituary about a
man who resented the label "football player."
"One percent of Brandon Southward was football," Black said. "He
could care less about football. He just played it because it was
fun. He would take reading a book over going to practice."
He relished maverick writings that blasted away at society's proper
edges - the spiritual psychology of Wilber, the dark poems of Jim
Morrison, lead singer of The Doors. Where other CU players watched
the clock during their 20-minute ice baths after practice,
Southward once required hypothermia treatment because he took a
book into the tub and didn't notice the rising chill in his body.
"That was 'South,"' former CU linebacker Andy Peeke said. "He
would get lost in a smorgasbord of words and imagination."
"A lot of people didn't know where he was coming from," added
Jamie Spittler, a childhood neighbor and lifelong friend. "He
wasn't a freak by any means, but he liked to explore himself in
different ways than most people do."
NFL wasn't in the cards
His quest for inner meaning led Southward to routinely test his
As a senior at Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs, he made 24
tackles against Centaurus High - after missing the team bus, the
pregame warm-up and most of a night's sleep while battling food
poisoning. At CU, he trekked to the mountains with Peeke and
another teammate, convincing them to spend the night in a snow
bank. They dug a cave and Southward crawled into his sleeping bag -
"the cocoon," he called it - zipping it just tight enough to
leave a 2-inch breathing hole. He kept a shovel, flashlight and
knife nearby, and an escape plan in his head, just in case the
He left CU in 1998 with 147 career tackles, but his 25 special-
teams tackles placed him ninth all-time on that list of snarling
NFL scouts saw him as a late bloomer with more heart than skill.
The Jacksonville Jaguars offered him two free-agent tryouts but
released Southward in both 1999 and 2000. His football days were
over. His football friends were always waiting. Black, a former CU
safety, had launched his own company, Sambazon, which imports
fruits and juices from the Amazon while working to sustain the rain
forest. Black knew Southward's energy would make him the ideal
pitchman for a health-packed product.
"To this day, I have not seen anyone build the quality of
relationships that he did," Black said. "He was truly gifted in
making people believe that they could fly. He would tell older
ladies that our product would make them 'live longer, jump higher
and run faster.' Serious claims and serious comedy."
"You've just got to rub people behind the ears to get them to do
what you want," Southward liked to say.
In late 2003, Southward traveled to Brazil for what was supposed to
be a quick business trip. He stayed two months. The excursion,
friends say, changed him even more deeply, showing him how little
other people had, yet how they still lived fully.
He began sharing more of his space and his time. During the Florida
hurricanes last year, Southward stayed behind in his adopted town,
New Smyrna Beach, then used his own generator to restart his
"Whatever Brandon had, half of it was yours," Black said. "No
His chosen career ultimately consisted of stray days at the NSB
Surf Shak. When he wasn't selling or repairing boards, he kayaked,
rollerbladed and surfed. Just five years removed from brief stints
in the Jaguars' training camp, the only football he played was to
toss parking lot spirals to Paul Hughes, a co-worker at the Surf
"He lived day by day," Hughes said. "He was happy as can be."
"Being 'South' was a full-time job," Black added. "He didn't
care about money, only people."
Day like any other
On Feb. 23, another Wednesday in Southward's paradise, he spent the
day biking and skateboarding, according to Hughes. At 3:30 p.m., he
jumped into a friend's pool with plans to crank out 20 laps. He
began swimming some of those laps under water.
Police say he blacked out and drowned. A friend had been swimming
with Southward but got out to sun himself on a lounge chair.
Minutes later, the friend realized he couldn't hear the sound of
arms hitting water, glanced at the pool and saw Southward at the
bottom. He dove in and pulled Southward out.
It was too late.
An autopsy found that Southward had a previously undiagnosed
condition called cardiomyopathy, an abnormal thickening of the
When ex-football players die young, there are questions about
"There is no suspicion of steroid use," said Dave Byron, a
spokesman for the government in Volusia County, Fla. "In fact, we
can say no. But we have to wait until the toxicology tests are
finished in eight to 12 weeks."
After the death, several hundred people packed a beach bar to swap
tales about the man who rollerbladed their streets each day. Some
didn't know he was a former football player, which was just the way
Southward liked it.
"To be honest, if someone said Brandon had died skydiving or
kayaking, something other than swimming laps, I wouldn't have had
as many questions," Spittler said. "I don't get it. I guess I
"I'm thrilled for having known him. It's been a good ride. I just
wish he didn't have to get off it."
Staff writer Bill Briggs can be reached at 303-820-1720 or