In what seems like an annual thing, Beau Braden is back at square one.
Three surgeries in three years can do that, like it has for Braden, a 2018 Columbia River High graduate who, at age 20, is still seeking his first snaps in a college football game.
“I’ve had more surgeries than games played,” Braden said, “which is not a good look, and not super fun.”
But the reasons why Braden chose to leave Washington State after two seasons as a scout-team player and transfer to Montana is more than proving to himself he can play college football.
It’s also because his best friend who died in a drowning accident three years ago can’t, and Braden’s motivation to play comes alongside thoughts of Hunter Pearson — for whom the two shared so much in common through friendship and football.
So here is Braden, who leaves for Montana later this month in hopes of fighting for immediate playing time at defensive end for the Grizzlies. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a now-healthy Braden has worked out in Vancouver in preparation for another start at what he hopes is the final square one.
“I love football,” Braden said, as he sat in Columbia River’s Chieftain Stadium, “and it’s bigger than me. … I think it’s a feeling where you have to be grateful for what you’ve got and be so blessed to still continue to play.”
Scanning Chieftain Stadium brings back a flood of great football memories for Braden. As a senior in 2017, he was an all-league, All-Region and all-state honoree at a new position — offensive tackle — for a River team that reached the state preliminary round.
Christian Swain, River’s head football coach at the time, said Braden became a leader and embraced his new position that got him a preferred walk-on offer by head coach Mike Leach and the WSU coaching staff.
“A lot of that was motivated by the example Hunter set as far as being selfless and doing what’s best for the team,” said Swain, now Evergreen’s head coach. “He made that decision, really, placing a lot of that thought of what Hunter would’ve done in that situation.”
Braden’s senior season came months after the death of Pearson, a popular Columbia River student and an all-league running back. Their friendship might as well be described as two peas from the same pod. It was Pearson who befriended Braden when Braden transferred to Columbia River from King’s Way Christian as a sophomore.
“He was quiet,” Braden said, “but he was the first one to take me in. … He was the first one to show me it’s OK to be me.”
And it was Braden who rushed with friends across State Route 14 when he got word that Pearson had gone missing on Lacamas Lake over a hot Memorial Day weekend in 2017. Braden was on site when first responders recovered Pearson’s body five hours after the initial 911 call of a possible drowning. Like Braden at WSU, Pearson had a preferred walk-on roster spot at Utah State. His death came two weeks before his high school graduation.
Hundreds gathered for a vigil two days after the accident at Chieftain Stadium to mourn Pearson. Braden dropped a handwritten letter into a treasure chest, making a promise to a dear friend who did so much for others.
“Everything that Hunter was,” Braden said, “we can all be more of. Because he loved everyone and pushed everyone to be better and challenged people. And I think everyone can feel when you’re around someone like that, you become a better person. I felt that always when I was around him.
“Everything he worked for,” Braden added, “I would try to do for him, and have him live through me.”
But Braden didn’t feel like he lived up to those expectations once at WSU. He played on scout team for two seasons, and finally last fall, cracked the travel roster for the Cougars’ Pac-12 road game at Arizona State. Three days later, Braden’s 2019 season ended with a shoulder injury at practice required another surgery.
He’s now had four surgeries — three shoulder, one knee — since sophomore year of high school. That might deter some players from continuing to play, but not Braden.
“I want to prove myself that I can still play college football,” he said. “I don’t know how much football I have left in me.”
Pearson’s death still hits Braden hard. He’s questioned his identity when the football injuries have sidelined him. It led to mental health struggles at WSU, which Braden is open about and takes charge of. He takes medication for anxiety and depression, and routinely spoke on mental health in conjunction with the university’s Behind Happy Faces initiative.
He’s now found a passion for helping others through mental health.
“It’s something that I deal with and a lot of people deal with,” Braden said. “It’s normal and it’s OK. It’s more about how you deal with it rather than having it.”
At 6 feet 4 and 260 pounds, Braden will be a redshirt sophomore this fall at Montana joining a team that went 10-4 and lost in the FCS quarterfinals in 2019.
He doesn’t regret his time at WSU. He was part of a fraternity, got a ring from the Alamo Bowl and was a scout-team player for teammate Andre Dillard, a 2019 first-round NFL draft pick.
But now, Braden hopes it’s his time to shine back at square one. And like he has for years, Braden knows his best friend — and the person he plays for — will be right alongside him.
“He’s a huge part of why I continue playing football,” Braden said of Pearson. “Without him, there’s no way I’d still be doing it right now.
“I want to prove to myself I can play college football, and I want to carry on that legacy he laid for me and honor everything he did for me.”