Playing through adversity

Published 12:01 am Thursday, December 26, 2019


Special to the Democrat

NATCHEZ — Growing up in Natchez was never easy for Shemar Brown. His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and he was raised mostly by his grandmother on the outskirts of Natchez, in what Brown describes as “the country.” His family struggled to make ends meet.

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“I had to find a way to make things happen,” Brown said.

Basketball was always Shemar’s favorite sport, because he could always find a hoop and a ball.  Though he never played on the Natchez High School team, he spends much of his free time at his father’s church, playing basketball.

At age 14, Shemar noticed a strange patch of white around his eye and was worried. 

“I thought I was going to die, at first,” Brown said.

He visited a doctor who diagnosed him with vitiligo, a disease that causes the loss of skin color in blotches.

According to local dermatologist Dr. Sam Tumminello, vitiligo is “an uncommon auto-immune disease that either stunts or eliminates the pigment producing cells (melanocytes). It is relegated to the epidermis layer of the body and does not have any other known medical consequences. It occurs in people of all races but is more noticeable among people of brown or black color.” 

Tumminello said that there are no proven cures or remedies, but that he has had some success in reversing vitiligo in toddlers.   

For Brown, one patch of discoloration became two, and soon his face appeared noticeably different from even the previous semester. 

Being a freshman in high school is difficult enough for a shy, financially struggling young man.  But now, Brown was picked on and called names.

“It was hard, really hard at first and it hurt,” Brown said. “People would constantly tease me and stare at me as if I were an alien. For a while I would wear hats and sunglasses to cover it up.”

Brown, 18, is now graduated and the vitiligo continues to spread over his body. His hands are entirely without color.

“But lately I have started believing more in myself, knowing I couldn’t change my appearance,” Brown said. “I have more self-confidence and actually think of myself as blessed, because so many people have it much worse than I do.

“Now I look at myself every day in the mirror and think to myself, This is me, and if someone doesn’t accept me, they just don’t accept me. God made everyone in His own image, including me.”

Brown got to meet Junior Devontae Shuler, his “twin,” as he now calls him, on Dec. 14 in Oxford at the Pavilion. 

Shuler, who also has vitiligo, is the starting point guard for the Ole Miss Men’s basketball team.  Shuler said he first started noticing vitiligo appearing around his own eye when he was in the ninth grade.

“At first I didn’t want to go to school at all,” Shuler said. “My mom would put some makeup around the small patches, but playing basketball would wear it off, and I knew I couldn’t hide from it.”

Shuler visited with Brown after the Dec. 14 game against Middle Tennessee, and Shuler encouraged Brown by saying that eventually he began to realize how unique it made him, and that it was a strength instead of a weakness.

“I stand out from the crowd, and I don’t mind it at all,” Shuler said to Brown. “It’s how God made me. In fact, I think it gives me an edge on the court.”