Karate Master Keenan Brown Smashes Through Adversity

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Keenan Brown

Standing 6-foot-10 and more than 300 pounds, Keenan Brown isn’t afraid of many things.

Brown, 50, has suffered from all of those maladies, but was afraid of something: climbing the stairs that led to his bedroom.

“There are 14 stairs,” Brown said, “and I’d have to stop on every fifth one because I was so tired.”

In 2005, he weighed more than 460 pounds, was out of shape and unable to do even everyday tasks, like walking up those stairs. He slept on the living room couch for more than six months.

“I couldn’t walk 2 feet. I’d have to stop and catch my breath. I was out of shape, big and full of fluids,” Brown said. “I wanted to be an integral part of my family instead of lying around.”

Five years ago, Brown was diagnosed with diabetes and renal failure and has been on dialysis since. Doctors advised him he had six months to live.

“In the beginning, his diabetes was crazy and he wanted to give up,” wife Carmelita said. “I joked with him, ‘You can’t give up. If you do, I’ll get a taxidermist and stuff you.’ ”

Then Keenan joined karate class with Carmelita and son, Joshua.

It changed his life.

Now, Keenan is a sixth-degree black belt in karate, has lost 175 pounds and is off his insulin medication.

Keenan has been on several kidney-transplant lists, but because of his AB-negative blood type — one of the rarest kinds — it’s more difficult to find a match. He has received one call about a donor kidney in Daytona Beach, Florida, but had not raised all of the funds needed to move there for four to six months, which is required to have the surgery and ensure his body does not reject the transplanted organ.

“Dialysis is not a death sentence. It’s just a disease to overcome with your attitude,” Keenan said.

Keenan began dialysis the day after he was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. Fifteen months later, he won his first martial arts championship.

“He joked with me and said that if we could pray together, we could play together,” said Carmelita, who has been married to Keenan for 23 years.

Because of his health condition, Keenan cannot participate in sparring — only non-contact martial arts — and has earned medals in weapons and forms. But he has made his mark in breaking bricks, setting records with the World Speed Brick Breaking Association.

Things didn’t start out that way.

“It looked fun, but I didn’t know I could do it,” Keenan said. “I tried one day and I did it.”

Keenan continued doing it, and has broken several world records along the way. He broke 19 10-pound bricks with an ax kick in a 2008 demonstration in Gibraltar. He also set records for breaking 150 bricks in 19 seconds and 250 bricks in 37 seconds.

“I break bricks for people in the (dialysis) chairs,” Keenan said. “I want them to know they can break barriers and beat these diseases.”
Before any of his competitions, Keenan has to be examined by doctors and cleared to compete. The Browns mostly compete outside Michigan, so Carmelita must find a dialysis center near the competition so Keenan can dialyze prior to competing.

Keenan trains under Grand Master Raheem Ali Gardner of the Columbus Karate Academy in Georgia and was recently promoted to the level of master. He boasts a black belt in four different martial arts disciplines.

Keenan has set goals of breaking 350-400 bricks in competition. He also wants to participate on the karate demonstration team for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Keenan and Joshua were selected for the 2008 demonstration team in Beijing, but the air quality and dialysis machines in China were not up to U.S. standards, which prevented Keenan from going.

Staying active
A former mental health worker, Keenan grew up in Detroit and played basketball in high school and college and even tried out for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1982.

Despite his health issues, Keenan manages to maintain an active lifestyle. He has volunteered more than 6,000 hours and helps with organizations such as the Michigan Foster Care Review Board and is a spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation. He has run — unsuccessfully — for the Romulus school board and city council.

“I want to try and help the community,” Keenan said. “My grandfather always told me that you have to leave something that someone can remember behind.”

After his dialysis, he helps out at Merriman and Cory Elementary Schools in Romulus and is well known around the city.

Being more active has allowed Keenan to focus on the future and set goals for himself.

“I want to see my son graduate from high school and go on and raise his family. I want to run for city council or mayor,” Keenan said. “I’ve got to have a goal and a purpose; I can’t just be quiet.”

The Browns are saving money so they will be prepared for a transplant if and when the call comes. Until then, Keenan is enjoying the new life karate has provided him.

“I know I’m on borrowed time,” Keenan said.

In 2003, Michigan resident Keenan …

In 2003, Michigan resident Keenan Brown visited his local doctor’s office after noticing a substantial weight gain and experiencing a shortness of breath. Six years later, Brown will be celebrating World Kidney Day by visiting a different type of office- his Congressman’s. He will be traveling to Washington, DC as a member of the National Kidney Foundation’s People Like Us advocacy group.

Brown was diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, congenital heart failure and chronic kidney disease. He is currently receiving dialysis treatments but that has not stopped him from gaining national accolades in martial arts and setting world records in breaking bricks. On March 12, World Kidney Day, he will give his hands and forehead a rest and join fellow dialysis patients, kidney recipients, living donors and others to tell his story and advocate for the millions of kidney patients around the United States.

National Kidney Foundation: Newsletters
In 2003, Michigan resident Keenan Brown visited his local doctor’s office after noticing a substantial weight gain and experiencing a shortness of breath. Six years later, Brown will be celebrating World Kidney Day by visiting a different type of office- his Congressman’s. He will be traveling to Washington, DC as a member of the National Kidney Foundation’s People Like Us advocacy group.

Brown was diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, congenital heart failure and chronic kidney disease. He is currently receiving dialysis treatments but that has not stopped him from gaining national accolades in martial arts and setting world records in breaking bricks. On March 12, World Kidney Day, he will give his hands and forehead a rest and join fellow dialysis patients, kidney recipients, living donors and others to tell his story and advocate for the millions of kidney patients around the United States.