BROOKSVILLE — Two weeks earlier, when Cynthia Brown Jackson knew her late brother's Philadelphia Eagles would be playing in the Super Bowl, again seeking their first-ever championship, the numbers lined up to give her hope.
Jerome Brown would have been 52 then, and here came Super Bowl 52, played on what would have been his birthday.
"What an awesome gift that would be," she thought, dismissing friends and co-workers who reminded her that the Patriots were favored to win their sixth Super Bowl.
"It was so hard to find the words. It was surreal."
Jerome Brown remains one of the greatest athletes in Hernando County history, winning a national championship at Miami in 1983 and becoming a first-round pick of the Eagles in 1987 as a defensive tackle.
He was a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection in each of his last two seasons, but he died at age 27 in the summer of 1992 when he lost control of his Corvette and crashed near downtown Brooksville. A generation later, Brooksville is still an Eagles town, with fans pulling for their hometown player's old club.
Jackson watched the game Sunday night with brothers Cleve Pope Sr., Richard Marcus and Calvin Brown among 30 relatives and friends, and there was no better way to remember her brother than in watching his old team win a long-awaited title.
"It almost felt like a birthday party," said Jackson, 46, a school social worker whose son Jeremiah starred at Hernando and now plays linebacker at Ball State. He was born three years after his uncle died and has Jerome as his middle name.
When the Patriots rallied for the lead, and later when they again threatened to take a title away from the Eagles, she thought of her brother and his friend and teammate Reggie White, who was 43 when he died due to heart problems in 2004.
"I was like, 'Okay, Jerome and Reggie, I need you guys to look out for us,' " she said. "The defense had to really come up and stand against Tom Brady. It felt like he was there with us. It was so awesome. You would have thought we there in the stands with all that was going on."
More evidence that Brown helped push his Eagles over the top?
Brooksville's Tim Jinkens, who coached Brown in junior high, sent Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie a green No. 99 ballcap from the annual charity golf tournament in his name for a little extra "karma."
Kids growing up in Brooksville never saw him play but know the Jerome Brown Community Center, which keeps his legacy alive.
"Last night, everybody was going crazy: 'Bring it home for Jerome,' " Jinkens said. "I know Jerome's in heaven smiling down. That was a special group he played with the Eagles. It was kind of bittersweet for me. I cried because Jerome wasn't there, but I was happy the Eagles won and Jerome was part of the Eagles."
The Brooksville City Council had a proclamation Monday night to recognize Brown — on his birthday — in honor of Black History Month, "for his contribution to and dedication to the Brooksville community."
Jackson said she still sees her brother's jersey on fans around town, and watching Eagles games on television, she'll see his No. 99 in the stands, a reminder of how much Eagles fans loved him and how much her brother loved them back.
"It's very special. It brings tears to my eyes," she said. "It's been 26 years. All his children are grown, and people still remember him. You'd think by this time, it would kind of fade out, but it hasn't."
This season, an old friend sent Jackson a replica No. 99 Eagles jersey, complete with a memorial emblem, and she wore it Sunday night to cheer for his team.
Jackson talked Sunday night with her nephew Dee, one of Jerome's sons, who played football and baseball at the University of Central Florida. He's now 35 and the head baseball coach at Winter Park High, with two sons of his own.
"I'm so proud of him," she said. "It's so hard to look at him at times, because he reminds me of Jerome. He's the man that Jerome didn't become because he died at such a young age. He and his wife got a chance to go up to Philly for one of the games this year."
Dee Brown said he has been an Eagles fan his whole life, but the last month of playoff games have reminded him how much Philadelphia fans still remember his father and the way he played.
"Seeing them win a Super Bowl was awesome, but on the more emotional side, to see my dad's legacy is still alive and well was special," said Brown, who watched from his Orlando home. "People in Brooksville aren't all Eagles fans, but one thing they all support is my dad. To see those guys all come together and put their teams aside and cheer for the Eagles, that was awesome as well."