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Loyola High's Van Brooks Remains Undefeated By Football Injury

October 16, 2014

The phone call came on the afternoon of Sept. 25, 2004. I was working as the weekend sports anchor at WMAR TV Channel 2 and getting ready for our early-evening sportscast when the parent of a Loyola High School football player called to say one of Loyola's players was just airlifted from Georgetown Prep High School in Rockville to Shock Trauma in Baltimore.

The player was Van Brooks, a junior on Brian Abbott's Loyola football team, and one of the top young players in the Baltimore area. His life, and the lives of everyone around him, would never be the same.

"I've never seen the play yet, and I'd like to," Brooks said. "It's time. Ten years."

Brooks was 16 years old and a defensive back for the Dons when he made a tackle on a Georgetown Prep ball carrier in the second quarter of the game. The tackle seemed innocent enough. He'd made hundreds like it during his young career, which began when he was 7 years old. His head hit the runner's knee and Brooks went down. He lay motionless as trainers and doctors rushed to his aid. Eventually, a medevac helicopter took him to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where surgery was performed to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord.

He was paralyzed from the neck down and was told he'd never walk again.

Abbott, his coach, called me later that night, his voice cracking with emotion as he tried to put in perspective what happened hours ago at Georgetown Prep.

"I remember seeing Coach Abbott and the trainers on the field. I just couldn't feel anything," Brooks said. "It was very scary."

Brooks is now 26. He's still in a wheelchair, but has walked again and would love nothing more than to see the video of the play now -- nearly one month after the 10th anniversary.

"I saw the video once, really quickly, and that was the day of the first Turkey Bowl I went to (2004). But I really wasn't ready for that then. I am now." 

I talked with Brooks Sept. 27 during the second quarter of Loyola's football game with Mount Saint Joseph. Earlier in the week it was announced that his alma mater was honoring Brooks with the school's prestigious For Others Award, which goes to a Loyola alum who exemplifies the school's mission of community service.

"It is a major accomplishment," Brooks said. "I really appreciate Loyola for presenting it to me. But it's all about the support I've received."

The school's press release for the For Others Award event, set for Oct. 25 at the school, told the story perfectly.

"Please join us on this 10th anniversary to honor Van's indomitable spirit and his struggle to become a true Man For Others."

Two years ago, Brooks started Safe Alternate Foundation for Education, a nonprofit group that counsels at-risk youth, and young men and women who are going through the same trauma that Brooks suffered 10 years ago. At the time, he was paralyzed and unable to eat, drink or even breathe on his own. Now, he can shake your hand, flash his trademark smile and talk about what lies ahead.

"It's steady progress," said Brooks, a Towson graduate. "Things are currently changing, and they're always going to change, and I try to implement that into my life. No matter what I'm going through, things will always change. I felt 10 years ago that I was at my bottom, so we could only go up from there. Now, the sky's the limit."

Brooks spends a lot of time now talking with area high school and middle school kids about career choices and, in regards to area athletes, a Plan B. Plan B being what happens when the athletic career ends. Brooks is the epitome of that scenario.

He grew up with his four sisters in the Poppleton section of West Baltimore. When he was 7, he started playing football for the Poppleton Bears. At Loyola, he played football, basketball and lacrosse. He still lives with his mom Shelly and dad Van Sr., who said when Brooks first suffered the injury at Georgetown Prep the last thing he could do was feel sorry for himself.

"He can't wallow in self-pity," Van Brooks Sr. said to me then. "That's the worst thing he could do. He's not the first [and he] won't be the last young man in a wheelchair."

That's easier said than done. 

Brooks took the injury and the reality that he'd never walk again hard. But it wasn't long before he attacked his rehabilitation like he attacked playing safety for the Dons football team -- with intensity and dedication.

He split time at Shock Trauma and Kernan Hospital before moving to the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute in 2005. Slowly, he began regaining the use of his arms and legs until finally, on Sept. 27, 2012, he walked again for the first time in 10 years.

He credits that to what he calls "unbelievable support."

"The main reason I'm here now is the support I've received," Brooks said. "It's amazing. People I knew and didn't know were there to support me."

Ray Lewis of the Ravens, then Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams and countless others stepped up to offer their assistance in a variety of auctions, hospital visits and counseling sessions, Brooks said. He's still close with Abbott, who stepped down as Loyola's football coach three years ago but still teaches at the school. Athletic director Mike Keeney and football coach Brant Hall welcome Brooks back to the school with open arms, while two other members of the Loyola-Blakefield family were there for Brooks when he was first flown to Shock Trauma and still are 10 years later.

"Tim Thompson and Mike Creaney -- they have been incredible," Brooks said.

Creaney graduated from Loyola in 1969 and is one of the Dons all-time greatest athletes. He went on to play football at Notre Dame, and was a sixth-round pick in the 1973 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. His two sons, Brennan and Caleb, were teammates of Brooks' at Loyola.

So was Will Thompson, whose father, Tim, was the president of the Loyola Father's Club at the time and had been close to Brooks since he started his career as a freshman.

"In ninth grade, I broke my ankle in a football game at Wilde Lake," Brooks said. "I was playing JV. Mr. Thompson carried me off the field that day. He's been with me ever since. I can't even imagine where I'd be today without Mr. Tim Thompson."

Issue 202: October 2014