49ers' Brooks, 25, has shoulder to lean on, but knees are shot

April 25, 1991|By Jeff Jardine | Jeff Jardine,McClatchy News Service

If Chet Brooks has a friend like himself, he'll be just fine.

At 25 years old, his NFL career is over. His knees are so badly battered and arthritic that the San Francisco 49ers aren't counting on him to play again.

It must be a real mind-blower to have a future as a starter on one of the NFL's best teams one day and be out of football the next.

It's a story he'd already heard once before.

Brooks was affected deeply when ex-teammate Jeff Fuller suffered a career-ending neck injury in 1989.

Fuller was fortunate. He can still walk. Neck injuries aren't always so forgiving. Even so, Fuller's right arm hangs limply at his side. The nerve endings were destroyed.

Brooks replaced Fuller and became the starter. Fuller couldn't have had a more appropriate heir. Like Fuller, Brooks is a Texas A&M alumnus. They even have the same agent (Bill Hedden).

Fuller was the one who soothed his battered ego, schooled him and prepared him to play in the NFL when Brooks spent an insecure rookie season on injured reserve in 1988.

So when Fuller was injured, theirs became a touching story of friendship. Brooks spent his off hours at Fuller's hospital bedside. Meanwhile, Brooks had matured into an excellent strong safety. Ronnie Lott called him the team's hardest hitter -- that compliment bestowed by perhaps the hardest-hitting safety of all time. Yet no matter how well he played, Brooks always credited his success to Fuller. Kind words for a fallen friend.

Brooks wore a towel bearing Fuller's name the remainder of the 1989 season and in Super Bowl XXIV. He wanted to be sure Fuller would be not be forgotten like so many other players whose careers were ended by injury. Brooks seemed to understand the emotional and physical turmoil ahead of Fuller, who'd gone from defending Super Bowl champ to cripple in a split second.

Or perhaps Brooks was trying to prepare himself for the inevitable. That he, too, could experience a similar fate.

Whatever the reason, Brooks was there for Fuller. Last spring, they spent time together in Texas, hanging out at a water theme park while talking about the past and, more importantly, their futures without football.

Little did Brooks know how short his own career would be.

He played his last football game in November -- 13 months after Fuller's last game. Brooks' left knee had become a mangled mess. His right knee wasn't much better. He had two operations last season and then arthritis set in.

His career is, in all probability, over.

You don't often think of arthritis as a threat to such a young man, and particularly one with such a well-chiseled physique. But stranger ailments have ended careers.

Fuller can vouch for that.

More NFL careers are terminated by injuries than by voluntary retirements. Brooks will, as Texans are known to do, ride quietly off into the sunset never to be heard from again. No one will even wear a towel in his honor.

He's become just another roster move during the 49ers' offseason purge that has included Lott, Craig, Jim Burt, Mike Wilson, Eric Wright, Keena Turner, Fred Smerlas and Jim Fahnhorst.

And Brooks isn't as fortunate as his friend Fuller. Because of the nature of Fuller's injury -- translation: a career-ending neck injury suffered on national TV -- 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. offered to pay Fuller $100,000 a year for life. Fuller also remained on injured reserve for the remainder of the season, giving him the four years he needed to become vested in the pension plan.

Brooks, with guaranteed contracts strictly taboo in the NFL, received pay through the end of the season. That's it. And the 49ers, now in a payroll-slashing mood, aren't likely to take care of Brooks the way they have looked after Fuller. Brooks needs another NFL season to become vested.

If he no longer can play -- and that appears to be the case -- he's just another limping, unemployed ex-football player.

That's the cold nature of pro football. The scrap heap is just one hard hit, one caught cleat or one cheap shot away.

For Fuller and Brooks, it came much sooner than they would ever have believed.

Their dreams have been shattered. Their lives have been forever altered.

Like Fuller, Brooks must find life after football.

And until he adjusts, he might just need a friend.

Someone like himself.

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