X's and O's help soften pain

High schools: When Johnny Brooks talks to his Havre de Grace football team about staying positive in the face of adversity, he is not mouthing platitudes.

High Schools

October 29, 2003|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

These should be the best of times for Havre de Grace football coach Johnny Brooks and, at moments, his wry smile and playful nature suggest he is enjoying every minute.

Brooks has led his alma mater to one of its finest seasons, with a No. 12 ranking, a 7-0 record and a first-place standing in both Harford County and the state's Class 1A North region.

A game tomorrow against winless Fallston and an anticipated matchup with Aberdeen on Nov. 7 are all that stand in the Warriors' way of an undefeated regular season.

But memories of a painful May afternoon in 2001, when he lost his only child, have kept things in perspective for the soft-spoken and private Brooks.

It was at Havre de Grace where he coached Jo'van in football and basketball and where Jo'van's initials are freshly spray-painted on the field for every home game.

"Being out here, it brings out painful memories some days," said Brooks, 39. "I start thinking about different things, but once I get going, it helps.

"I've been dealing with this, so these football games -- I tell the kids -- this is easy stuff," Brooks said. "I think I've already been through the toughest thing I'm going to go through."

On Saturday, May 26, 2001, just three days before his graduation, Jo'van and his father were returning home separately to Aberdeen after playing pickup basketball.

Jo'van's car hydroplaned on the wet road and collided head-on with another vehicle. He was the only fatality in the collision, which Johnny Brooks, who did not witness the incident, learned about through a cell phone call.

Jo'van was a standout athlete -- he captained the Warriors' basketball and football teams and also ran track -- and carried a 4.0 grade-point average. He had been accepted by Morgan State, Towson and Clark University in Atlanta. But he died at 17.

Warriors quarterback and kicker Shane West said everyone thought Jo'van, the son of Johnny Brooks and Barbara Branch, was "somebody big."

"We all knew Jo'van was going somewhere in life," said West, a senior who was his teammate for two years.

Richard Simpson, a freshman football player at Bucknell, said that he was one of Jo'van's best friends and that the coach's son had persuaded him to play football instead of soccer.

After his death, Simpson often visited the Brooks home, where the coach keeps his son's framed football jersey. Havre de Grace has retired No. 10.

`Never showed it'

"You could tell sometimes that it was tough for Mr. Brooks, but he never really showed it," Simpson said.

"He's just a very strong person. If you hang around him and know him, you get nothing but positive vibes. He doesn't deal in the negative."

Brooks, a history teacher who lives with his wife, Lorraine, in Aberdeen, has leaned on his family for support in coping with Jo'van's death.

"I really have a great family and you also have to have a strong faith in God -- that helps, too," Brooks said.

Brooks' father was in the military and his mother played college basketball at Bowie State. They come to nearly every Havre de Grace game.

Brooks treats his football and basketball players as extensions of his family.

Wearing a retro Brooklyn Dodgers hat backward, Brooks blends in with his players. On the sideline at games, he is animated and intense -- reacting to a big hit with an enthusiastic howl or a long touchdown pass with the pump of a fist.

But he rarely yells, instead sending messages with subtle stares and pats on the helmet.

"I'm not a yeller," Brooks said. "It seems to me, these guys give me all they have, and you're not going to make them do something they really can't do."

Players say their coach pays attention to them off the field, too, often inquiring about their grades. West, who set a state record by kicking a 59-year field goal this season, admitted class wasn't always a priority with him until Brooks intervened.

"If I let him down, that's like losing somebody," West said. "He's done stuff for me that nobody else has. We're all like his sons. He looks after us, and we try to keep him up."

Nearly every week, Brooks gets a call from a former player looking for advice on how to cope with being in college or just wanting to catch up.

Five members of last year's Havre de Grace football and basketball teams, both of which captured regional titles, are playing in college, and Brooks, who uses the connections he gained from being a student-athlete to get his kids looks from colleges, is proud of their accomplishments.

"I always tell them, we're trying to win, but we're trying to get out and see the world, too," he said.

As a player

In the close-knit Havre de Grace community, Brooks gained near folk-hero status as a high school athlete.

"People come by practice all the time and say, `Mr. Brooks did this, Mr. Brooks did that,'" West said.

Billy Jackson, The Sun's 1995 All-Metro Offensive Player of the Year, remembers growing up hearing stories about a dynamic quarterback who would eventually become his position coach at Havre de Grace.

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