Eight years after paralysis, Van Brooks continues moving forward

Former Loyola football player took first steps in September, starting foundation to help others

  • Van Brooks graduated from Towson last May and recently stood on his own for the first time, years after he was paralyzed from the neck down while making a tackle in a high school football game.
Van Brooks graduated from Towson last May and recently stood… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
April 06, 2013|By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun

Last September, Van Brooks walked for the first time in eight years.

A wobbly video, recorded on a smartphone and posted on Facebook, shows the lower body of an undeterrable young man.

Legs violently shaking as he refuses to accept his initial diagnosis, Brooks clings to a walker while his weight is supported by a harness attached to the ceiling.

Wearing white tube socks and a pair of Converse All Stars, Brooks slowly takes a small step forward. His left foot quivers as he strains to straighten it and complete the step. Seconds later, the right leg follows.

On Sept. 25, 2004, when his helmet collided with a knee, the promising Loyola football standout who was starting to catch the eyes of Division I recruiters suffered a broken neck and was paralyzed. Doctors told Brooks he would never walk again, but medicine and technology have since advanced at warp speed, and his determination has never wavered.

"When certain things started coming back, I promised myself that I would never get comfortable sitting in a chair," Brooks said. "That's what drives me constantly to keep working, trying to get out of the chair. It's been a long process, but I'm still getting things back. There's still a lot more that needs to be done, though."

Now 25, Brooks is still at heart the energetic kid who pulled pranks on his classmates and lit up every room he walked into. But since his injury put him in a wheelchair — for now, at least — he has embarked on a different path. He graduated from high school on time, earned a degree from Towson University and recently started a foundation in the hope that his incredible story will inspire others.

He has called it Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (S.A.F.E.), and on most days he spends hours doing research online, developing marketing plans, emailing potential sponsors and planning fundraisers.

The first will be a charity ice hockey game at Mount Pleasant Ice Arena on May 18. A crab feast at Jimmy's Famous Seafood in Dundalk that will benefit the foundation is in the works for some time in June.

The foundation keeps him busy, but he says he can spare six hours a week to work toward permanently parking his wheelchair.

"Eight years later, I'm doing everything they said I couldn't do," Brooks said.

'That's just the kind of player he was'

Athletically, there wasn't much that Brooks didn't do growing up in West Baltimore. He started football at age 7 and also played baseball, lacrosse and soccer.

In his first year in football, the coach put him at center. Because he got hit on every play, he almost quit.

He got drilled by a baseball and wanted to quit that sport, too.

The same thing happened when they made him a goalie in lacrosse.

But as he grew older, Brooks eventually began to enjoy contact.

By the time he reached high school, Brooks was 5 feet 10 and just a few pounds under 200. His primary position was free safety and he flew all over the field to swat down passes and deliver hard hits. He also played running back and wide receiver, often busting free to produce big plays.

"He was absolutely one of the greatest football players I've ever coached," former Loyola coach Brian Abbott said, adding that Atlantic Coast Conference schools showed interest in Brooks. "There's no doubt in mind that he could have went to a Division I school and then possibly played on Sundays."

His former Dons teammate, Aaron Slaughter, remembers a play from the Turkey Bowl during their sophomore season when Brooks covered up a blown assignment by racing across the field to blast a receiver and break up what should have been a long touchdown. The hit was so hard, both Brooks and the receiver were dizzied.

"When he was a freshman, he was getting respect from the seniors," said Slaughter, still a close friend of Brooks'. "That's just the kind of player he was."

Brooks was just as likable away from football. He joked with his Loyola teachers just as he did with his coaches. And he loved pulling pranks on friends and classmates.

Slaughter cracked himself up when reminiscing about the time Brooks brought a fake $10 bill to mass. As students returned to their seats after communion, Brooks slipped the bill onto the floor. Excited grins quickly turned to dejected scowls when they realized it wasn't real.

"Oh, my gosh, we were laughing so hard," Slaughter said. "We all ended up getting detention."

The fun was abruptly interrupted that September afternoon at Georgetown Prep.

Brooks remembers the routine tackle, one he had made hundreds of times.

He remembers crumpling face-first to the grass and not being able to get up.

He remembers being surrounded by concerned teammates, coaches and family.

The whir of the helicopter pierced the silence that afternoon and he was whisked away to Shock Trauma. Everything faded to black shortly after that. After he regained consciousness, Brooks, hooked to machines with tubes and wires, was told by doctors that he would never walk again.

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