Give Shannon Brooks a chance. Put the ball in his hands. Point him in the direction he’s supposed to run. He’ll win.
That’s the advice Frankie Brooks gave his grandson’s pee-wee football coach when Brooks was only 5 years old. Brooks has been scoring touchdowns ever since, including just a few days ago at Northwestern as a Gophers senior running back.
Those words have been the undercurrent to Brooks’ entire life. Given a chance, with the opportunity in his grasp and the goal clear, he is bound to succeed.
But Brooks hasn’t just encountered the usual 240-pound linebacker trying to tackle him into the turf. His own personal playing field hides daunting obstacles that Brooks can’t dodge. His only choice is to run through them.
“When I really look back on what he had to overcome to get where he is and to have the possibilities that he still has in front of him, it’s almost overwhelming,” said Melissa Weeks, Brooks’ guardian. “It blows my mind.”
In 2018 alone, Brooks endured two major injuries, an arrest and his mother’s death. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back hits that nearly took him out of the game forever.
His run might have slowed, but it didn’t stop. And now, the 23-year-old is ending his Gophers career with the best season in decades, with chances at conference and bowl game trophies. He’ll play his last game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday in a sold-out, rivalry- and division-deciding showdown against Wisconsin.
“My teammates really made it easier for me to come back,” Brooks said. “If I was playing somewhere, and my teammates weren’t connected with me, I probably would have been like, ‘Nah.’ I’d probably be done. But being around this family, man, it’s special.
“It’s hard to quit when you love somebody else, and you’re playing for somebody. It’s damn near impossible to quit.”
Brooks plays football at one speed: fast. He’s known as a physical running back, stiff-arming anyone who impedes him.
That came from his mother.
Sharon Brooks was like a kid herself, especially around Shannon and older brother Kalyn. Every time they were together, it was more like friends than mother and sons. Joking, teasing, pranking. But wrestling was the main event.
“Sharon would wrassle and play. I mean, Sharon was tough,” said her father, Frankie Brooks. “… She would have been an athlete, I’m telling you. This girl right here can handle a guy. I mean, she was strong, super strong. … She’d grab her boys, put them in a headlock and try to flip them or whatever until they were fully grown. She would always get them.”
Frankie Brooks laughed as he recalled the story and how the boys would let her win, despite one being a Division I athlete and the other a Marine.
“In her good days, in her best days, I mean, you would love her to death,” Frankie Brooks said. “… She was the sweetest person when she was at herself, when her head was clear. She was just unbeatable.
“And then when she had her problem, you would think you were dealing with two different people.”
Sharon Brooks struggled with drug addiction, something that led her in and out of jail and the hospital. Shannon Brooks said he’d seen his mother smoke marijuana before, but she tried to hide anything else from her kids.
“Me and my brother got to a point where we just had to sit down and tell her, ‘We want you to be in our lives,’ ” Brooks said. “ ‘We’d do anything. We just don’t want you to do it no more. We want you to be clean, so you can live a long time.’ ”
On April 2, 2018, Sharon Brooks passed away at age 43 of a possible overdose. She had a seizure and stopped breathing for a couple of minutes, depriving her brain of oxygen. The doctors put her on life support for about a week. But the brothers — with help from their grandfather and stepdad Reggie Whitmire — had to decide to let their mother go.
Brooks and his girlfriend flew to Georgia from Minnesota to be there for his mother’s passing and her funeral. He couldn’t handle being in the room when his mother took her last breath. While his brother had always taken after their stepdad, Brooks was a mama’s boy. The two were alike in their goofy, fun-loving, sometimes stubborn nature.
Sharon Brooks wasn’t always around. She went to jail while the boys were in middle school about 50 miles away from their grandparents near Atlanta. But she allowed one of her son’s former teachers, Weeks, to take the kids in and see them through high school. Weeks loved them as her own, coming to Minnesota to help Shannon Brooks recover from surgeries and see him graduate this past spring.
But when Sharon Brooks was able, she cheered for her boys during Friday night football games or had family dinner at Weeks’ home.
“I don’t think Shannon has ever really seen a negative side of his mother. He saw struggles that she was having, and it hurt his heart, I think, to watch her struggle and never be able to get things right. But I don’t think he ever has held that against her,” Weeks said. “… She is his mama, and he will love her more than anybody in the world until the day he dies.”
Brooks tattooed his mother’s image on his right shoulder, a gold halo tilted on her head. The quote underneath reads, “Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.”
More than a year later, and Brooks still speaks about his mother in the present tense. He remembers waking one night only to open his eyes and see his mother’s face, clear as day. The same thing later happened to his girlfriend. Then to his stepdad just a month ago, when he felt her presence sitting next to him on his empty bed.
“She’s definitely out there,” said Whitmire, who helped raise the boys even after separating from their mom. “With her son, there’s no doubt. She loved that boy.”
All while Brooks dealt with his mother’s death, he wore a brace around his left knee. He had overstretched his ACL in winter workouts and just had surgery a couple of days before learning his mom was in the hospital.
Brooks’ injury history is extensive. Halfway through his freshman season at Pickens High School, he broke his left tibia and fibula in practice, requiring several surgeries, metal plates, screws and stitches to repair.
He played in all but one game his 2015 freshman year with the Gophers, becoming an all-Big Ten honorable mention for his 709 yards and seven touchdowns. But he missed three games the next season because of a broken bone in his foot, six as a junior because of a concussion and knee injury. Then his ACL tear ahead of the 2018 season.
While his football career idled again, Brooks spent a night in jail in October 2018, arrested for domestic assault. The alleged incident did not involve his girlfriend, whom Brooks has been dating for nearly his entire college career. Brooks’ male roommate accused him of assault at 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday. There were no injuries and no charges.
Brooks didn’t go into much detail of what happened that night, other than calling it a “miscommunication,” with many assuming he hurt a woman. He said he learned a lesson about surrounding himself with the right people. He and his girlfriend live together now, in a charming off-campus apartment, filled with domestic touches like Christmas decorations and their hyper 2-year-old Alaskan Klee Kai, Draco.
But Google the words “Shannon Brooks,” and the first search result is his mug shot from Hennepin County jail.
“There’s really no hiding it,” Brooks said. “I just hope if people see me or if they don’t know me, and they see me, I hope that that image isn’t, like, ‘OK, he’s that type of person.’ … Hopefully, people have a chance to meet me before they judge.”
About two weeks after his arrest, Brooks made his injury comeback. He was having a career day against Indiana, making 22 carries for 154 yards. He scored a touchdown and knelt in the end zone, pointing up to the sky, to his mother.
Early in the fourth quarter, though, he made a cut and heard a sickeningly familiar pop. Of all his injuries, this was one he cried about because he had worked so hard through seven months of rehab only to tear the ACL in his other knee in his first game back in a year.
More surgery, more recovery, more missed games. Pile that onto his damaged reputation and his mother’s death, and that’s one miserable 2018.
But he persevered.
“I knew if I could get through one,” Brooks said, “I could get through another one.”
Brooks spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ house growing up, when his mom and stepdad were between apartments and with his biological father never in the picture. He created a game in that backyard, watching his grandpa fix up old cars. He’d snatch a tool off the ground and sprint away, usually with peals of laughter trailing after him.
“So I chased him,” Frankie Brooks said. “And he’s about 3 years old, I don’t think he’s even 4 yet, and I couldn’t even hardly catch that boy. He made a game out of being chased.”
Brooks still runs with that childlike joy, especially since he’s been healthy and playing again for most of this season. But he’s also used that skill to stay ahead of his setbacks, keep moving toward his ultimate goals without letting his tough past catch him.
He wants to play in the NFL. Then he wants to open a training facility for promising young football players, one in Minnesota and one somewhere in the South. He wants to keep writing songs and rapping, a side hobby now that could become a more serious endeavor.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Brooks doesn’t trust easily, and losing his mother — plus all his other 2018 hardships — could have been a moment when he decided to never trust anyone or anything again.
He did the opposite.
“He is a very resilient person,” fellow running back Rodney Smith said. “I don’t know too many people that could have gone through what he went through.”
The ball is back in Brooks’ hands. He’s facing the right direction. His path — for the first time in a while — is open.
All that’s left to do is run.