By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun
2:49 PM EDT, April 6, 2013
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.
"If I could talk, I probably would have given them a few words," Brooks said.
Realizing that anything is possible
In the past 81/2 years, Brooks has plowed through many benchmarks, some coming more strenuously than others.
It took him two months after the injury to eat food again. It took him about the same amount of time to speak. Not coincidentally, his first words were a request for a grilled cheese sandwich.
He soon started to regain movement in his arms and hands, and he was eventually able to lift them high enough to feed himself. Sitting up in bed without any help took Brooks nearly a year.
"Van doesn't do any complaining. He never complains about nothing," said his father, Van Brooks Sr. "He just do what he do. It's just a drive, getting to the next level."
Van Brooks Jr. appeared to be overzealous when he said he wanted to graduate high school with his class. But he had a tutor come to the hospital and later did double duty to finish his junior year while rejoining his classmates at Loyola for his senior year.
When he wheeled across the stage to accept his diploma, Brooks was greeted by a standing ovation. Outside of Brooks and maybe a few other people, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
"That's when I really realized anything was possible," Brooks said.
Now training twice a week, Brooks does activities in the pool for an hour before drying off and doing exercises on land for two hours. Doctors and trainers are helping him walk again with Functional Electrical Stimulation, which uses electric currents to activate muscles and stimulate movement.
His spinal cord injury is considered an "incomplete" one as he has some sensation and movement below the level of his injury, said Alison Staples, a physical therapy assistant at Kennedy Krieger Institute. The electric impulses, along with physical activity, encourage damaged nerves to regenerate. Through increased activity, the nervous system is essentially re-educating itself.
"I know how much harder it is going to get for me," Brooks said between a recent workout and a much-needed nap. "So I have moments, my accomplishments, but then I move on to the next one. It's a constant battle."
Brooks first stood on his own last month, a sign that he is getting stronger. A harness helped get him into position, but he completed the motion himself, standing up on his own before walking with the help of the walker and the harness. It was another big step in his recovery as he has to get to the point where he can support his body weight — he is now 6 feet 1, 167 pounds — to walk completely unaided.
"If you ask me about Van, with what we have right now and his neurological function and how the science and technology are advancing, he is going to walk in his lifetime," said Cristina Sadowsky, his longtime spinal cord doctor at Kennedy Krieger and a second mother of sorts to Brooks. "I just can't tell you when."
A backup plan for a backup plan
Days after taking his first steps after his injury, Brooks woke up with an idea.
With so many people having helped him during the past eight years, it seemed right that he should give something back. So before he climbed out of bed, Brooks decided to start S.A.F.E.
On this day, Brooks is seated at a table at Jimmy's Famous Seafood in Dundalk, waiting for a cup of crab soup and his cheesesteak to arrive. His class ring from Towson is dangling from the gold chain around his neck. He fidgets in his wheelchair and fiddles with his phone, scrolling through his email and talking shop with John Kucharski, a friend who has been helping him get S.A.F.E. going.
Brooks asks a reporter whether he has a backup plan in place — and a backup plan for that backup plan — should the paychecks stop coming in. Told that the job already was a backup plan for a backup plan, Brooks laughs.
"It's a question that a lot of people, including successful people, can't answer," he says.
He is still narrowing the scope of his foundation, but that's the message he wants to get across to teenagers focused mostly on athletics, just as he was in high school.
Brooks also wants to generate funding for families dealing with paralysis. He wants to donate sporting equipment to inner-city youths. He wants to create a scholarship fund to help others get to college. He wants to sponsor a football team — and he might even coach it if he can keep his emotions in check.
"I just want to help as many people as possible," he said.
Those close to him say this is vintage Van: making the best of an unfortunate situation.
"He's a great role model," Abbott said. "If you want to be successful, you want to be Van Brooks. Whether Van is in a wheelchair or not, you want to be that type of person."
Brooks has matured since suffering his injury, but at his core, he hasn't changed much. He still plays jokes on his friends, whether he is hiding their car keys or asking waiters at chain restaurants to sing "Happy Birthday" to them even though it isn't their birthday.
And while he hopes that one day he will walk on his own again, he believes the injury happened for a reason. He wants to use it to inspire others, but he already started doing that a long time ago.
"If I can help someone achieve a dream or goal, I would feel that my God-given mission — the reason for my injury — was achieved," Brooks said.
Charity ice hockey game
When: May 18, 5 p.m.
Where: Mount Pleasant Ice Arena
Tickets: $15 before May 1; $25 after
More information: safealternative.org
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