"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."

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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.