"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