Once Van Brooks emerged from the trauma of a paralyzing football injury 10 years ago, the Loyola Blakefield graduate turned his attention to helping young people understand that while having goals and working toward them is important, getting an education is critical and having a back-up plan is a good idea, too.
Saturday, his alma mater will honor him with its first For Others Award for embodying the Catholic high school's mission of "Men For Others."
"I really don't know how to explain what this means," Brooks said. "It's like I'm being recognized for being a man for others, but that was something that was instilled in me at Loyola. At the same time, it goes deeper than that. When I first got injured, at the [fund-raising] gala that they had for me, I was told that approximately 1,300 people came.
"When I formed my foundation, the goal of the foundation and my goal were completely two different things. My goal was to give that support back to those in need. I would never be able to repay the people that came and supported me, but as a way to thank them I'm trying to give that same support to others through my foundation."
Brooks, 26, founded Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (SAFE) and now works primarily with middle school youngsters, although he also gives motivational speeches at high schools and camps.
Todd Langenberg , director of advancement for Loyola, said Brooks was an easy choice when school officials were considering whom to honor at the inaugural For Others event Saturday night at 6 p.m. at the school.
"When we were thinking of alums and we thought of football and basketball, it was perfect timing because it is the 10-year anniversary of Van's injury and Van participated in both sports," Langenberg said. "Van formed his own non-profit organization specifically to educate area youth around the need to have a contingency plan and so he's dedicated himself to helping individuals realize that your goal and your dream is important to have but you don't know when things may change and you have to be prepared. He's a tremendous advocate."
With his pay-it-forward focus, Brooks is accepting some of the proceeds from the event and a silent auction for his foundation, but he also wanted some of the profits to go to new scholarships that honor two legendary Loyola coaches, basketball coach Jerry Savage and football coach Joe Brune.
Although Brooks never played for either, because Brune had retired and Brooks only played junior varsity basketball before he was injured, both were mentors.
"They were there when I was there, so I saw them coaching," said Brooks, who laughed when he said he was the water boy for Brune's team at the Turkey Bowl when he was in eighth grade.
"I witnessed the history and I felt like I was a part of that even though I never played for them. They played a big part in the whole men-for-others (mission), that part of our education."
Brooks, who suffered the paralyzing spinal cord injury on a routine tackle when his helmet hit an opposing player's knee, has regained motion in his upper body and can walk with a walker. He continues therapy at Kennedy Krieger Insititute and firmly believes he will walk unaided again. His goal is to walk within the next 10 years.
For now, he's using his story as motivation for young players to realize that their goals won't always be realized -- even if they don't get hurt -- and that they need an education to give them a solid foundation for a back-up career.
Brooks knows exactly how talented middle and high school football players are thinking.
"I was going straight to the NFL," Brooks said. "I was a 16-year-old kid. That's not going to happen to me. I'm going to be in the NFL."
Instead, he graduated from Loyola and from Towson University and spends his time giving speeches and networking to build the foundation.
"The message I try to get across is that Batlimore City is not the world," said Brooks, who grew up in West Baltimore. "Batlimore City is a dot in the world. If you Google Baltimore City on Google maps, you see a little dot, so you have to broaden your horizons and the way to do that is to have different programs and let kids experience different things.
"The key to success is the right education no matter what. A lot of kids want to be athletes or singers or entertainers. I tell them, 'Good. Go for it, but always have a back-up plan for your life" and that begins with education, because to master any craft you have to continue your education and stay on top of it. I'm not saying to be successful, you have to graduate from college, but the main point is education. You can still be successful if you find the right field, but you have to be educated in that field."
Brooks is a regular fixture at Loyola, during school hours and at football games.
"He's a motivation for us," Langengberg said. "Van's always going to be part of our community. He has such an infectious personality, he wins everyone over. He mentors students and he spends time with faculty and coaches. He finds this as a second home and we want him to."