Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks says he has cancer

Baltimore Sun sports columnist Mike Preston talks about how special Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks is to his players, past and present. Preston also talks about his support for Brooks, who is battling cancer. (Kevin Richardson)

There's never a dull moment around Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. Supportive yet stern, hard-driving but also disarming, Brooks has coached football for 40 years in his own unique style.

Ravens defensive linemen have learned to not be surprised by anything that Brooks says. But nothing could have prepared them for the news that the Ravens' longest-tenured coach delivered on Oct. 2. Brooks gathered the defensive linemen together the day after the victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and told them he had esophageal cancer.

"They were, I don't know if it was shocked, but they just kind of sat there," Brooks, 64, said in an interview Monday with The Baltimore Sun and Ravens Productions, the team's broadcasting department. "But they let me know, 'Hey, C.B., we got you. We're going to travel this with you.' It felt really, really good."

Brooks, the Ravens defensive line coach for the past 11 seasons, for weeks has undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the morning and coached one of the team's top-performing units in the afternoon.

Brooks underwent 28 radiation treatments and five rounds of chemotherapy treatments starting in the middle of the October and ending last week. The treatments shrunk the tumor and in late January or February, Brooks will have surgery to remove it from his esophagus.

"I always thought that I was pretty tough, but I realized now that this is the toughest thing that I've ever had to go through in my life," Brooks said. "I'm a little tougher now than I was eight weeks ago."

Per his doctor's order, Brooks has coached from the press box rather than the sidelines during home games and select road games. He didn't make the trip to Cleveland or Arizona for Monday night games, because he had treatments those days. Those are the first games he remembers missing since he got into coaching in 1976 at the University of Massachusetts, his alma mater.

The Ravens have kept Brooks' behind-the-scenes battle "within the family," a sign of great respect for a man who helped develop Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee, Brandon Williams and many other standout defensive linemen.

The first sign that something was amiss came when Harbaugh rewarded an emotional Brooks a game ball following the Oct. 1 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brooks said he had received the cancer diagnosis that week, but had yet to tell the players. Harbaugh and his staff knew.

Otherwise, Brooks has gone through the treatments out of the public eye, buoyed by patients at Johns Hopkins who are fighting the same disease, and by the support of current and former players and other members of the Ravens organization, including linebacker coaches Ted Monachino and Don Martindale.

Brooks agreed to speak about his battle publicly for the first time on Monday only because word had started to leak out and those around him felt his words could inspire others dealing with the illness.

"I've got great support here, great support in the workplace. As a cancer fighter hoping to become a cancer survivor, I don't need sympathy. I need understanding [of] what I'm going through, and we got that here," Brooks said. "John was the first one I told in the building. I told him, 'I'm not going to be a distraction.' That's not what I'm in this for. I'm no martyr. I'm just a football coach who is going through this, and I've been blessed to be at a place like here. … You find out even more your real, real friends, guys that will go to the wall for you. That's the guys upstairs that I work with every day."

Harbaugh, who called Brooks the best defensive line coach that he's ever been around, said that his peer's battle puts things in perspective during this difficult season. The Ravens are 4-8 and have to win their final four games to avoid the first losing season in Harbaugh's eight-year tenure.

"The challenges that you face are similar to what people face in life, but there are people out there facing things — adversity, challenging, demanding, difficult things that they're facing — that this brings close to home through Clarence," Harbaugh said. "Maybe a season like this gives you a chance to think about some things as a coach or as players, things that are going to stick with you for the rest of your life."

Brooks first started feeling ill about midway through training camp. He was having trouble swallowing and keeping food down. He started taking medicine for what he believed to be acid reflux, but the symptoms weren't curtailed. He then had an endoscopic exam and other scans performed and those revealed the tumor in his esophagus, the tube that connects the throat to the stomach.

According to the American Cancer Society, just under 17,000 new esophageal cancer cases were diagnosed this year. Brooks, who had not battled a significant illness before, acknowledged that the news left him stunned.

"What's been put in perspective for me is the radiation treatments that I went through took 12, 15 minutes," Brooks said. "That's 12-to-15 minutes a day where I am totally by myself. It's amazing the things that you think about in the short period of time that you had it every day. I've got to make use of this 10 to 12 minutes instead of aimlessly letting my mind wander."

Brooks said that he thought about specific Ravens players and how he can get the most out of them. He thought about post-retirement plans, and most of all, he thought about his family. Brooks credits his wife, Justa, a breast cancer survivor of eight years, for helping him through the radiation process. "She's the one that got me through this," he said.

Brooks and his wife have two kids: daughter, Adrienne, and son, Jason, a tight ends coach at Florida International who was on Harbaugh's staff for four seasons. They also have two grandchildren. The family got together over the weekend in South Florida before the Ravens played the Dolphins.

"That is what I'm working for, getting myself as healthy as I can to get through this so I can spend as much time with them as I possibly can," Brooks said.

Last week, Harbaugh showed the players and staff a video of Brooks ringing the bell at the hospital, a symbolic gesture for cancer patients who have undergone their last treatment. Players cheered loudly for Brooks, who thought back on a difficult eight weeks, and some more uncertian times to come.

"When I first went there, the first day of my treatment, there was a lady there and she was ringing the bell. I saw the look on her face, the look of 'Geez, I got through this, I accomplished this, I never thought that this day would come.' And I said, 'Boy, I've got a long way to go,'" Brooks said. "That's what I was thinking about when I was ringing the bell. I said, 'Gee, a month and a half ago that was me.' The outpouring of support I got from the players, it was tremendous."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun