Sports columnist Mike Preston talks about the impact Ravens defensive coach Clarence Brooks had on players on and off the field. Coach Clarence Brooks passed away. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Clarence Brooks, the stalwart Ravens defensive line coach who inspired players by working determinedly through treatments for esophageal and stomach cancer, died this morning at a hospital in Weston, Fla.
The Massachusetts native was 65.
"We knew he loved his players," his wife, Justa, said this morning in a statement released by the team. "Through all of this, we've found out how much his players loved him. We thank everyone for the loving support."
Brooks was the Ravens' longest-tenured coach. Brian Billick hired him in 2005, and he remained on staff when John Harbaugh took over in 2008.
Harbaugh said Brooks — who helped develop a succession of stars from 5-time Pro Bowl selection Haloti Ngata to current nose tackle Brandon Williams — was the best defensive line coach he'd ever been around.
"He fought the good fight and won," Harbaugh said in a statement Saturday. "One of the finest coaches I have ever met, he changed the lives and influenced players and coaches for the better."
Though he often patrolled the sideline with a stern visage, Brooks was equally capable of delivering a well-timed joke or a fond observation about one of his linemen.
"He was the sweetest man I've ever met in football," owner Steve Bisciotti said. "He was also as tough as nails and was as respected by everyone on our team as any coach who ever touched the Ravens. His impact was more than people on the outside could know. He will be so missed."
Brooks fell ill during training camp before the 2015 season and was diagnosed with cancer the week before the team's 23-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 1. An emotional Brooks received an honorary game ball from Harbaugh after that win and gathered his linemen to tell them of his diagnosis the next day.
As the season progressed, Brooks often underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments in the morning, then coached in the afternoon. He did not discuss his cancer battle publicly until Dec. 2015.
"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," he said in his first interview on the subject. "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."
In January, Harbaugh announced Brooks would become a special defensive assistant and a new hire, Joe Cullen, would take over as defensive line coach.
Brooks grew up in New Bedford, Mass., and went on to letter in football and track for New Bedford High School. He grew into an all-conference guard and team captain at the University of Massachusetts, where he earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and subsequently took his first coaching job, overseeing the defensive ends, in 1976.
He moved on to college assistant jobs at Syracuse and Arizona, where he helped orchestrate the "Desert Swarm" defense that was the stingiest in the nation in 1992. That success propelled him to the NFL, where he served as defensive line coach for the Chicago Bears, the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins between 1993 and 2004.
After he joined the Ravens in 2005, he became a mentor to some of the best young linemen in the league and helped lead defenses that annually ranked among the top 10 in the NFL in fewest yards allowed. His units took particular pride in stifling opponents' rushing attacks.
"Clarence Brooks was a rare, special coach," Ravens defender Terrell Suggs said. "We had a relationship that became more than football; he was family. He was every bit the definition of the word ‘coach.’ He was firm and demanding when he needed to be, but was a father figure and caring at the same time."
In his later years with the team, Brooks often reminded young players such as Williams and Timmy Jernigan that they had to live up to a remarkable legacy.
"He always got the best out of you," Williams said. "He saw the potential in every player and did everything in his power to help you be the best you could be – on and off the field."
Just as Harbaugh appreciated the stability Brooks brought to his staff, Brooks became comfortable with the Ravens, casting off the wanderlust that defines so many coaches.
"I've learned that if you're in a place and you've got a spot that you like and you're working with good people and you've got good players and the organization is headed in the direction that you like, why go somewhere else?" he said in 2011. "I don't want to say you get comfortable, but you get to a point where you say, 'Hey, I want to make this work, and I want to see if we can get this done here, and I want to help get this done here.' That's really what I wanted to do."
In addition to his wife, Brooks is survived by his son, Jason, who worked on the Ravens coaching staff from 2009-2012 and is now an assistant at Florida International; his daughter, Adrienne and two grandchildren.