As a young child growing up in Lanham, Antoine Brooks Jr. used to sit with his father and watch the Washington Redskins every Sunday. There was almost an immediate connection to Sean Taylor, the team's hard-hitting safety.
When Brooks started playing organized football as a 5-year-old for the local Boys and Girls Club, he began to emulate his favorite player.
"When he hit on someone, he'd say to me, 'Dad, they be grunting. Am I hurting them?'" Antoine Brooks Sr. recalled.
Assured that it was OK to be aggressive on the field, the younger Brooks kept hitting. It's a trait that he's carried through to his sophomore year at Maryland, where he has started five of six games at nickel back this season after being recruited as a linebacker.
"In high school I had to lay off a little bit, because I was playing quarterback," said Brooks, who as a junior at DuVal was a first-team All-Met selection mostly for what he did offensively. "Coming here, playing with Jermaine Carter and the rest of the older guys, I brought it right back. That's what you have to be — a physical tackler."
Coming off two straight productive performances, including a career-high 13 tackles at then-No. 10 Ohio State two games ago, Brooks goes into Saturday at No. 5 Wisconsin with 36 tackles, four behind Carter, a senior leading the team in that category.
Brooks sees nothing special about last week's game either, when he made a team-high nine tackles in a 37-21 home defeat to Northwestern.
"If we [didn't] come out with the win, it was something that didn't happen," Brooks said Tuesday. "I've got to work harder, and we've got to find a way to make more plays, especially on defense. I know I could have [done] more. I left some plays on the field."
It's remarkable what Brooks has accomplished at Maryland, given that many thought his football career ended midway through his senior year when he sustained a compound fracture of the right ankle in a game against Wise.
The injury was so gruesome — similar to what NBA star Gordon Hayward sustained earlier this week in his first game with the Boston Celtics — that about 20 family members, friends and teammates surrounded him on the field so others couldn't get a glimpse.
It also caused several schools to stop calling a player considered the best in Prince George's County.
"We just didn't hear from them no more," his father said. "A lot of teams dropped off."
A two-star prospect committed to play at Buffalo, Brooks went on a recruiting visit to the upstate New York school along with a quarterback from Indiana named Max Bortenschlager. A couple of months later, both heard from new Maryland coach DJ Durkin and signed with the Terps.
The impression Brooks made on Durkin was almost immediate.
"We really felt strongly about him last year, but remember he came here with an injury from high school," Durkin said Tuesday. "We knew he wasn't ready to play quite yet. When we recruited him, we thought that's what we were going to get, but you don't know — he's kind of injured."
With Brooks eventually getting on the field mostly on special teams, Durkin's instincts proved correct.
"As the year went on, he was practicing, he started to show up," Durkin said. "And we said, 'OK, we've got something here for sure.' And then really in the spring is when he kind of made himself – 'OK, this guy is definitely one of the top 11, needs to be on the field somehow, someway.'"
Moved to nickel back in the spring, Brooks said his transition was "shaky at first." He relied on his teammates to help him get to know the nuances of the position.
"Having my teammates help me with the playbook and help me study on film and teach me what to do and what I need to see, keep my eyes right, that's all I need for help," Brooks said. "With this defense, they move you anywhere. When they call you're name, you've got to be ready to step up and be ready when they put you on the field."
"I think it was the physicality part that helped me," he said.
Brooks has demonstrated the kind of athleticism Durkin is hoping becomes a staple in the Maryland defense. In the season-opening win at then-No. 23 Texas, Brooks picked up a field-goal attempt blocked by Derwin Gray and raced 71 yards for a touchdown.
"He's probably one of the freakiest athletes we have on the team," Bortenschlager said Wednesday. "He makes some plays in practice. It definitely helps going against him."
It's the kind of plays Brooks recalls Taylor made during his short career with the Redskins, and others Brooks still watches, such as four-time Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks.
"They inspire you to lay it on the line," Brooks said.
But there's still that connection to Taylor, a decade after he was murdered. Recalling the day of Taylor's 2007 death and being told what happened by his father, Brooks said, "It hurt a lot, just to see someone I was really looking up to."
Brooks remembers his father's words.
"My father just told me to keep going, and maybe you can be like him one day," the younger Brooks said.
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Series: Wisconsin leads 2-0
What's at stake: Having lost two weeks ago at then-No. 10 Ohio State, 62-14, Maryland needs to show it can play competitively with highly ranked Big Ten teams, something the Terps have not done since DJ Durkin took over. It's going to be difficult given the environment, but rebuilding Purdue was competitive with the Badgers in Madison last week before losing, 17-9.
Key matchup: As has been the case in all three of its losses this year, Maryland's offensive and defensive lines need to hold up against the Badgers. In the defeats, the Terps have averaged 59 rushing yards per game and have surrendered 256.3 yards on the ground. If the Terps have any shot to keep it close, they must get junior Ty Johnson and sophomore Lorenzo Harrison III going early.
Player to watch: A week after Northwestern's Justin Jackson became the first individual rusher to reach the 100-yard mark this season — then get 71 more along with two touchdowns — the Terps will get their first look (and crack) at Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor, who leads the Big Ten in rushing and is third nationally with 164.3 yards per game. He also has a league-best 10 rushing touchdowns. Taylor is coming off two straight games of at least 200 rushing yards.