On the ambulance ride to the hospital that night, Antoine Brooks Jr. told his father, namesake and best friend that he was quitting football. Then a senior quarterback at DuVal High, the younger Brooks had just broken his wrist and suffered a compound leg fracture after getting hit as he was about to throw.
The elder Brooks, who had played in high school, had seen enough as well.
“Dad was ready for him to give it up,” Brooks Sr. recalled recently. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to play football no more’ and I was like, ‘OK, good, yes!’ By the time we got to the hospital, he told me he just wanted to play defense. I knew it changed on the ride to the hospital, just that quick.”
The younger Brooks has made Maryland’s opponents pay for that hard hit he took in high school, leading the Big Ten in solo tackles with 35 of the 38 he has made overall. And nearly four years to day after the career-threatening injury, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound safety will make his 31st straight start when the Terps play Indiana Saturday at home.
Ever since he was elevated from special teams as a sophomore, Brooks has turned the solo tackle into something of an art form.
“It‘s not that I don’t need help, but in football, tackling’s the most important thing,” said Brooks, who ranks second on the team behind redshirt sophomore linebacker Ayinde Eley (46). “He [his father] was always on me about tackling. He never liked me missing tackles, and if I did, he’d be mad.”
In recent weeks, Brooks has seen his number drop — including a season-low two tackles in a 48-7 win at Rutgers — as teams have tried to spread out the Terps defensively, largely to keep Brooks playing more like a free safety than closer to the line.
The decrease in productivity has been noticeable, but first-year coach Mike Locksley sees the same player who tied a career-high with 13 tackles — all of them solo — in a 20-17 loss at Temple on Sept. 14.
“Antoine is one of those high-energy guys,” Locksley said. “He’ll make some mistakes here and there and take bad angles, but he makes up for it with his effort. He’s the leader over there on that side of the ball. He’s one of those guys that he’s going to give you 110%.”
Locksley said he plans on getting Brooks closer to the box Saturday, both to help contain Indiana’s leading rusher, 231-pound sophomore Stevie Scott III, as well as get enough pressure on freshman quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a 6-3 left-hander who has completed nearly 70% of his passes.
“The last two weeks people have tried to spread us out on defense and it’s put ‘Toine outside the hashes to where if the ball’s not coming to that side, he’s probably not as productive,” Locksley said. “But he’s played as hard and has done a tremendous job with his leadership.”
Playing for dad
When Brooks misses a tackle, he lowers his head and silently mouths the words “My bad.” It’s not directed at the Maryland coaches, but to his father who is usually sitting in the stands. “I know he’s right there [playing] with me,” Brooks Jr.
And just as he was that night when the younger Brooks sustained such a gruesome injury to his leg, the elder Brooks is often nearby.
Unlike most “helicopter” parents, the elder Brooks can be excused. The year before the older of his two sons arrived at Maryland as part of former coach DJ Durkin’s first recruiting class, Brooks Sr. took a job in the facilities office on campus, working mostly on installing and maintaining floors.
A couple of days each week, father and son coordinate their lunch hours to catch up.
That doesn’t include all the time they talk on the phone.
“We see each other about twice, but I call him about nine times [a week],” the elder Brooks said with a laugh. “I try not to invade his little college space and be the type of dad who’s always around him.”
Given how much they sound alike, with the same raspy voice often spoken in almost a whisper, and even have some of the same facial mannerisms, it’s almost as if they are talking into a mirror. It’s been that way since the younger Brooks was little, especially when his voice started to change and face matured.
“We’d be chillin’ a little bit and I’d always tell my [younger] brother, ‘Dang, I look like Dad a little bit with his facial expressions,’ ” Brooks Jr. said.
And just as the elder Brooks was a sure tackler during his high school years as an outside linebacker at Fairmont Heights, where he was an honorable mention All-Met selection in 1993, Brooks Jr. has made his reputation at Maryland as being one of the hardest hitters in the Big Ten.
“As small as I was, I could hit hard, but he’s taken it to a different level,” Brooks Sr. said.
It was DuVal coach Dameon Powell who first suggested to Brooks Jr. that he think about playing safety in college.
“Coach Powell used to tell me all the time, ‘They might not like you on offense, because you’re aggressive all the time,’” Brooks Jr. said “I was like, ‘All right, free safety.’”
It made sense to his father since the younger Brooks, even as a small child, had always liked the late safety Sean Taylor when they watched the Washington Redskins.
“It’s kind of funny, because he really didn’t know who he [Taylor] was,” Brooks Sr. said, “But he used to get excited when he’d see him play.”
The most excited Brooks Jr. got came when Taylor laid out Buffalo Bills punter Brian Moorman with a hit in the 2006 Pro Bowl.
“He got hyped off of that hit,” Brooks Sr. said. “Ever since he was a little kid, he said, ‘Dad, I want to hit like that.’”
Brooks Jr. never wore the same number — 21 — as Taylor, opting for a digit higher, the number his father had worn. When he got to Maryland, the jersey was taken by now fifth-year senior linebacker Isaiah Davis. It was the number worn by Davis’ brother, former Terp star and current Pittsburgh Steelers standout Sean Davis.
Both father and son tried to persuade the younger Davis to give it up.
“He asked and I asked him,” the elder Brooks said with a laugh. “He still has that jersey.”
Staying close to home
Then again, Brooks came to Maryland almost as an afterthought, a 3-star recruit still recovering from a serious injury. Initially committed to play at Buffalo — along with future and current teammate Max Bortenschlager — Brooks was contacted by Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who had just been hired by Durkin to coach the secondary.
“He tried to sign [with Buffalo], but there was something with a class that [the school] didn’t take [the credits], and we had to wait,” the elder Brooks recalled. “He’s a dedicated person and he had already locked in. We actually told Durkin we didn’t know yet. His mindset was going to Buffalo.”
His father pushed quietly.
“Through that time, it was snowing and everything and we were still doing our visits and Maryland said to come up there, and Durkin and coach Rahim changed his mind,” the elder Brooks said. “Buffalo is a little cold and I had to tell him, it’s a different kind of weather up there.”
Not that the Maryland coaches knew where he was going to play, and given the lack of talent at quarterback, where Brooks had been a first-time All-Met selection, some thought he might get used there. Not that Brooks has minded being moved from linebacker to nickel back to safety and even something of a hybrid of all three.
“That’s what I like to do,” Brooks Jr. said about moving all over the field.
After playing mostly on special teams as a freshman, Brooks got his chance as a sophomore at nickel back, returning a blocked field goal attempt 71 yards for a touchdown in a season-opening upset at then-No. 23 Texas. He wound up leading the Big Ten with 9.5 tackles for loss, led the Terps in solo tackles (53) and was second to linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. in overall tackles (77).
A year ago, as offenses began to gameplan for Brooks, he was a second-team All-Big Ten selection, finishing with a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss, and was third behind All-Big linebacker Tre Watson in tackles (68, including 46 solo) and Davis.
Despite the individual accolades, it was a tough few months for Brooks off the field.
On the day — May 29, 2018 — that offensive lineman Jordan McNair was rushed to a local hospital and then to R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma in Baltimore suffering from heat stroke, the elder Brooks was taken to Doctor’s Hospital near the family’s home in Lanham with a collapsed lung. Earlier that day his younger son, Jalen Brooks, had graduating from DuVal.
“I knew I had to go into the hospital before, but I wasn’t going to miss my son graduating,” Brooks Sr. said. “I tried to tough it out and keep their mind clear on things.”
That his father was still in the hospital after McNair died on June 13 was almost too much for Brooks Jr. to bear.
“I did take some frustration out a little bit,” Brooks Jr. said.
In what way?
“Just punching stuff,” he said.
With his father healthy, and with his senior year half over, the younger Brooks will be done playing college football in the next couple of months, sooner perhaps if the Terps don’t make a bowl game. It will be time to think about the next step. Brooks is already attracting attention from pro scouts and could follow Carter as well as cornerback JC Jackson and safety Darnell Savage Jr. to the NFL.
“I used to be under Jermaine Carter all the time, and he was a workhorse,” Brooks said. “Never left the weight room, was always watching film. Darnell was always watching film, knowing that he needed to do. JC watched film, but he liked to work out all the time. I had great inspiration. I can’t wait until I try to show what I can handle Sundays if I make it to play on Sundays."