It took a village to change the life of Gophers running back Shannon Brooks
MINNEAPOLIS—Melissa Weeks needed a quick respite from her roles as a seventh-grade science teacher and sole guardian to the teenage Brooks boys.
Weeks found a small window for peace and quiet after school on an October day in 2011, when Shannon Brooks, now a Gophers running back, and his older brother, Kalyn, were at football practice in Jasper, Ga. Weeks was driving south on a tree-lined highway through the Appalachian Mountains when her cell phone rang.
Immediately, she felt a pang of motherly instinct. Why are you calling? she quizzed the coach on the line.
Shannon had broken his left leg.
"Where I turned around to go back," Weeks said, "I had this feeling that this just got real."
Gophers fans know Brooks made an exemplary recovery, his three rushing touchdowns in Minnesota's 48-14 victory over Oregon State last Saturday the latest example that he's a special player. He and fellow running back Rodney Smith, a close friend, have sights set on climbing the Gophers' all-time rushing list this season.
But Brooks had to overcome more than just the fractured tibia and fibula, which required a dozen screws, a metal rod to repair, and cut short his strong freshman high school season after five games.
TROUBLE AT HOME
As a child, Shannon said, the brothers and their mother, Sharon, moved from apartment to apartment around the Atlanta suburb of Austell. With his mother struggling to make ends meet, Shannon recalled her going into a grocery store to steal food for the boys.
Sharon Brooks had run-ins with the law, with two separate charges for shoplifting in 2001 and possession of a controlled substance in 2010, according to a Cobb County Superior Court representative. The man Shannon said is his father, Andrew Antonio Evans, has a list of 12 charges, mostly for similar offenses, from 1994-2016, the court said.
"He was in prison most of my life," Shannon said. "I've probably seen him 15 times."
In elementary school, Shannon and Kalyn got into fights with other students and were disobedient to teachers. At home, they did whatever they wanted.
"Then the other, bigger (issue) was our surroundings," Brooks said. "Drugs and violence at home, family fights and things like that. That is why they wanted us to move out of the area and go up north."
In the sixth grade, Shannon and Kalyn moved to Jasper, a small town 60 miles north of Atlanta. After a stint with one of Sharon's friends, the boys moved in with Natasha Green after Shannon befriended classmate Deondre Green, one of her four sons. With the Greens, the boys continued moving from place to place, sometimes sleeping on the floor.
Shannon and Kalyn met Weeks after enrolling in the seventh grade at Jasper Middle School. After Shannon joined Weeks' science class, she began picking up details of his rocky upbringing and befriended the family, including the boys' grandparents.
A year later, Sharon Brooks was headed back to jail—this time in Jasper's Pickens County—and Weeks offered to help. "I just had built enough of a relationship with all of them," she said. "I just stepped in and said if they need a place to go that is a little bit more stable and a little bit more permanent, they can come with me."
Shannon Brooks reflected on that critical offer after practice this week as the Gophers prepared for Saturday's game against Middle Tennessee State. Weeks plans to be in the crowd at TCF Bank Stadium.
"(My mom) played a huge part in just letting Melissa take us in," Shannon said. "I really respect her for letting me and my brother to go to Melissa, who she hadn't even met yet because she was in jail. It was one of those things that you've just got to trust it."
Shannon and Kalyn's first stay in Weeks' home was temporary. They had a brief stay with their mother at the Greens' home before Sharon landed back in jail. Then the move to Weeks' home became permanent at the start of high school.
Weeks was 30, enjoying the freedom of the single life, and without parenting experiences, when Shannon and Kalyn moved in. "They stayed until I drove Shannon to Minnesota," she said. "... My whole world revolved around the schedules and needs of these two kids. I don't regret it at all."
Weeks installed curfews, bed times and family dinners as she obtained legal guardianship. When she moved to teach at Pickens High School when the boys were sophomores, she had an idea where the weekend parties were held and was hip to the boys' efforts to attend.
"It was really strict," Shannon said. "My brother and I weren't used to that, so it took us a while to get used to that. We adapted to it fairly (well), but still some struggles."
Kalyn is now a U.S. Marine.
INJURY SPURS FAITH
As a Pickens freshman in 2011, Brooks rushed for 814 yards in five games, making him one of the leading rushers in Georgia, before breaking his leg.
During practice ahead of the Cedartown game — and a matchup against current Georgia Bulldogs back Nick Chubb — Brooks planted his left foot in the ground to spin. His leg buckled. Instead of a clean break, it was a greenstick fracture, which means the adolescent bone splintered.
Weeks rode with Brooks to the emergency room. Sharon Brooks came to the hospital, too. They contemplated immediate surgery, but decided to weigh their options until the next day.
At home that night, Weeks held Shannon to try to comfort him in any way she could. "It felt like it a bee hive was in my leg and someone hit the bee hive and it started stinging terrible," he said.
Shannon, then 14, was devastated, asking his guardian for answers. Weeks recalled Brooks saying, "I thought that my plan was to play football, and now I don't know."
Beyond structure at home, Weeks had brought the boys to services at her Baptist church. So, in response, she mentioned the first Bible verse he ever read to her.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Surgery brought complications, a lack of blood flow that concerned doctors. The doctors worried Brooks might not walk without a limp, much less run well. With faith an increasingly important part of his life, Brooks was baptized the following Sunday.
Kyle Rasco was Pickens' athletics director and an athletic trainer who helped Brooks through the depths after the injury. They grew close, and Rasco became a role model. During Brooks' recovery, he joined Rasco on a mission trip to the Lions Camp for the Blind in Waycross, Ga. Rasco saw joy return to Brooks, who is known to teammates, family and friends for his goofy sense of humor.
"When you come up in an environment where it's dog-eat-dog and every meal is a question mark and every place you are going to stay at night is not always set in stone, doing something out of empathy for somebody else is different," Rasco said. "I could see he was so happy to be able to help somebody else."
That fall, Brooks picked up where he left off on the football field. After missing the matchup with Cedartown and Chubb as a freshman, Brooks got another chance. Chubb ran for 317 yards, but Brooks amassed 331 total yards — 131 rushing, 200 receiving — to lead Pickens to a 54-35 victory.
"I strongly believe he wouldn't be the player and the man he is today if (the injury) had not happened," Weeks said. Brooks still has a thick scar and a bump on his left shin from the injury.
After eclipsing 1,000 yards as a sophomore, Brooks' rushing yardage total topped 1,600 as a junior. He had scholarship offers from smaller schools such as Buffalo, Charlotte and Georgia State, before Georgia Tech, of the Atlantic Coast Conference, offered.
"I was so excited because I had never been through the situation ... I wanted to go there," Brooks said. "I had to get my grades up a little bit or do better on the tests, so I had to wait that out to commit."
As Weeks continued her work to help Brooks improve his grades, and with Rasco's help, he got qualifying scores on the ACT and SAT.
Minnesota offered him a scholarship in April before his senior season in 2014, when he surpassed 2,200 yards. All Brooks previously knew about the Gophers was they were in the Big Ten and they liked to run the ball.
"I came up on a few visits, and I fell in love with it," he said. "It was different, away from home."
ATLANTA OR JASPER?
Before his junior season this fall, Brooks had his left arm covered with a tattoo. The lower arm depicts him as a young kid holding a football with the words "patience," "faith" and "amen" inscribed over a city skyline. Lightning bolts strike down from the elbow to symbolize his struggles. His upper arm holds doves, the stairway to heaven and the pearly gates set in the clouds on his shoulder.
Brooks' journey started near Atlanta and blossomed in Jasper, a community that has embraced him. Pickens High School held a college-clothing theme on the same day as the Gophers' season opener against Buffalo two weeks ago, and some students wore maroon and gold. Weeks proudly donned Brooks' No. 23 jersey.
Weeks' uncle Richard Howard estimates some days there is more Gophers gear in Jasper than the red and black of the Georgia Bulldogs.
"The whole goal was to give them opportunities that any other kid should have," Weeks said. "Opportunities that I don't think they would have had ... with their family and the turmoil. Being proud of him, I can't even describe it."
Weeks quickly shares credit with the Jasper community for helping raise Shannon and Kalyn, who is set to return from his first deployment aboard a Navy ship that traveled to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. She mentioned other teachers, coaches and friends who were willing to watch the boys from time to time or provide a meal in a pinch.
When Brooks starred in the Gophers' win over Oregon State, the FS1 telecast announced Atlanta as his hometown.
"They say that on TV and about 100 people (in Jasper) sighed and rolled their eyes," Weeks said.
Brooks values his ties to Jasper, saying he "definitely" wouldn't be in college without Weeks, Rasco and many others, including friends Javy Zuniga and Ty Prather. He returned to the tiny mountain town during winter break in January and attended a basketball game on the day Tracy Claeys was fired.
Brooks was upset and wondered whether he should transfer to another school. Rasco and head football coach Chris Parker advised him to wait and see. He has since embraced the culture of new coach P.J. Fleck. He wore a captain's "C" on his chest as he rushed for 91 yards on 17 carries against Oregon State, with touchdown runs of 1, 2 and 2 yards.
Earlier this week, Brooks called Rasco in Jasper to check on how he and others made it through Hurricane Irma.
"When he scores a touchdown, the city of Atlanta couldn't care less," Rasco said. "But I can tell you the city of Jasper goes crazy."
Despite his connections and indebtedness to Jasper, Brooks lists Atlanta as his hometown for a reason.
"I like to put it on there," he said, "because it makes me remember."