Oct. 17, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
Ask Daniel Brooks if you ever want to know the importance of a name.
Only a few years ago, his name conjured images of a hard-hitting, can't-miss linebacker, the next big thing, the next Al Wilson.
Then his name showed up in the headlines when he wasn't doing anything on the field.
And after Brooks was dismissed from Tennessee's football program in 2005, it became synonymous with another five-star recruit who went bust for one reason or another.
But since you last heard the name Daniel Brooks, he's been busy making sure it means something else.
Brooks has always lived his life with a sense of urgency. Off the field, he said he always wanted to have a good time and make sure other people enjoyed themselves, too.
While at Tennessee, he was a favorite on campus because of weekend cookouts. He'd go to the grocery store and load up on food and cook for everyone.
Part of the reason Brooks lived that way is because his own father died of a heart attack at the age of 26. Brooks was only 4 years old at the time, but it changed him for good.
"I try to live with no regrets. In my mind, there's a purpose for it," Brooks says. "My father was an athlete. Healthy. Stuff happens. I keep a smile on my face. I don't stress about much stuff because it happens for a reason. If I'm broke, I'm broke for a reason. That's just how I am. I'm a happy person."
Most of the time, that's been true. But even Brooks will admit there was a time when anger got in the way.
He came to UT heralded as the next big thing for Tennessee's defense, a strong, fast middle linebacker from the same high school as former Vols All-American Al Wilson.
The plan, Brooks says, was to redshirt and then compete for the starting job after Kevin Burnett left early for the NFL. Only Burnett, eventually a second-round pick in the NFL draft, stayed for his senior season and Brooks spent another season as a backup.
Adjusting to anonymity was tough, and so was adjusting to college life.
For most of his life, Brooks lived on a farm in Charleston, Miss, a town of about 2,100 people in northern Mississippi. When he moved to Jackson, Tenn., at age to attend high school, the jump was eye-opening. And going from Jackson, a city of about 62,000, to Knoxville was even more of a challenge.
Brooks could find trouble if he looked for it. And he went looking.
"I quit going to church," Brooks says now. "I got off track, big time. I lost sight of my goal, my dream."
Brooks' fall was precipitous.
Already on thin ice because of a few on-campus fights, he was suspended from the team before the 2005 season after a traffic accident revealed he was driving on a suspended license because of unpaid tickets. UT's coaching staff suspended him for three games and revoked his scholarship.
A fight with two former men's basketball players was the final straw, and Brooks' career ended with just 11 tackles in 21 career games. Most of his time on the field came as a special teams player. Once his football career ended, Brooks only continued to act out.
"I went into a slump," says Brooks, who was never charged by police for his role in any of those fights. "I dropped from 18 hours (of classes) to nine hours. Then I thought I was done with football, period. I started partying extra hard, drinking. I was in such depression over it, I think I only ended up passing three hours."
But by December of 2005, Brooks said he realized that all the partying wasn't who he was. And more importantly, he knew it wouldn't lead anywhere he wanted to go.
He called Fernandez West, associate director of the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center, and asked what he needed to do to be able to transfer to another school and be eligible to play football. The answer was pass 19 hours in the spring semester.
That spring, Brooks buckled down and made the grades.
"Once I got through that, I felt like I could do anything," Brooks said.
That next fall, with the help of an old friend from his high school days, he enrolled at Jackson State.
Darrin Hayes always wanted to coach Daniel Brooks, and in 2006, he finally got the chance.
Hayes first met Brooks when he was coached at Lane College in West Tennessee and Brooks was a blue-chip linebacker at Jackson Central-Merry High School. By 2006, though, Brooks was a linebacker playing for Hayes, who became the defensive coordinator at Jackson (Miss.) State.
Brooks was only about two hours from Charleston, Miss., where he spent most of his childhood. And he was able to spend time with his grandfather, Walter Lee Brooks, who became ill just as Brooks was leaving Tennessee.
And while he regrets being dismissed from Tennessee, Brooks is thankful that was able to spend time with his ailing grandfather, who he counts as one of his biggest influences.
"It gave me an opportunity to be back at home," Brooks said. "That's why I say everything happens for a reason."
At Jackson State, Hayes saw the Brooks he'd always known - albeit a different one than most Tennessee fans remember.
"He was a model citizen," Hayes said. "An opportunity is what he needed. I think he's restored his name. Do you want to be remembered as a trouble maker and college dropout? Or do you want to be known as a shining example and a bridge builder?"
For Brooks, the answer was clear.
He embraced the second chance, on and off the field. His teammates named him a captain both years at Jackson State, and he helped the Tigers win the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship his final season there.
"I got a championship ring, and I'm proud of that," Brooks said. "But the whole time I was there, I still thought about Tennessee. I always wanted to come back."
`Man on a Mission'
Brooks' return to Tennessee had a lot to do with the player so many compared him to.
Then last fall, Brooks saw Al Wilson for the first time in seven years. The former Tennessee great told Brooks he should go finish his degree. According to Brooks, Wilson even offered to pay his tuition.
So Brooks enrolled at UT for the spring semester this year and paid his own way. Then he took Wilson's advice and approached athletic director Mike Hamilton about joining Tennessee's Renewing Academic Commitment program, which provides financial aid to former student-athletes who return to school.
"Everybody can't do it," said West, who kept in contact with Brooks throughout his time at Jackson State. "There is limited funding. We can't take everybody every year."
Brooks made his case to the RAC committee, and met individually with Hamilton before he was given financial aid for summer classes.
"Daniel came in humbly, and apologetic in some ways, but with a determination that he was going to prove that he was willing to finish his academic career," Hamilton said. "That made an impression on me."
Over the summer, Brooks completed the final 21 hours he needed to graduate. And he did it while working in the athletic department, a condition of receiving funding from the RAC program.
"He was a man on a mission when he came back," West said.
`All You Got'
These days, Brooks is a college graduate. He's even thought about returning for a second degree.
And he's a married father of two boys, 5-year-old Ayden LaDerrick Brooks and 4-year-old Daniel Brooks Jr.
He loves both his sons. And he wants them both to hear good things about their father.
"That's what I want people to say to my kids - your dad was a good man, a good guy, a hell of an athlete, and he graduated from UT," Brooks says. "Not your dad was a troublemaker. I don't want them to have to go through that. That's a lot."
Then Brooks pauses. This next part, he knows about all too well.
"When kids start being compared to people, they kind of take that on," Brooks said. "That's bad stuff I don't want them to be compared to."
But there's good stuff, too. And Brooks wants to make sure both his boys can be proud of the names he's given them.
"I'm going to try to lead them in the right direction so they can avoid some of the same mistakes I made," he says. "That's been the whole thing since I left here, rebuild your name, rebuild your name.
"My whole thing is your name is all you got."
Follow the Vols on Twitter @UTAthletics, and read Drew Edwards' blog, The Inside Source.