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Antoine Brooks defied odds to star for Maryland football

Matt Regan/The Diamondback

Published on October 30, 2017

Maryland football defensive back Antoine Brooks waited in the hospital with his father, Antoine Brooks Sr., on Oct. 12, 2015, reliving the sequence that ended his promising DuVal High School career earlier that evening.

Brooks, playing quarterback, took a hit from a Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School defensive lineman after releasing a second-quarter pass. He shattered his wrist trying to prevent his fall and suffered a gruesome ankle fracture that left a bone sticking out of his sock.

The season-ending injury halted the work he put in over the previous three and half seasons, when he used highlight-reel plays on both sides of the ball to build a local following. He’d fielded offers from multiple Division I schools.

ABOVE: Defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. celebrates after making a tackle during Maryland Football’s game against Northwestern on Oct. 14, 2017 at Maryland Stadium.

So as he laid helpless on the field — surrounded by coaches, teammates and family members — Brooks told his hyperventilating father he wanted to quit football. Antoine Brooks Sr. agreed, not wanting to see his son endure a similar injury in the future.

At the hospital, however, Antoine Brooks realized he couldn’t give up his dream of competing in college.

“I think I’ll just play defense,” Brooks said to his father.

Brooks, now a sophomore at Maryland, returned from his setback to become one of the Terps’ best defenders this season. The former two-star recruit leads the team in tackles (53) and tackles for loss (7), and he’s one of two players to have both forced a fumble and recorded an interception.

Yet Brooks highlighted his first career start on Sept. 2 as a ball-carrier, returning a blocked field goal 71 yards for a touchdown to help Maryland beat then-No. 23 Texas for its first road upset since 2008.

“No one was going to stop him from scoring,” Antoine Brooks Sr. said. “He wasn’t going to let nobody catch him.”

Prince George’s County celebrated Brooks’ breakthrough.

On a bus returning home from a Charles H. Flowers High School road football game in Baltimore, Dameon Powell — who coached Brooks at DuVal — whooped and hollered with his staff as they witnessed the play from a mobile stream.

An hour before DuVal kicked off its own season opener, Carlos Lockwood — Brooks’ defensive coordinator in high school — wondered why his phone kept buzzing in his pocket. The now-head coach looked away from pre-game warmups to check the device, clicking on one of the many messages he received. It was an ESPN highlight of Brooks’ score.

Lockwood pulled aside DuVal senior wide receiver Jalen Brooks ­— Antoine Brooks’ brother — from the warmup session to share news of the touchdown.

“You should have seen his eyes light up,” Lockwood said. “That guy looks up to his big brother almost like you look up to your dad.”

Antoine Brooks had that sort of impact on his community. He helped bring TV stations and college recruiters to a high school that had never generated much excitement.

After Brooks’ senior season ended prematurely, almost every high school coach in the area called his home to offer support. DuVal players wore stickers on the back of their helmets with Brooks’ initials and his No. 2 for the remainder of the year.

“It was amazing to see the impact he had not only on DuVal and our student body, but also on the whole county,” Lockwood said. “It’s big for public schools. Hopefully it opens the door for the PG County guys to invade that campus up in College Park.”

“The best player I’ve ever coached”

ABOVE: Brooks makes a tackle during Maryland’s game against Ohio State. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

Before Brooks arrived at DuVal, the school had only made the playoffs three times, and once in the previous two decades. DuVal qualified for the postseason each year Brooks attended, including a Class-4A semifinal appearance in 2014.

Brooks was a two-time All-Met honoree and earned the Prince George’s 4A Offensive Player of the Year in 2015. Defenses struggled to contain his blend of speed and strength.

“He was unstoppable, man,” Powell said. “Nothing you could really do to scheme [against] him.”

In the first round of the 2014 Class-4A playoffs, DuVal faced Wise, which had won the championship two years before. Brooks wasn’t intimidated by the matchup.

The dual-threat quarterback broke through the middle of the Wise defense for a game-winning 17-yard touchdown run, causing a man on the sideline to shout, “He’s gone!” Brooks didn’t celebrate after the play. He just tossed the ball to the referee.

But when teammate DeMarco Seay clinched the 20-14 upset with an interception in the end zone, setting off another round of cheers from the stands, Brooks turned to the crowd and thrust both arms into the air. He then acknowledged Seay with a leaping embrace.

“That’s just Antoine,” Powell said. “He’s the ultimate team player, and he loves his guys.”

ABOVE: Brooks was an “unstoppable” two-way player at DuVal High School. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

Brooks grew up idolizing former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was known for his ability to swarm to the ball, force turnovers and deliver big hits. Brooks was 9 when an intruder killed Taylor in his Miami home.

Antoine Brooks Sr. provided reassurance when Brooks asked his dad to explain what happened.

“[He] told me to just keep going,” Brooks said, “And maybe you can be like him.”

Brooks’ defensive game mirrored Taylor by the time he reached DuVal. In practice, Lockwood said, Brooks made such aggressive plays that coaches worried he might accidentally injure one of his teammates. Like Taylor, Brooks could recover from bad reads by sprinting across the field to make a tackle because of his strong frame and athleticism.

Lockwood said opponents were afraid to throw the ball near Brooks, simplifying his defensive game plan.

“He was the best player I’ve ever coached,” Powell added. “He would throw his body in there and make plays just like he’s doing now. Just a joy to coach, you just don’t come across kids like that everyday.”

Still, Brooks struggled to garner attention from high-caliber Division I schools. He was an undersized 5-foot-11 quarterback, and he never attended the offseason camps scouts used to assess players.

“It is tough being at a smaller school that at one point in time wasn’t used to winning,” Powell said. “It’s not the same as [a place where] coaches come in and see your kids, so you have to do different things and be strategic as to how you get your kids to be seen.”

People outside Prince George’s County noticed Brooks as he amassed impressive plays early in his senior season. In one game against Parkdale High School, Brooks lined up as a running back and took a handoff down the left sideline, breaking five tackles and staying inbounds before speeding away for an 85-yard score.

DuVal started the year 5-0.

“Everybody wanted to come and see how this kid is,” Powell said.

A Rough Time

ABOVE: Brooks defends his man in Maryland’s matchup against Towson on Sep. 9 at Maryland Stadium. (Matt Regan/The Diamondback)

Brooks could have cemented his college prospects during DuVal’s much-anticipated rematch with Wise, the team he helped upset in the playoffs the year before. Both schools were undefeated.

Brooks began the game with a long touchdown pass to Seay. But on a bootleg designed to set up an outside throw, Brooks crumpled after taking a hit.

He stayed down.

Lockwood was among the first people to run onto the field. He didn’t notice Brooks’ misshapen ankle at first, instead focusing on the broken wrist Brooks cried out about.

When he looked down, Lockwood thought Brooks’ shoe came off. Lockwood only realized Brooks suffered a broken ankle by the sight of his bone. It was the worst injury he’s ever witnessed.

Brooks remembers flashes of this scene. He saw people crying. His mother grabbed his hand and assured him he’d be all right. He left in an ambulance.

As Brooks considered his commitment to football at the hospital, his teammates struggled to regroup in the locker room. Powell considered forfeiting during a 45-minute delay.

When the teams restarted, Wise scored six unanswered touchdowns.

“[Brooks] was the heartbeat of the team. He put the team on his back,” Powell said. “The team was down there and crying at the time of the injury.… It was a rough moment.”

Brooks said the next few months were nerve-wracking, as the payoff of his standout play unraveled. His inability to return to the field to support his DuVal teammates added to the frustration.

Many of Brooks’ top-choice schools stopped calling. He verbally committed to Buffalo, but his father worried about the distance from home.

Just before signing with the Bulls, Maryland coach DJ Durkin extended a scholarship offer in the week prior to National Signing Day, making good on his promise to recruit more DMV-area talent. Brooks took an official visit to College Park and finalized his decision when Powell advised him to commit to the Terps.

Brooks appreciated Maryland for believing he would bounce back from his gruesome setback. It wouldn’t take long for him to repay the program.

“No one was going to stop him”

ABOVE: Brooks celebrates during the Terps’ matchup against Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

Brooks put his wrist and ankle injuries behind him as a freshman at Maryland. He participated in six games, mostly as a special teams member.

The Terps knew he could translate the explosiveness he displayed at DuVal into college-level production. Brooks, who as a high school freshman surprised his former coaches by locking down eventual Maryland wide receiver Levern Jacobs, waited for an opportunity to prove himself.

Brooks used the 2017 spring game exhibition to make a statement.

On the third drive, quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome unleashed a deep throw to wide receiver DJ Moore, who beat Brooks downfield by almost three yards. Moore turned his head back to haul in what should’ve been an easy touchdown catch. But Brooks, at full stretch, leapt from the 6-yard line to prevent the score with an acrobatic interception, skidding past the goal line with the ball in his hands.

“OK, this guy is definitely one of our top 11 [defenders],” Durkin remembers thinking. “He needs to be on the field somehow, someway.”

Maryland made Brooks its starting nickel back, a position he never played before. Though Brooks called that transition “shaky at first,” his versatility at DuVal helped him succeed. Brooks took turns at quarterback, running back, safety, kick returner and punt returner in high school.

Brooks secured his first career interception against Towson on Sept. 9. Defensive lineman Kingsley Opara marveled at the confidence of his performance, claiming Brooks was the “swag on the defense.”

“Boy, it was fun watching him,” defensive coordinator Andy Buh said after the Terps’ win. “Us moving him from linebacker to that nickel position was a big, big deal to our defense. You saw his impact all over the field, not just in the coverage aspect, but in the run stopping.”

This season, Brooks has competed against four and five-star recruits, most of whom attended football pipeline schools and attracted boundless recruiting consideration.

Brooks, who didn’t have those luxuries, said he’s cherished chances to prove himself against highly touted opponents. He recorded a season-high 13 tackles at then-No. 10 Ohio State and 10 tackles at then-No. 5 Wisconsin.

“A lot of people always saw that I was good enough,” Brooks said. “They just kept me going.”

Antoine Brooks Sr. sat on his couch at home, eyes fixed on the TV, as Texas lined up for its 44-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter of Maryland’s season opener. He saw his son, who was wearing No. 25 in his first career start, positioned at the right edge of the line of scrimmage.

For a moment after lineman Derwin Gray blocked the attempt, Antoine Brooks stood upright, surveying the field. When he bolted forward for the loose ball, his father joined family members in his living room in shouting, “Oh, he’s gone!”

Like he experienced while kneeling next to his injured son two years before, Antoine Brooks Sr. struggled to control his emotions. This time, though, his feelings were positive.

Antoine Brooks was back in the open field.

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