Ten years ago today, Corben Brooks ran on to the field to take his position as outside linebacker for the Mt. Shasta Bears high school football team. He was 17 years old, stood six feet tall and weighed 205 pounds. It was the third day of school.
On the third play from scrimmage the opposing quarterback for the Yreka Miners identified Brooks as the “Leo” linebacker, meaning that was the left side of the defense. He had good reason to be wary.
Brooks blitzed on the play, forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball by throwing a short pass into the flat. Brooks spun around, chased down the ball carrier, and made what was later described as a “textbook tackle.” It would be the last play he would ever make.
“I remember being on my back and I couldn’t move my arms or stand up,” he said. “That’s when I started realizing something was wrong.”
As is common at high school football games, an ambulance was on standby past the home team end zone. The injured player was taken to Mercy Medical Center less than five minutes away.
When Brooks arrived at the hospital he was taped to a hardback gurney and still in his uniform. He wore number 35 – the same number his dad and uncle had worn. Everyone was hoping it was just a “stinger.”
The attending physician in the ER that day was Dr. Tom Morris. He immediately suspected an injury to the C-5 vertebrae.
“I was very concerned,” Morris said. “For such a complete neurological deficit to occur so abruptly suggests an injury that people are going to be dealing with for the rest of their lives.”
In a small town of 3,500 people, the news traveled quickly.
Corben’s mother, Ronna, remembers arriving at the hospital. She still had no idea about the seriousness of her son’s injury. When she found out her heart sank.
“I was ignorant about it. I didn’t know,” she said. “I thought when you broke your neck you died.”
That same evening Brooks was airlifted to Redding where he underwent a successful, seven-hour surgery to stabilize his spinal column. He was in intensive care for a week.
Signs of support
The long journey back from a devastating sports injury comes fraught with emotional and physical challenges, according to Gus Ostrum, executive director of the Adam Taliaferro Foundation.
Taliaferro was a cornerback for Penn State who was paralyzed while making a tackle in 2000. He is now a U.S. Congressman.
“The emotional part of it is just huge,” Ostrum said. “It is a difficult thing to deal with.”
He added that the single biggest boost an injured athlete can receive is support. Finances become an instant challenge. Dealing with insurance companies can be draining. Medical miles driven are an endless odometer.
Brooks was unable to eat on his own. The first time he tried, he stabbed himself in the forehead with a fork. So Ronna took over the duties for the first six months.
“Quite often it (recovery) is a very long and slow process,” Ostrum said. “But their lives, their careers are not over.”
For Brooks, the support from his family, the local community and complete strangers was overwhelming. People were, and still are, naturally drawn to him.
Get well signs appeared everywhere. Employees at a local bank wore his jersey number every Friday during football season. Magnets were made. T-shirts were sold. A lot of pizza was consumed during fundraisers.
“I saw the signs. I had pictures coming in on my phone all the time,” Brooks said. “Random people coming by that we didn’t even know. It was phenomenal.”
His friends visited regularly while he was in the hospital, first for three months at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and then later at Shriner’s Hospital in Sacramento. He was home by Christmas.
Learning to live
By January, Brooks was back at school three days a week. He was already taking advanced placement courses in Physics, Statistics and Literature before the accident and needed only to complete two more classes to graduate.
Ray Huston, a retired teacher and former coach, would stop by once a week to help Brooks study. That could mean anything from turning pages in a textbook to serving as an advocate with the school district.
“Mom and Dad never let him feel sorry for himself,” Huston said. “The last thing they were going to do is accept things as final.”
Brooks’ father, Kevin, has been with him every step of the way, including riding in the ambulance the day he got hurt. The rest of his family, including two brothers and a sister, stepped up as well. Nobody saw it as a burden.
“He had some serious peer support,” Huston added. “A couple of his best friends really helped him out a lot.”
When he wasn’t in school Brooks spent almost every waking moment trying to get better.
A C-5 injury is particularly challenging because it affects people from the shoulders down.
“He just had to learn to use his body in a totally different way,” said Lisa Pigoni, a physical therapist who worked with Brooks starting about six months after his accident.
“With transfers in and out of a wheelchair he had to rely on muscle function, momentum and compensatory strategies,” she said. “That takes practice. It takes skill training … and confidence”
Pigoni said working with Brooks was both challenging and rewarding. She said athletes understand the amount of hard work that is involved in order to achieve certain goals.
“He showed up every day with a smile on his face with complete dedication and maturity,” she said. “He never once said, Why me?”
Passage to India
Still, after almost two years, Brooks was not satisfied. Doctors told him it was unlikely his condition would improve. But a new program involving stem cells was intriguing. The only problem: It was in India.
The first trip to New Delhi was an adventure. Not a good one.
“When we got there it was like nothing I had ever seen before,” he said. “I kept thinking this is terrible. This is a bad idea. This is the universe saying don’t go.”
An attempt to get his hair cut ended with a tumble down a 15-step staircase. He landed on the sidewalk. To make matters worse, Brooks had side effects from the therapy. He endured spinal headaches that lasted 12 hours, similar in some respects to what Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, has experienced.
One day, just to add insult to injury, he banged his knee on an elevator door. It hurt.
“It took me a minute and then I thought, ‘Ooh that hurt.’ And then you look for something else to run into,” he recalls laughing. “I began to get feeling in my legs. I was able to wiggle my toes a little bit.”
Even more important was feeling in his bladder.
“It was a huge thing for me because now I don’t have to be on a schedule,” he said. That includes being able to sleep through the night. “I can drink whenever I want … just like anybody else.”
Both the trips to India and visits to Project Walk in Carlsbad were watershed events in Brooks’ life. Many of the expenses were offset by anonymous donations. Brooks said he is eternally grateful.
“I got a lot of function back,” he said. “That gave me the confidence to be able to go to college.”
He applied to Yale, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and USC. He chose USC for two reasons. One was pretty simple, especially for someone in a wheelchair.
“It was totally flat and compact,” Brooks said. “Then we stopped by the Policy School and I knew this was it.”
Making a difference
What appealed to Brooks about policy planning and development was the chance to make a difference in the world. He had dreamed of one day being a helicopter rescue pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Instead, his life took a different turn but he still ended up in the same place.
“There is a financial aspect to health care no matter what system we have,” he said. “But if you are in the hospital and need something your parents shouldn’t have to be begging. I wondered if there was a way for me to bridge the gap that would fulfill my desire to help people.”
He graduated with a Master’s Degree in Health Administration. Much of his tuition was paid for by a program called Swim With Mike, which provides scholarships for physically challenged athletes.
Brooks called the program a “phenomenal resource.”
“The organization truly creates a family atmosphere that goes beyond just helping financially,” he said. “Swim With Mike supporters, volunteers and fellow recipients go out of their way to help one another in all aspects of life.”
Today the devastating sight of Brooks struggling to appear brave 10 years ago has been replaced by someone more comfortable with their path through life. He remains handsome as ever with blue-gray eyes that are both intelligent and mischievous. He has a polite and modest manner. Definitely an old soul. If a movie is ever made about his life the best person cast as him would be him.
Next month he returns to the hospital where his journey started. He begins an internship involving operations and strategy. Perhaps his greatest achievement is not being defined by his injury.
“When I first got hurt I thought life was over. Now I am very happy with where I am,” he said. “It’s unfortunate (what happened to me) but I smile every day when I wake up with what I’ve got to do, what I get to do and what I’m going to do.”