MINNEAPOLIS — With his leg immobilized in a brace and using crutches to help him walk, Shannon Brooks traveled from Minnesota to Georgia to say a final goodbye to his mother.
After Sharon Brooks passed away in April 2018, her son wanted to honor her with a sleeve tattoo on his right arm. He chose strength and love for the themes, never realizing how much he would need both to get through a year during which setbacks and struggles seemed to never end.
Brooks had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Gophers football team’s winter workouts in early 2018 and was rehabbing from surgery when he suddenly lost his mom.
In the fall, Brooks was arrested — but never charged — for a fight with his male roommate, and two weeks later, he tore the ACL in his right knee to end an electric performance in the one game he was able to play in last season.
During another long rehab process, Brooks suffered a setback when he “over-stretched” a knee.
As the setbacks piled up, self-doubt crept in.
“There were probably nights like, ‘I don’t know if I want to play anymore. My knees are done for,’ ” Brooks said. “I felt like just giving up.”
But Brooks persisted and last Saturday, Oct. 5, rushed 16 times for 111 yards in Minnesota’s 40-17 win over Illinois. He looked the tenacious, physical tailback he was before being hurt: 58 yards of his rushing total were earned after contact and he broke free for a more gratifying 21-yard touchdown run.
“Incredibly satisfying,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “I’m always really happy for the players when they perform well. They pour so much into it. They are kids.”
Brooks and Rodney Smith, who recovered from his own ACL tear last season, present a formidable one-two rushing threat as Minnesota (5-0, 2-0) heads into Saturday night’s game against Nebraska (4-2, 2-1) on Oct. 12 at TCF Bank Stadium.
During the Illinois game, Brooks’ tribute to his mother could be glimpsed underneath his shoulder pads. It’s a depiction of a smiling Sharon, a gold halo above her. Beneath, it reads:
"Strength doesn’t come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming the thing you once thought you couldn’t."
“That means basically I never would want to think of losing my mom any day,” Brooks said.
The lower part of his arm has his mother’s name, date of birth and death, with a poem on remembrance:
A thousand words won’t bring you back, I know because I’ve tried/ Neither will a thousand tears, I know because I’ve cried
“It was a really tough year, losing my mother,” Brooks said on Wednesday, Oct. 9, his 23rd birthday. “She was the closest lady in my life, obviously. She taught me a lot of things, but one thing I can take from her now that she is gone — and when she was alive, too — was just love. Be a loving person, forgive everybody because you are forgiven yourself.”
Brooks’ left arm wasn’t available for a tribute to his mother; he had it covered in ink before his junior year at Minnesota.
The lower arm has images of him as young kid holding a football, with the words “patience” and “faith” amid a city skyline. Lighting bolts streak down from the elbow, representing his childhood struggles.
Sharon Brooks and Shannon’s father, Andrew Antonio Evans, had several run-ins with the law, according to court records in Georgia, and each served jail time. In August 2017, Brooks shared that home life in the Atlanta suburb of Austell had “drugs and violence at home, family fights and things like that.”
That’s when Shannon and his brother Kalyn moved north to the small town of Jasper, Ga., where the boys settled in the home of Melissa Weeks, a teacher at Jasper Middle School. They lived with Weeks until she drove Brooks to Dinkytown and Kalyn enlisted in the Marines.
When Brooks tore his ACL in late winter 2018, Weeks reminded him that he has been in this position before, breaking his leg during practice at Pickens High in 2011.
“I just handled it like, ‘You have been through things this difficult before and you will get through this one, too,’ ” she said.
When Brooks returned to Georgia to say goodbye to his mother before her passing, the loss “obviously took its toll” on him, Weeks said.
“But I think there also was maybe the attitude of him thinking, ‘My momma would want me to succeed and see me come back from this and see me do what I could do.’ Even some of that spurred him on to make her proud.”
Brooks credited Weeks for sending him little Bible verses via text messages some mornings.
“She helped me out a lot,” he said. “She can’t really do much; she is all the way in Georgia. (But) she shows her support in all different types of ways.”
Brooks was on the cusp of returning from the first ACL tear last October when he traveled with the Gophers to Columbus, Ohio, but didn’t play in the 30-14 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 12. Back in Minneapolis that night, Brooks was arrested under the suspicion of fifth-degree domestic assault of his 21-year-old male roommate. The police report listed “no injury” for the victim.
Brooks had restrained the roommate after the roommate twice pushed one of Brooks’ female guests in their apartment, a source said. Brooks was kept in Hennepin County jail until that Monday, and after weeks of review, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office decided not to file charges.
“That situation has been dealt with,” Brooks said Wednesday. “It’s been cleared up. That was in the past.”
Brooks returned to rush for 154 yards and a touchdown against Indiana. He broke off a long run, something he’s done many times for Minnesota before he injured his knee in his only game of the season.
“It was tough for the second time, and I think part of that was he knew what was coming and he knew how hard it was going to be,” Weeks said. “It hurt worse and all of it. Everything was a little bit worse the second time.”
This year, however, started off much brighter for Brooks. He has moved in with his girlfriend, and the fifth-year senior, a recreation administration major, participated in his commencement ceremony in May. He’s an internship away from completing his degree and is fulfilling that requirement at the YMCA in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.
Brooks said he works the front desk, shadows strength trainers and assists with kids’ football and soccer camps. He still plans to chase his childhood dream of playing in the NFL.
When Brooks talked about the trials of 2018, he often referenced the support he’s received from the Gophers football program.
“I didn’t want to let my teammates down,” he said. “If they believe in me, then I know that I’ve still got it. I believe in myself first, but they believe in me, too. That just goes to show that I should still be here and be here for them more than myself.”
Toward the end of the Illinois game, head coach P.J. Fleck wrapped an arm around Brooks and Smith, two stars that could have easily transferred when Fleck was hired in January 2017.
“I just told them one how proud of them I was of them,” Fleck said. “Two, it’s good to have them both back. Three, I think I said something around the nature of, ‘You two can finish your career with a very special season.’ ”