Photo Courtesy of David Farmer
Just days away from starting his senior year at Cherokee High School, J.T. Brooks has a bit of a bigger momento coming up.
He is days away from recieving his updated truck that will be outlfitted with a lift and hand controls so that he will be able to operate it and return to the normal teenage life he’s been away from.
“It will provide a little bit of freedom for all of us,” said Brooks with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, remnant of a young drivers’ dreams of freedom on the road.
Things have been a little bit different for Brooks now that he is entering his senior year on August 7.
He’s adjusting to getting his drivers license, learning a new car and a few changes to his hous
e. But besides that, things are normal for a teenager that is preparing for his final year of high school.
But even though things may seem normal, it’s been a bit of a different life for Brooks since May 23, 2016. During the last spring scrimmage of his sophomore seaon, Brooks would take his final snap on the football field after being tackled and suffering a spinal cord injury which had forced him to use a wheel chair.
After months of intense therapy and a stint at the Shepherd Center — a spinal cord rehabilitation facility in Atlanta — Brooks returned home in December to jump into the second semester of his junior year.
Jumping right back into school was a little different for him, especially considering he’d never noticed the terrain at Cherokee High School
“It was a little hard on my arms at first,” said Brooks about starting school and manipulating the hills and hallways in his wheelchair. “It was a little different, but I got use to it pretty quick.”
While Brooks can’t get on the field to compete anymore, he still gets a fulfilling feeling from being around the teams.
“Memories are still being made,” he said. “The boys look up to me and the coaches use me as an example to not take things for granted, and I am fine with that. I try to motivate my teammates and give them some advice.”
Giving advice or taking charge is what Brooks was known for while commanding the gridiron or diamond, but his final day on the football field is something that he recalls more frequently now. After months of rehab and recovery, Brooks watched his final play on October 6.
“I remember (the play) pretty vividly, I try not to think about it, but sometimes I can’t help it,” Brooks said. “A lot of things could have happened differently. I could have taken one step to the left and it would have changed everything. It’s crazy how every inch of that play changed my life.”
But don’t let a moment of reflection appear as a moment of weakness. Brooks has emerged from what could have been a crushing situation, and has come back stronger, with a bigger will to live his life on his terms.
His stay at the Shepard Center put his current predicament into perspective, cementing the fact that while his injury has changed his life, it could have been worse.
“I saw tons of people that had it worse,” Brooks said. “I never knew about the injury, but once you get down to the Shepard Center, it’s a whole new world and there are so many people that you don’t know about. Diving accidents, car accidents, sports and all kinds of things.
“But some people have it worse and some people have it a little better, but it just puts it all into perspective.”
Getting Brooks to the Shepard Center in Atlanta was important to his family and it has paid important dividends, according to Brooks.
“I met so many people there that really impacted my life,” Brooks said. “They gave me motivational support and I’ll have those connections for the rest of my life.”
While Brooks isn’t able to participate in school sports anymore, he said he took plenty of lessons away from his days on the gridiron and diamond.
“I’ve learned a lot of lessons from coaches and that’s what sports are there for,” Brooks said. “They teach you lessons and if you are open-minded, you can learn so much.”
He mentioned he will take away learning how to overcome adversity and the fact that hard work will turn into good things. And he will never forget those Friday nights that he looked forward to so much.
“Some of the biggest chills I ever got were from running on the field on Friday nights,” Brooks said. “It’s crazy how I can’t do it anymore and it use to be pretty much my entire life. It got taken away from me by injury, but a lot of guys will have it taken away from them after high school. So I hope guys realize that they don’t have much time left and that they have to make the most of it.”
While those chills maybe gone, Brooks is still excited about what his senior year might bring.
After Brooks finishes up his senior year he said that he plans to attend a local college and pursue a degree in business. He also said that he enjoys speaking to people and sharing his story, but he doesn’t really have plans to do that for a living.
“I just like to tell people to not take things for granted and to live every day to the fullest,” Brooks said.
Brooks admitted that “what ifs” still cross his mind, often trying to ponder what his life would be like right now if it wasn’t for his injury.
“I think about what I might be doing today, you know,” Brooks said on a summer day. “I’d be doing football workouts and practicing baseball and it would be a lot different. But I can’t change it, but I still think about it.”
He also often thinks about what it would be like to walk again, a goal that he isn’t ruling out. Right now, he is focusing on weight-bearing exercises during his workouts and constantly striving every day to make his new dream a reality.
“I try and move my legs everyday and one day it will happen,” said Brooks, who spends at least two hours a day doing therapy. “I just have to believe that and keep myself in shape for the day that it does happen.”
A couple of weeks after his injury, Brooks said he shared a private conversation with Dr. Chris Calendine, a family friend and Brooks’ hometown doctor. The two shared hopes, dreams and tears, as they pondered how Brooks would spend the rest of his life.
“It was just me and him in the room and I remember having an emotional talk with him and I told him that I just want to be a good dad to my kids and a good husband to my wife and I think I am still going to be able to do that,” Brooks said.
Brooks has had quite an example about how to conduct himself during his adulthood from his loving family. Emotion begins to cloud Brooks voice as he reflects what his family means to him.
“They do everything for me and we do all of the same stuff that we use to,” Brooks said. “There as good to me as they were before and I wouldn’t be able to go through this without them, I love them very much.”
But it doesn’t appear that they are the only ones.
From the outpouring from the Rogersville community and some of his closet friends, Brooks said he is thankful to be able to have such a strong support staff around him.
“We have a great, tight-knit community here in Rogersville and I really appreciate all the love and support that they have given to me during this process,” Brooks said. “I have some of the best friends anyone could ask for. They’ve never treated me different and we just picked up where we left off. I’m just very thankful.”