Road trip: Milwaukee, where the Eagles' Brandon Brooks got tough

Eagle offensive lineman Brandon Brooks (56) leads the blocking for his running back during a Riverside University High School football game.

MILWAUKEE – Like Brandon Brooks, its most famous alumnus, Riverside University High School is massive, sturdy, and built to withstand and protect.

The 103-year-old, four-story brick bastion, home to 1,600 college-bound students from all across this city, occupies a rise along the Milwaukee River, a mile east of Lake Michigan.

Earlier this week, it was the site of a Super Bowl pep rally during which the assembled students wildly cheered a video message from the Eagles’ all-pro guard, a 2007 graduate. Soon, Riverside will make room on its overcrowded Hall of Fame wall for Brooks’ photo. And school officials, who termed him as “a very fine student,” hope he’ll return soon to discuss not just his Super Bowl LII experience but his plans to resume pursuit of a graduate degree from the Wharton School.

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All the football and educational success the northwest Milwaukee native has achieved seemed unlikely in 2003, when Brooks, a pudgy freshman as unsure of his football abilities as he was of himself, arrived at Riverside.

“The first time I saw him was the summer before his freshman season,” football coach Pat Wagner recalled Thursday afternoon. “I drove up and here was this 6-2, 6-3 kid who was a little doughy. My first thought was, `I don’t know if this kid is tough enough.’ ”

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Wagner wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Jarrod Johnson, a Lehigh graduate who played briefly in the NFL and lived next door to Brooks in Milwaukee’s River Woods neighborhood, also questioned the youngster’s toughness.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Riverside University High School head football coach Pat Wagner coached Brandon Brooks for four years.

“He was a good-hearted kid, happy-go-lucky,” said Johnson, 48, now a senior vice president at  Buffalo’s Erie County Medical Center. “He was always a big kid, but he wasn’t a mean kid.

“I’m a referee and the first time I saw him play was when I officiated one of his games,” he added. “He was bigger than everybody. After the game, I said, `Brandon, nobody can block you. You ought to be more ferocious when you’re on the football field.’ ”

As a junior and senior, Wagner said, Brooks learned to play that way. But it was a style that didn’t come naturally.

“A few times, I just told him, ‘Brooks, you’re soft,’ ” the coach said. “His senior year is when he really toughened up. I think the light bulb went on. He was one of those guys that it takes a while before he finally figures out what he wants to do.”

As a junior, Brooks played defensive tackle and four different offensive  line positions — guard, tackle, center, and tight end. As a senior, he led the long-suffering Tigers to an 11-2 record, city and regional championships, and a berth in the state semifinals.

For all his ability, though, and he attracted plenty of Division I interest before deciding on Miami of Ohio, in part because of the school’s manageable class sizes, Brooks made few high school all-star teams.

“We had a lot of injuries his senior year,” said Wagner, “and he played so many different positions that he didn’t have enough snaps to qualify at any one of them.”

The same easygoing, “Baby Huey” manner that frustrated his coaches also endeared Brooks, an outstanding student, to the teachers at this academically challenging school that requires applicants to take an entrance exam.

“He was big but, because of how he was, he didn’t scare people,” said Ela Kiblawi, who taught him freshman algebra. “He was so good-natured, so polite and respectful. And he had a real thirst for knowledge, a lot of inner-drive. He always knew school came first. He’d come in during lunch to get help with the higher math courses, just to make sure he understood it.”

Pam Kutcher, his sophomore physical education teacher, termed Brooks self-motivated.

“Every day he’d come in and do exactly what he was supposed to do. He was a hardworking kid, always willing to help whoever needed it.”

Though Brooks did see his divorced father frequently, Johnson took an early interest in the boy, who lived with his mother (a longtime Miller Brewery employee) and grandmother. Actually, it was Brooks who first took an interest in Johnson.

“He used to come to my house for food. That’s how I met him,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Brandon would eat at my house, go down the street and eat his grandmother’s cooking, then come back to my house and eat again.

“My daughter, who is 20 now, was a little girl at the time and she used to get mad. She’d say, `Daddy, why does Brandon eat all my candy?”

People here were surprised last season when Brooks sat out several games with anxiety problems.

According to Johnson, he became aware of the problem when Brooks telephoned him from a hospital. By acknowledging and confronting that psychological demon, Johnson said, he overcame it.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these kids to perform,” Johnson said. “But at end of the day it’s just a game. I think Brandon finally got that in his mind. And in doing so, he’s learned to be a professional.”

Though his anxiety problems garnered considerable attention, Wagner pointed out that it was just one small piece of a well-rounded person.

“He came out and said, `Hey, I’m dealing with this. I’m working through it.’ The fact that he stepped up and said that says a lot about who he is.”

Earlier stops on the road to Super Bowl LII

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