Before he was tabbed as the nation’s top high school defender, before he garnered all-American honors at Virginia and well before his career resurrection with the San Francisco 49ers, Ahmad Brooks worried that he wasn’t big enough.
He was blessed with the athleticism passed down by his father, Perry, who won a Super Bowl as a defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins. But at 14 years old and all of 165 pounds, Ahmad considered sitting out his freshman football season at Hylton High in Woodbridge to focus on basketball until his father took a moment to prod his son.
“Playing sports as a kid, kids always seem to think they know it all,” Brooks said in a recent phone interview. “But many times parents can see what type of talent they have in their family, and I guess my Dad saw it. It wasn’t just because he played, but he saw something special in me, and I took that to heart.”
As Brooks and the 49ers descend upon FedEx Field on Monday for a matchup with the Redskins, the eight-year pro will return to the origin point on his map to stardom. It was among this fanbase that his love for football developed. It was about 130 miles from this stadium that his football dream almost flickered out. And every fall Sunday, within the familiar confines of the gridiron, Brooks is able to rediscover what his father saw years ago.
Perry Brooks was nearing the end of his seven-season NFL career with Washington when Ahmad was born in March 1984. But when Ahmad would later join his father and older brother, Perry Jr., for Redskins games at RFK Stadium, it was Ahmad who seemed to suffer from football withdrawal.
“I was a Redskins fan growing up. Still am a fan. But I never really liked going to the games,” Brooks said. “I never liked watching other people play. I’d rather be playing football in the yard with my friends.”
Following years of backyard battles, Perry Jr. created a palpable buzz for his younger brother’s arrival at Hylton by telling then-Coach Bill Brown of the freakish athlete coming his way.
“In this area, anytime you hear about a Redskin moving into town and he’s got kids, you start thinking you might have a good player on your hands,” Brown said. “I didn’t know a lot about Ahmad, but when his older brother said he was really, really good and better than him, I knew I would really like him.”
As a freshman, Brooks was pulled up to varsity to start at linebacker for Hylton’s run to the 1998 Virginia AAA state title. The next year, he racked up 202 tackles and sealed the Bulldogs’ second straight state crown by intercepting a fourth-quarter pass then catching the game-winning touchdown on offense.
With Brooks’s national profile on the rise and his 200-plus-pound frame finally catching up to his expectations, he appeared ripe for a record-breaking junior season until it was derailed by injuries.
“When he couldn’t play, we were really concerned about him being in a state of depression,” said Brown, who now coaches at Colonial Forge High in Stafford. “He doesn’t handle not playing well.”
Though Brooks would put together a strong senior season, earning All-Met Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2001, the pattern of injuries and subsequent emotional struggles continued as he ascended through the football ranks.
After leading Virginia in tackles for his first two college seasons, scouts told Brown and the Brooks family that Ahmad would likely be the No. 5 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Brooks instead elected to return for another collegiate season and pursue his degree. There was also surgery that March to regenerate bone growth in his right knee. The rehab, along with a nagging back ailment, forced Brooks to miss six games during the 2005 season, balloon to 270 pounds and again spiral into a low emotional state, according to Brown.
“He went from being on top of the world to, in his mind, things not going well,” Brown said. “Perry called me down to U-Va., and we sat down with Ahmad to encourage him and lift his spirits.”
Brooks recalled the talk, saying that his dad reminded him of the special gift he possessed and “that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to make it to the next level and keep reaching your goals.”
Though Brooks vowed a renewed focus, his commitment wavered as he reportedly skipped team meetings. He was dismissed from the Cavaliers in March 2006.
With few options at his disposal, Brooks entered the NFL supplemental draft, where he was selected by Cincinnati in the third round. After earning a starting spot at linebacker the next year, he tore his groin in the second game and was placed on injured reserve. The Bengals would waive him before the 2008 season.
San Francisco immediately picked up Brooks, but he remained inactive until Sept. 27, 2009, marking a two-year span on the sideline doing what he had always dreaded the most — watching others play football.
“Being a young adult and a football player, sometimes it doesn’t hit you what it means to be a professional,” Brooks said. “One thing my Dad would tell me all the time is that you can’t do what everybody else is doing. You have to do what you know it takes to be the best football player you can be. It finally started clicking in about my fourth year in the NFL when I saw guys like Patrick Willis and Ray McDonald working hard. I realized that, ‘Man, I need more than just talent. I need to be on my Ps and Qs just to get out on the field and play.’ ”
The realization was closely followed by tragedy beyond his comprehension. Perry Brooks, the man who had been at almost every one of Ahmad’s games and the one who understood him the most, died on March 1, 2010.
Yet again, success and setback were walking in step during Brooks’s life; only this time, he was without the one who often brought clarity along the way. But unlike the previous low moments in his life, Brooks decided to stop listening to his father’s advice and start living by it.
“I knew I needed to do something,” Brooks said. “I knew football was my gift and I was in the NFL for a purpose. It taught me to take full advantage of it. I changed my diet, my training, everything.”
A year later, Jim Harbaugh took over as the 49ers’ coach, bringing with him a new defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio. Brooks excelled within Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, using his versatility and athleticism as a 6-foot-3, 259-pound hybrid linebacker alongside Pro Bowlers Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
“To see how fast he is and to be that size is amazing,” said Bowman, who attended Suitland High in Prince George’s County. “When I saw him get interceptions and get out in the open, like the one he returned against New Orleans last year, it’s almost like he’s a kick returner.”
The past year has also taken off for Brooks, highlighted by a new contract, a Super Bowl appearance and a career-best pace so far this season of 35 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Monday will mark his first game at FedEx Field since 2011, but in his mind, any recollection of the roads taken during his revitalized career lead back home.
“No disrespect to the Redskins, but it’s like that’s my field,” Brooks said with a laugh. “Even though it’s not my team and it’s a different stadium, my dad played for the Redskins, and that’s my home. That’s where it all began with the people who helped me become who I am today.”
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