All Howard Brooks wanted to be was a fighter. But who could say why for sure?
On top of being 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds of finely honed flesh and bone and sinew, Howard Brooks was book-smart. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in chemical engineering, but moved back home to Punxsutawney, Pa., and worked at his father's coal strip-mining company, dreaming the big dream.
Last Thursday, Brooks took his dream into a ring at the Victory Park Auditorium in Miami Beach and died two days later at Miami General Hospital. He was 24. He had fallen into a coma after collapsing during the third round of a bout with Hank Williams, a super heavyweight from Fort Lauderdale, and never regained consciousness. Although the cause of death will not be known until laboratory tests are complete in about two weeks, Don Brooks said his younger brother "probably died from an aneurysm and not from any traumatic blow suffered during the fight.
"The kid he was fighting was fat and out of shape and never really hit him. The doctors told me it may have been a congenital problem," Brooks said. "Maybe with the excitement of his first fight in Miami, something ruptured in his brain and caused him to pass out."
In Punxsutawney, local boys who saw him manipulate the blade of a dozer or a dragline figured he could make a living at it. But he could have made a living at most anything. Jack LaMarka, his high school wrestling coach, once saw him at a football game and said, "Use what you studied hard for, son. You got too many brains. Don't run off and get them scrambled."
But Howard Brooks said it didn't much matter what anybody thought, he was leaving in a few days for Florida, to the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, where he hoped to meet up with promoter Chris Dundee and start a boxing career. Taking what the trunk and back seat of his car could hold, Brooks settled on an apartment in an old building on Collins Avenue, one block from the ocean and just around the corner from the gym where Muhammad Ali once had trained.
He took a job stacking shelves in a Miami Beach supermarket, but everybody figured it was only temporary. Howard Brooks would one day live in the glare of ring lights. And his brother Don, who was 20 years older than Howard and thought of him "as the son I never had," told him so every few days on the telephone. You're going to be a fighter, he would say. You're going to make it, little brother.
"He could have had a desk job," Norman Wilson, his trainer, said. "And he could have made a lot of money. Or dated practically any girl he wanted. He said there was a girl back home in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a millionaire who owned a big house on a 40-acre lot, and she wanted to marry him and take care of him forever.
"But Howard, he had a dream that was real, and he wouldn't let it go. He had brains and he had heart and he was a great kid. He lived for a dream, you understand. He was clean and pretty to look at, and he could have been anything or anybody. But all he wanted to be was a fighter.
"As a freshman in college, he played football and sustained a concussion and sat out for a while. I didn't know this until his mother told me about it the other day," Wilson said. "She said he used to get severe headaches at home and said he often felt like taking a gun and shooting the pain out of his head. But he never discussed it with me. He knew I would have stopped him.
"Then his sister told me that she had talked to Howard a few days before the fight and he'd complained of having a bad headache. But she didn't tell me this until after he had died and there was nothing I could do. He told her this two days before the fight. And all I've been thinking about is what would have happened if I had known. I would have stopped him from going into that fight. I would have talked him out of it."
Tom Archdeacon, a sports reporter for the Miami News, said he talked to Brooks a few minutes before the fight. They had met several months earlier at a Thanksgiving dinner put together by Dundee, who had taken a special interest in Brooks and introduced him to Wilson. Archdeacon said, "He was a beautiful kid, real handsome and smart when you broke through his shyness. I couldn't figure out why he wanted to box, but he told me he had to try it. He said if it didn't work out, that at least he'd tried.
"Then the day of the fight, he came up to me at ringside and thanked me for being there. He said no one else he knew would be there and it meant a lot to him. I remember his hands were taped and he had a suntan. Everybody in that arena was looking at him because he wasn't what you'd expect to see at a tournament like that. Usually there's a card full of poor Latin kids or hungry black kids from the ghetto. But he was white and a chemical engineer. And he wanted to be a fighter. I watched him walk to his corner then into the ring. Then it seemed like five minutes later, he was dead," Archdeacon said.
Brooks, who had been a star wrestler in high school and, while living and going to school in Charlottesville, a Virginia Golden Gloves champion, overwhelmed his opponent in the first round, according to several people who saw the fight. But in the middle of the second, he took a desperate left hook to the chin and fell to the canvas. He righted himself immediately and finished the round with a show of enormous strength, backing Williams against the ropes and pounding away at will. As amateurs, both fighters wore protective headgear, but Williams, who was terribly overweight, looked as if he would not survive the first two rounds.
At the end of the second round, Brooks told his corner, "I know what went wrong in the last round. It won't happen again."
Those were the last words he ever spoke. In the third, Brooks had shoved Williams into the ropes and was again scoring with a hard flurry of lefts and rights. Williams, trying to break away, let go a lame left hook that merely brushed Brooks' chin. "He hardly touched him," Wilson said. "But my fighter dropped his knee to the canvas anyway."
Referee Harry Brennan, issuing a standing eight count, reached seven and saw Brooks' knees wobble. As Brennan turned to make sure Williams was standing in a neutral corner, Brooks fell face-first onto the canvas. "It was like a giant redwood going down," Archdeacon said. "He never moved."
"The doctor I talked to said it could have happened any time," Don Brooks said. "Climbing up the stairs to his room, walking on the beach, any time. My brother was a great kid, and I loved him absolutely. He never used profanity and he never took pills. He even went to church on Sunday and prayed for help and grace from God.
"He had a 34-inch waist and good quick hands. They said he might have been the best white heavyweight to come along in a long time. But I never saw Howard fight. The last time I saw him was in the hospital, lying on his back the way he was. He was a humble kid and decent. He could lift a 55-gallon oil drum onto the back of a pickup truck with one motion. And he made good grades in school . . . . But what he wanted to be was a fighter. That was what he wanted most for his life. And we were proud of him and loved him every minute along the way."