Vai's View: Vai's View: Barrett Brooks' success extends well beyond the football field

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 1:12 p.m. MST

Philadelphia Missionaries Elders James Mitchell from Hyde Park, Utah, Jeremy Jensen from Pleasant Grove, Utah, Vai Sikahema, Barrett Brooks and Pastor Irving Fryar at Fryar's New Jerusalem Church in Mt. Holly, NJ

Barrett Brooks is an imposing man — 6-foot-5, north of 300 pounds. Hands that feel like catchers' mitts. On one of those hands he wears a ring that's roughly the size of a watch.

It's studded with diamonds and stones that form the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's the crowning achievement of 12 years spent in the trenches of the NFL, which culminated with the Steelers' Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks in 2006.

My connection to Brooks goes back 20 years before his championship run, when he was just 12. Our initial meeting was fortuitous and has kept us connected now for a quarter of a century.

1986. St. Louis. Brooks' hometown. I was a rookie in the NFL with the Cardinals. There was a parking garage across from Busch Stadium that served as the players' lot. Groups of kids and autograph hounds gathered there every Sunday morning to escort the players after they parked and made the short walk to the stadium.

The professional autograph seekers were typically adults, carrying huge albums with every football card imaginable, categorized alphabetically, by team, by year, you name it. The kids were usually there to ask for tickets — occasionally, a player's wife may stay home with a sick child or an uncle doesn't show up and a kid would score a nice seat in the players' family section. Because the Cardinals were so bad, some of the wives didn't care to sit in the frigid weather in December, especially with little ones. The ticket seekers seemed to know that.

As a rookie professional athlete, this was all new to me because, while we had admirers and young fans at BYU, we could basically come and go as we pleased. It was likely that some of the kids who sought our autographs in Provo had more money in their pockets than we did as players. They certainly came to the games at Cougar Stadium in better cars.

Not so in St. Louis. The players drove Benzes, BMWs and big trucks.

Yet, I was pleasantly surprised and frankly, impressed, with the players' generosity. While I personally never had an extra ticket to spare, plenty of my teammates gave away their comp tickets to perfect strangers.

I quickly learned, however, that not all of the autograph hounds and ticket seekers were strangers. The players seemed to know some of them by name.

Apparently, many of them had been doing this for years.

At 12, Brooks easily stood a foot taller than the other kids, but his baby face gave away the fact he wasn't 17 or 18.

That isn't what caught my attention.

It was his feet. Specifically, his shoes. And I wouldn't have noticed if not for the fact that the weather had turned and it was freezing. Probably mid to late December.

As I emerged from the parking garage this particular Sunday, a group of maybe five or six kids approached me (our quarterback Neil Lomax and star receiver Roy Green would typically have 15-20 kids). One of them was Barrett, whom I had seen every Sunday morning of home games throughout the season. I didn't have a ticket and usually, as soon as you tell the kids that, they'd peel off and look for someone else.

But this particular Sunday, I grabbed Barrett before he pulled away. I noticed the toes of his sneakers were carefully cut out with a razor, exposing his socked toes. Though I had seen Barrett around, we hadn't formally met. I knew better than to ask why he'd cut the toes out of his shoes because it would have embarrassed him. I already knew why.

It was because his feet were too big for his sneakers and cutting out the toes allowed him another semester or school year of wear. I was impressed with his ingenuity.

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