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.
As a kid, I had done something similar. I begged my mother for a pair of Adidas and explained they were the sneakers with the stripes. Mom returned with a pair from Yellow Front — a low-end, no-name brand store. She proudly showed me her purchase: sneakers with FIVE stripes instead of Adidas' trademark THREE. So, I took Dad's razor and removed two of the stripes to make them look like Adidas. It fooled no one at school.
I asked Barrett to walk with me.
"Do you have a ticket for me Mr. Sikahema?" he asked.
"No, I have something better," I replied. "What's your name?" "Barrett. Barrett Brooks."
"What size shoe do you wear Barrett?"
"You're a big dude. How old are you?"
We walked past three security checkpoints before we arrived in the locker room. NFL locker rooms are separated by position. At size 101/2, I had the smallest feet among the running backs. Stump Mitchell, who lockered next to me, wore a 12. I interrupted Stump's meditation to introduce Barrett and asked for a pair of his old turf shoes, which could be worn as sneakers.
Stump reached into his locker full of shoes and grabbed high tops.
I called over one of our security people and asked him to escort Barrett back out. He carried Stump's shoes the way a new father carries an infant son.
I made a new friend.
The next year, Barrett was a size 13. This time I introduced him to our other running back, Otis Anderson, whom we'd trade later that year to the Giants and would be the MVP of Super Bowl XXV a few years later. Otis wore a 13.
Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell moved the franchise to Arizona after that season and I lost track of Brooks.
Fast forward to 1995. I'm a cub television reporter in Philadelphia after retiring from the Eagles. The Eagles take linebacker Mike Mamula with the seventh overall pick from Boston College. With their second pick, they select a mammoth offensive tackle from Kansas State named Barrett Brooks.
It had been almost 10 years and the name doesn't register with me.
That is, until Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes escorts Brooks into the media room to introduce him to the press and Barrett walks directly to where I was seated, grins broadly and says, "Mr. Sikahema, do you remember me?" I didn't. Other than he was the Eagles' second-round pick.
"Barrett Brooks! From St. Louis! You gave me Stump's and Otis' shoes, remember? I'm the second-round pick and now I can buy my own shoes!" With that, he lifted me off the ground with a bear hug.
I was stunned. I didn't have enough news sense to share the story with my viewers, in fact, I never told anyone.
That is, until a month ago when Barrett and I told it publicly for the first time at an awards banquet that I emceed and Barrett happened to be there.
So was Barrett's former Eagles teammate and NFL receiving great Irving Fryar, who was on the dais with us. Fryar is a minister and invited Barrett and I to tell our story as a Christmas message to his congregation. We did and brought our families along. I even invited our LDS missionaries, who had to adjust to a worship service with a live band and dancing.
Barrett went one better and brought a pair of his game-worn size 16 cleats.
After we told our story, he called up 10-year-old twins, Jordan and Devyn Harris, who earlier in the service had received commendation by Pastor Fryar for their academic achievements. Barrett presented the boys the cleats, which he autographed, with the hopes that they might someday "grow into them," metaphorically speaking.
That will require the boys' very best.
You see, Brooks did more than win a Super Bowl. He and his wife, Sonji, are the parents of five children, the two oldest in college. Barrett graduated from Kansas State in sociology and later earned an MBA. Sonji has a masters in nursing and together, they operate BA Tech School of Nursing & Allied Health Care in Runnemede, N.J., which they started with his NFL money.
They're accredited and oversee a staff and faculty that teach in a commercial building that they own. Small classes of 20-30 graduate each year. They have a viable business with a payroll they meet each week and students who are hired each year, in a weak economy.
I take zero credit for Brooks' success; just enormously proud of him and what he's become as a father, husband, a respected member of my community and as a successful businessman.
Lots of pro athletes give away shoes and much more, so what I did wasn't that big a deal. I mean that. It happens every year in stadiums around the country.
What Brooks did with those shoes and where he allowed those shoes to take him, is what is spectacularly, amazingly, and wonderfully, extraordinary.
Happy New Year!