If These Walls Could Talk by Reggie Brooks

        “I wouldn’t have been so open if I had written my book five years ago,” says Reggie Brooks, author of the just released If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box (Triumph Books 2021, $17.95). “But Covid showed me how important it is to share. There were many people in my life who helped get me to where I am. I also learned that we’re here to serve others and not just ourselves.”

        In many ways his book is a behind the scenes look at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish but for those who groan at the thought of another football book, Brooks wants you to know it’s more than that. He discusses both the highs and lows of his life and career, offering a human look at being a gridiron star as he takes us on his personal journey, often peppering his book with humorous anecdotes. That includes the time he scored a 20-yard touchdown against the University of Michigan in 1993 while unconscious.

        “I didn’t even know I was knocked down,” says Brooks about the incident where, after catching a pass, he was able to break through six Wolverine tackles—the last knocking him out—and still managing to make it across the finish line before falling face first in the end zone.

“I didn’t really know about the play until I saw it on Sunday during our film session and team meeting,” he says.

        Brooks, a Notre Dame tailback, ended his senior year with  1,372 rushing yards, averaging about 8 yards a carry and scoring 13 touchdowns. He was named an All-American, finished fifth in the voting that year for the Heisman Trophy and was selected in the second round of the 1993 NFL by the Washington Redskins. But after a stellar first year in the league, his career started stalling, in part, he believes by a disagreement he had with the management over the team’s use of his image.

        Welcome to the NFL. For Brooks, it seemed that he had upset the wrong people and paid the price for doing so. But he’s self-aware of how he responded. Feeling as if he were drowning he retreated into himself and didn’t avail himself of the help he was offered.  Brooks’ experiences in the NFL reinforced his realization of how important Notre Dame had been in his life.

        “It allowed me to see more clearly how special my teammates at Notre Dame were and what it meant to be a college football player,” he writes. “It’s the maturity you have to develop and the care for the others—even if you do not consciously think about it.”

        He also saw the power of the Notre Dame network and how it opened doors for him when he was struggling—how the kindness of those he knew there helped him find his way.

        When I ask what impact he hopes his book will have on readers, Brooks responds that he wants to show how his life and Notre Dame intertwined.

        “I also want to get people to realize the value of ‘you’ and what ‘you’ bring to the community,” he says.

        His father was his first coach and taught him the importance of treating others well. The emphasis was not on football as a way make a lot of money (though no one is arguing that isn’t nice) but the impact you can have on others.

        “I still struggle with fandom,” he says. And we laugh about the old saw about never believing in your own press clippings—in other words not letting the hype change who you are.

“Those who are just starting are as important as the most famous,” he says.

Married to his college sweetheart, Christina Brooks, the couple have five children. Until recently Reggie Brooks worked for Notre Dame as the university’s Director of Student-Athlete Alumni Relations/Engagement and participated in after game shows. Recently he accepted the position of executive director of Holtz’s Heroes Foundation which precipitated a move from South Bend, Indiana to Prairie View, Texas. But that move was in part participated with his wife getting a job in Fort Worth and it was time, he said, to support her as she had always supported his career and many moves.

Still there was a sense of loss about leaving. Brooks had followed his brother Tony, who also played football, to the university after high school, played there throughout college and then returned. He loves the school’s values. When I tell him my brother taught accountancy there for 30 years and never ever was pressured to give a break to an athlete, he laughs, saying “You go to class, you do the work, that’s what makes it Notre Dame.”

He makes sure to complement the university’s accounting program as if wanting to assure me that it’s just as glamorous and important as their fabled football program. It’s just what makes him Reggie Brooks.

What:  Reggie Brooks book signing

When: Saturday, October 23 at 12:30pm CT

Where: Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, 1 Eck Center on the Notre Dame Campus in South Bend, Indiana

FYI: 800-647-4641; http://www.bkstr.com/notredamestore

Kirk Herbstreit: Out of the Pocket

      

Eight schools in just as many years, parents divorcing, new step-parents, more divorces, more new homes, overwhelming shyness, red-faced when emotional and almost always feeling out of place. It doesn’t sound like the prerequisites for Kirk Herbstreit’s stellar career as a sportscaster and star of College GameDay.

       But Herbstreit always had football and no matter what school he landed in, he made the team, and he was a star. It might not have been enough—not with a stepmother who didn’t mind entertaining male guests in front of her stepson when his father was out of town, a barely tolerable stepfather, and constantly saying goodbye to friends, attempting to make new ones, and trying to hide out in the back row of the classroom in his newest school. But what else could a kid like Herbstreit learn to do but stuff his feelings deep inside and throw the ball. It worked.

       For a while.

Herbstreit was playing for Ohio State University just as his father had. But things weren’t going well. He didn’t quite fit in with the program. Suddenly he wasn’t a star. He was barely on the team.

Dallas, TX – October 6, 2018 – Fair Park: Desmond Howard, Rece Davis, Toby Keith, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit on the set of College GameDay Built by the Home Depot (Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)

       In other words, it wasn’t working.

       “I’ve always been the guy who tried to say the right thing, to tell people what I thought they wanted to her,” says Herbstreit in his new autobiography, Out of the Pocket: Football, Fatherhood, and College GameDay Saturdays written with longtime ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski. “I’m a shy guy, the one who holds things in—it’s my way. I’m an introvert by nature.”  

Tallahassee, FL – November 2, 2013 – Doak Campbell Stadium: Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit on the set of College GameDay Built by the Home Depot (Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

       On the phone Herbstreit seems like the kind of guy you could talk to for hours. He’s friendly, he’s chatty, he listens, he doesn’t need to dominate the conversation, he’s open about his feelings, and he cries at sentimental movies.

       So what happened to the stuffing feelings thing?

“I’ve come a long way from what I was,” says Herbstreit. “I just evolved.”

But it was more than that. He took a huge step. It seems there’s was this funky looking OSU team doctor.

“He had this look to him,” Herbstreit recalls about the team’s therapist. It’s not an unusual comment about psychiatrists.

“It was 1990, forget 2021,” says Herbstreit about deciding to talk to a mental health professional.  “I remember going into his office looking over both my shoulders, like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. I was very standoffish, giving the answers he might want to hear. I was just giving him canned answers, then he started talking to me about my background, saying tell me about your mom, your dad, and I suddenly started talking about what I’d been through. He was the first person I really talked to about all this. He became my confident, my guy. I was skipping when I went into his office. When the season ended, I went up to get three different awards, the last time I went up was to get the most valuable player, I just got it out, I said there’s this guy, it was such a credibly positive experience. It was a game changer.”

Herbstreit was the youngest of three siblings, John and Teri, who after their parents’ divorce lived with their mother, a struggling car sales person. When she didn’t sell a car, they didn’t eat. They often scrounged for food. Their father? Missing in action. But to give him his due, he may have taken one too many hard blows to the head while playing football for Ohio State. It changed him, Herbstreit’s mother claimed. Whatever the cause, his father was remote and withdrew from his kids’ life for long periods after the divorce. He married a woman who kicked John out of the house. Teri took over a big part of parenting her younger brother, giving up a big chunk of what should have been her fun years.

Pasadena, CA – January 1, 2020 – Rose Bowl: Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler in the broadcast booth during the 2020 Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual (Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

But Herbstreit revered his father, no matter what. When the family still lived together, he would go down to the basement and lovingly unpack his father’s football momentous from his days as a player and then coach at OSU. And there was his dad’s Captain’s Mug—the ultimate trophy.

And in Herbstreit’s last year at Ohio, he would get his own OSU Captain’s Mug.

How often does that happen?

“In 130 years in football it’s happened three times,” says Herbstreit, who after a pause adds, “some kids go through divorce angry, I never had that, I just wanted my dad. He was my hero—he was Zeus, he was Superman, when I finally got voted captain, the first person I wanted to call was my dad.”

But his father had a hard time listening. It taught Herbstreit, the father of four sons, how important it was to listen to his kids.

After his senior year, Herbstreit was offered a totally awesome job as a medical supply sales rep—six figures, a company car, and 401k plan. But he wanted to be a sports talk show host and he also had an offer doing just that. It paid $12,000 with no benefits. Seems like an easy decision. It was. Herbstreit took the radio sports job with WBNS 1460. He worked his way up.

And then he got the call. A try out for College Game Day. He was a disaster—he was visibly sweating, and his face was bright red. Afterwards the only thing Herbstreit could remember was that he jabbered away but not what he said. Oh and he did remember Lee Corso kindly telling him over and over again to relax. It was bust he thought, knowing he was up against the much better known Mike Adamle who was considered a shoo-in for the job.

But we know how it turned out. Herbstreit has been on College GameDay for more than 30 years.

As long as we’re talking football, does Herbstreit have any comments on Justin Fields, the new Chicago Bears quarterback?

“Congratulations, congratulations, you’ve got a great player, who has a chip on his shoulder and is competitive, the players will love their teammate,” says Herbstreit in what is music to a Bears fan’s ears.

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