Already playing hurt, Aberdeen’s Spencer Brooks knew his latest injury was bad once he emerged from the bottom of a pile of Aberdeen and Chehalis football players.
He couldn’t stand up.
His left knee suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament to go with several other injuries from earlier in the year. His football season was, like his knee, done. So, apparently, were his track and swimming careers.
From that fateful Friday night in September to stepping onto the track at the state 2A track & field championships at Mont Tahoma High School in Tacoma on Memorial Day weekend, Brooks was determined not to spend his senior year at Aberdeen on the sidelines.
“It hit me that I was going to play basketball, as well as wrestling and swimming, in the winter and I was going to place and get a medal in the hurdles at state this year,” Brooks said. “It all just hit me. Once I saw my parents and (Aberdeen athletic director Ken) Ashlock, I broke down.
“From there, I (got the surgery) as soon as possible,” he added. “I knew in my head that I would come back and compete at state.”
To truly know how hard it was for Brooks, who competed in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles race and the 100m sprint at the state meet, to get to Tacoma, you have to know how everything started — all in his left knee. It was thrashed even before he stepped onto the football field for the 2011 season.
“I had a torn patella from the sixth grade that I never got fixed,” the Central Washington University-bound hurdler said. “Earlier at football camp, I torn the LCL (lateral collateral ligament) and I came back and played on that. I also had Oscar Slaughter’s as well, all in my left knee.”
In the first game of the season against Hoquiam, Brooks scored on an 81-yard touchdown run. He also sprained his ACL and partially tore his medial collateral ligament in this knee during that game. He took a few weeks off to rest it before returning.
Thus, when Brooks tried to tackle a Chehalis player after an interception and another Bearcat’s facemask hit the back of his left knee, there wasn’t much left there.
“I fell to the ground and someone stepped onto the knee,” he added. “I tried to get back up, but everything felt like Jello. I couldn’t move. It was done. There was nothing there.”
“It was bad,” said Trinity Parris, a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer at Harbor Physical Therapy who is at most AHS athletic contests. “He was already playing hurt, just like everyone else on that team. Spencer took the news well and stayed positive, going to the rest of the games on the sidelines.”
Brooks took two weeks off for the surgery and began rehabilitation on the knee following the reconstructive surgery. His doctor told him that he could begin running on the knee after six months, which would have taken him deep into the track season. Brooks wanted none of that.
“I had my own schedule,” he said. “My plan was to get to the state championships. I didn’t care how I placed. I wanted to prove that I could get there.”
After the first day, his knee could barely bend five degrees, but he wasn’t concerned. He worked on exercises at home, went to physical therapy three times a day for two hours at a time and kept at it.
After a while, Brooks felt a little better and took a walk. Soon, he was ready for the treadmill and told physical therapist Patrick Wilson, the co-owner of Harbor Physical Therapy, that he was ready.
“Patrick told me that he couldn’t put me on the treadmill until after four months (after surgery) — it was just one month,” Brooks said. “I was done with everything for an ACL rehab in two months. It was just a matter of keeping it strong and keeping it stabilized.”
During the boys swimming season, Brooks relied on his friends to keep him motivated and used the workouts to help rehab his knee. To Parris, the combination of the physical therapy (which he still continued during the swim season), the low-resistance work in the water and his own determination molded his quick turnaround.
“It wasn’t just one thing — not the rehab or the swimming or wanting to do more; it was a combination of everything,” she said. “He was also lucky he didn’t have any incidents that could have hurt him. He was ready for the water at that time.”
“I think it helped my knee; it got stronger,” said Brooks, who also came down with mononucleosis during the swim season. “Just being there with my friends, I got (personal records), beating my times from last year. I knew then there was something right going on.”
Brooks knew he was strong enough to run when the track season began. It just came down to when.
After skipping the first meet of the season, Brooks stepped into the blocks for the hurdles races at a home meet against Tumwater and Centralia.
He hit his knee on the seventh hurdle in the 110m race, but won the race in a time that gave him encouragement. He won the 300m hurdles as well, and ran second in the 100m. It was the day he needed to get over any mental hurdles he had about the injury.
“That first hurdle, when I got into the blocks, I thought, ‘How is this going to go?’” he said. “‘Will I destroy everything I’ve worked for and go down the drain?’ I knew it was coming sooner or later. It felt good after that.”
Getting stronger as the season went along, Brooks qualified for the Evergreen 2A sub-regional meet and advanced to the District IV 2A meet in Centralia. There, he had three shots at getting to state — in both hurdles races and the 100m sprint.
He got a personal-best 15.5 seconds in the 110m hurdles, but missed the state meet by one place. In the 100m, he dropped .2 seconds and missed the third and final state berth by .02 seconds. His last chance was the 300m hurdles and it came down to a wafer-thin finish.
Brooks and Mark Morris’ Travis Millbrandt were locked into a duel for the third and final berth. At the finish line, neither runner knew who earned that spot.
Meet officials released the rest of the field, except for Brooks and Millbrandt, and began looking over the tape of the finish. Both runners watched the tape as it was forwarded one-one thousandths of a second at a time.
“Our bodies were so perfectly aligned, it looked like just one person,” Brooks said. “I won by the base of my neck being just slightly over the line — just under the throat — before his. I was speechless.”
“Both Patrick and I had the same reaction (to Brooks’ state berth) — we were both very happy,” Parris said. “He worked hard enough to get there. He was one of those cases where you see the injury occur, you see and work with him through the rehab and watch him overcome the injury. That’s why I do this. That’s one of the rewarding things about our job. We’re very proud of him.”
Brooks learned three days later that he picked up a 100m state berth as an alternate. He competed well in Tacoma. Where he finished didn’t matter, only that he was there to run after all that he worked to achieve.
“There was a real sense of accomplishment,” Brooks said. “For me to be in Tacoma and compete against the top 16 at state and to say I just had knee surgery last fall, (others) were just flabbergasted. It is unbelievable.
“I proved who I was by overcoming a downfall and turning it into something positive,” he said. “Football, itself, has shown me to fight through the tough and that good things come to good people.”
Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3926 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org