Losing is difficult in football, and Bruton High is losing a lot right now. Often by large margins.
The current 12-game losing streak began the Friday offensive line coach Kevin Brooks died, Sept. 11, 2015, but that isn’t the reason for the Panthers’ slide. Bruton is, by far, the smallest school in the Bay Rivers District, with no junior varsity and highly dependent on the quality, rather than depth, of the 30 players on the roster annually.
When future Arizona Cardinals receiver Onrea Jones and quarterback Bryan Randall, the 2004 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year for Virginia Tech, played together, the Panthers were among the best in the Bay Rivers.
In 2009, the year current Baltimore Ravens running back Lorenzo Taliaferro starred, the Panthers had enough good linebackers and linemen around him to come within three yards of a Division 3 state championship.
But the past 28 years have included periods when the program mostly was bereft of talent and victories. This is one of those times, and yet the players on this year’s version of the “Dirty 30” walk with their heads high while eliciting consistent praise from head coach Reggie Jones for their effort and willingness to work together.
If there’s a sense of loss at all, it is the loss of Brooks, who died at 46 the morning of the Smithfield game a year ago from a heart attack. He passed three days after the group he coached earned district Offensive Line of the Week honors for their play in a 32-24 upset of perennial regional power King William.
The Panthers have not won since, but the offensive linemen and their teammates have conducted themselves with courage that would make their late coach proud. Their resolve began the moment they were called into a small meeting room to learn of Brooks’ unexpected passing and asked to decide if they would play that night.
“We were told one member from our team was missing, and I’m thinking someone had moved away,” guard A.J. Battle remembered. “Then they told us (about Brooks) and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
“Everyone was crying.”
Panthers guard Giovanni Campbell said that, although the Panthers got the word of Brooks’ death in the early afternoon, the decision to play at Smithfield was automatic. Brooks would’ve insisted.
“That was the hardest game I ever played, but Coach Brooks taught us to never quit,” Campbell said of the former Lafayette High and Norfolk State lineman. “That’s a great lesson and I learned it from him.”
Battle added, “I felt like I was alone in the house. All by myself. Like he was left behind.
“But I didn’t leave him. He was with me, and that was the best game I’ve blocked in my whole life.”
The Panthers remained tied with the favored Packers until moments before halftime, losing 36-13. Days later, the permanence of Brooks’ departure hit them.
“It was really, really sad seeing him go,” tackle K.J. Cooke recalled. “I remember seeing his body right before his funeral. I told my mom I half expected him to just pop up and it all be a big joke.”
Cooke said that because Brooks was known among the players for tempering his demanding style with humor.
“He made the tough things fun,” Campbell recalled. “It was so fun the way he’d say, ‘Damn, boy, hit that (blocking) sled!’ ”
Battle added, “If we messed up in practice, he’d make a joke, say we have two left feet and call us dodo birds. That was his way of loving us, and I loved every minute of it.”
Jones says it was Brooks’ ability to command the trust of his linemen that made him such a good coach. It’s also why the Panthers’ players and coaches miss Brooks and talk about him every day.
“One thing about this game is that it teaches you how to control, I won’t say anger, but just your attitude,” Jones said. “The really good ones can carry it into coaching and switch it on and off.
“That’s the good thing about Kevin Brooks. He’d break you down, but he was going to pick you back up.
“The kids trusted and respected him, because he cared about you and you knew he cared about you. He taught them to be successful — not just in the game, but in the big game of life.”
Because the Panthers carry Brooks’ lessons with them, their attitudes remain upbeat and their intensity high, even with things often bleak this season on the scoreboard.
“Going forward, it’s up to me to make sure this team can be great,” Cooke said. “I personally have to make sure that I can make this a team he’d be proud of, a team that definitely honors his memory and can do great things like he knew we could.”
Battle said, “Every game I play, I remember what he taught me: ‘Never be afraid. Never be scared or weak. Go out like every day is your last.’
“I’d have never started, never been a captain on this team if it weren’t for him. He loved us like we were his kids and loved the coaches like they were his brothers.
“He was, honestly, in my opinion, the best man I’ve ever known in my life.”
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.