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Paralyzed in an Accident 11 Years Ago, Graduating Senior Redefines Himself as Sports Journalist
Photo by John T. Consoli
When Damon Brooks Jr. ’23 woke up after two surgeries at the University of Maryland’s R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, he overheard a nurse technician in the hallway telling a colleague about his condition: He’ll never walk. Barely be able to talk. Might spend the rest of his life on a ventilator.
“You’re telling me what you think I can do?” Brooks thought to himself. “You don’t know what’s in my heart. You don’t know my abilities.”
On Monday, 11 years after an accident that paralyzed the one-time college basketball player, Brooks will graduate and deliver the student speech at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism commencement ceremony. After that, he’ll go on to an internship on The Washington Post’s sports desk.
“We all have a choice in life,” said Brooks, who’s quiet and polite to a fault, but determined. “We all get knocked down in some fashion. That’s a choice of, do you want to get up or do you want to lie down? Me, I refuse to lie down.”
Before April 20, 2012, Brooks was living the life he’d aspired to as a kid growing up in Takoma Park, Md. He started playing basketball as a toddler, after his mom bought him a Fisher Price toy net, and was awed by the aerodynamics of Michael Jordan. Though he dabbled in football, basketball was his passion, and he followed it from Springbrook High School to Goucher College, where he played point guard his freshman year.
Two days before his 19th birthday, his world went spinning. That morning, during a dorm room tussle with one of his two roommates, Brooks landed on his neck on a concrete floor.
“Immediately, I knew something was wrong,” Brooks said, still pausing with emotion all these years later. “I had blood in my mouth. I had a headache.”
The other roommate grabbed Brooks’ toe and asked if he could feel it. He couldn’t. The accident had misaligned three of Brooks’ vertebrae and bruised his spinal cord. Surgeons placed pins and rods in his neck, removed bone spurs, inserted a tracheostomy tube and put him on a ventilator.
“As soon as the doctor’s assistant said ‘paralyzed,’ I didn’t hear anything else. The room was spinning,” said Brooks’ mom, Latre’ Zankli. (His father died when Brooks was 11.) “As a mother, you never want to see your child go through anything tragic. And him being my only child, that also hurt a lot, too.”
He was discharged from the hospital on May 8 and sent to rehab at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where he stayed until November. There, he worked on regaining the use of his hands, sharpened his memory and speech and did occupational therapy. Intent on getting as strong as possible, his personal theme song in rehab was Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” which includes the line, “If you want it, you gotta see it with a clear-eyed view.”
Brooks, who speaks clearly, has movement in his arms and hands and uses a wheelchair, began to rethink what he planned to do with the rest of his life. He’d initially wanted to pursue a career as a forensic scientist, but worried that his disability would make it difficult to maneuver the equipment involved.
“I said, what could I do that would fulfill happiness for me? I wanted to do something that woke me up every day, that didn’t feel like a job,” he said. The NBA playoffs were under way, and Brooks started paying attention to a “loud guy” on ESPN, an analyst named Stephen A. Smith. “He would just say crazy things, but it was what he believed,” Brooks said. Brooks had taken up writing poetry during his time in rehab to deal with stress and depression, and began to think that he could combine his newfound interest in writing with his lifelong love of sports into a new career goal: sports journalism.
After taking a few more years to recover and graduating from Montgomery College, Brooks applied to several four-year universities. Once he got his admission letter from the University of Maryland, he tossed all his other applications. “This is my dream school since I was 11 years old,” he said, having grown up watching Gary Williams coach the Terps. He enrolled in Merrill and threw himself into learning everything he could about journalism.
“He’s someone who’s just deeply serious and inquisitive,” said Clarence Williams, a longtime crime reporter in Washington, D.C., who taught Brooks in JOUR320, a news writing and reporting course. “He’s soft-spoken but pretty fierce as a personality in terms of his ability to just jump into a topic and not let it go until he gets it right.”
Williams recalled one Election Day assignment that asked students to do person-on-the-street interviews with College Park voters. “Damon got there before I did,” Williams said, and spent the day wheeling up and down the parking lot to talk to voters, demonstrating what Williams called the art of polite persistence. “It’s difficult to talk to voters in the best of circumstances—imagine trying to navigate around sidewalks and cars in his chair, all by himself, asking for very little assistance,” Williams said. “That was a memory I won’t forget about his level of determination and how certain he was to try to learn how to do this.”
Brooks made a name for himself in Merrill through his work covering field hockey and women’s basketball for a student publication, Testudo Times, and through a sports reporting internship at USA Today. Williams described him as “the mayor” of Knight Hall, the kind of guy who likes and is liked by everyone. “There are times where we’ll hang outside Knight Hall, and I kid you not, if you watch the doors open and close, every single person says, ‘Hey, Damon,’” said a friend, Andrew Chodes ’24.
In his role as student speaker on Monday—a position for which he was elected by his fellow students—Brooks intends to emphasize the importance of persistence. “We all have our struggles, but we all have to find a way to get back up, because you never know who’s watching. You never know who could take strength from your story,” he said. “I just don’t believe in ever giving up. I don’t care how hard it gets. As long as my heart keeps beating, I’m going to keep striving for the best I can be.”
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