By Adam Powell
Danville native Curtis Brooks, a senior defensive end at the University of Cincinnati, is getting ready for the biggest football game of his life thus far - a College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with No. 1 Alabama in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s been a blessing,” Brooks said in a recent interview with the Star-Tribune. “It’s very exciting, the opportuity to play (for a national championship). But at the same time, we’re not just happy to be here. We’re going in it to win.”
Brooks, a 2016 George Washington High School graduate, has had an fascinating journey to the biggest stage in college football. He nearly gave up the sport entirely, choosing not to play high school football his freshman and sophomore years. But his athletic and physical gifts - along with some inspiration from a family member - re-ignited a passion for the gridiron that first developed as a young child on the youth fields of Danville well over a decade ago.
“The funny story behind this, my son started out in the little league in Danville. He played all the way until he got into the ninth grade, and he said I don’t want to do this sport anymore. That’s the crazy thing about that. He didn’t want to do it,” said Brooks’ mother, Sylvia Brooks.
While playing as a member of the Marching Eagles band as a freshman and sophomore, Brooks’ body continued to develop. He was filling out and starting to grow into a big, strong athlete when Eagles head coach Nick Anderson walked into the GW weight room one day.
“Coach Anderson saw him lifting weights in the gym, and he was out-lifting some of the football players,” Brooks’ mother said. “They kept talking to him. They kept asking him, ‘Play this sport. Play this sport.’ Coach Anderson would call me and say, ‘Get your son to play.’”
My son, he’s his own person. Nobody can make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. But when his granddaddy said, ‘Hey, I really want to see you play,’ he decided to play in the eleventh grade, and the sky was the limit after that.”
Brooks starred for the Eagles in 2014 and 2015 - helping lead GW to a combined 25-3 record in his junior and senior seasons - but he was not a highly-touted high school recruit. These days, promising football recruits often get identified as high school freshmen and sophomores, which left Brooks out of the mix when it came to getting early recruiting attention.
By the time Brooks did develop into a legitimate Division I prospect over his final two years at George Washington, he was able to take advantage of a unique pipeline that had established on the recruiting trail from Danville leading up to Cincinnati.
One wouldn’t imagine that Danville, of all places, would become a pipeline of football talent to the University of Cincinnati, but it did in the years when current U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama was head coach of the Bearcat program.
One of Tuberville’s top recruiters and assistant coaches at UC, Robert Prunty, knew the Danville area quite well, having spent eight years from 1993 to 2001 up the road at Gretna High School as the head coach of the Hawks, and another seven years from 2002 to 2009 serving as head coach at Chatham’s Hargrave Military Academy.
Prunty - now the head coach at Hampton University - helped the Bearcats sign 2013 George Washington graduate Chris Burton and Brooks’ prep teammate, Malik Clements, in the 2015 class. Prunty also helped lure defensive end Kimoni Fitz of nearby Dan River High School in Ringgold to UC in the 2014 class.
Those connections made it an easy call for Brooks to pull the trigger for the Bearcats once Prunty began to recruit him and offered him a scholarship during his senior year.
“It was easy (picking Cincinnati),” Brooks said. “Malik Clements, Chris Burton, and Kimoni Fitz, they were all Danville natives. All guys I looked up to. So when they went to Cincinnati, they showed me this is the way, and they provided me with motivation.”
After redshirting his true freshman season of 2016 at UC - which happened to be Tuberville and Prunty’s final seasons with the Bearcats - Brooks developed into a mainstay on the Cincinnati defensive line and one of the most experienced players in all of college football, while getting the opportunity to be a part of one of the most impressive turnarounds in the sport under the leadership of Luke Fickell.
Brooks appeared in 48 games for Cincinnati over the 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 seasons, recording 106 combined tackles. UC progressed from a 4-8 season in Brooks’ redshirt freshman season of 2017 to win 11 games back-to-back in 2018 and 2019. After going 9-1 during the makeshift 2020 season, the Bearcats have had their breakout season this fall, going a perfect 13-0 heading into their December 31 showdown with Alabama.
“First off, Coach Fickell, he really might be the best in the business. And then on top of that, we’ve drawn a lot of high-end veteran guys, and it’s just come together right at the perfect time,” Brooks explained.
Brooks would have, under normal circumstances, exhausted his eligibility at UC after the 2020 season - a season in which Brooks helped the Bearcats lead the All America Football Conference in total defense. But following a late-season knee injury, Brooks was able to take advantage of a special rule providing NCAA players an extra season of eligibility following the COVID-plagued 2020 season to get a fifth playing season with the Bearcats in 2021.
“It’s definitely been a journey since I decided to come back for an extra year, and this is all I could have dreamed of,” Brooks said. “Before the season, it was a lot of hard work. I was recovering from knee surgery. I tore my meniscus during the (AAC) Championship game last year, and I really wasn’t too healthy to play (in the Peach Bowl) against Georgia,” Brooks said.
Instead of being completed with his collegiate career, Brooks was able to spend the offseason between the 2020 and 2021 seasons rehabbing his knee and changing up his diet to improve his quickness and stamina.
“Rehab wasn’t too bad. It was a lot of hours every day - about three and a half to four hours in the training room each day just working on my legs,” he said. “But I switched up my diet, so before the season was a lot of hard work. Once I was back on my feet, it really felt like I was ready to go. And when you get into the season, you just feel grateful that you can play.”
Brooks has made the most of this season’s opportunity to play again with the Bearcats, contributing 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss - both team highs - to go along with 50 tackles (30 solo, 20 assisted) heading into the CFP Semifinal game.
“Once we got into the meat of the season, it was just a good opportunity every week to just go out there and play the game you love to play every time,” he said. “Me and a few guys, we’ve been there for a long time. (Myjai) Sanders - he plays the other defensive end - I can almost tell you when he’s going to make an inside move, and then I can just kind of counter off of him and cover him, and stuff like that. We’ve played together for so long, it’s almost like second nature when it comes to just working together.”
Although Brooks might have been a late bloomer on the football field, he’s standing alongside his Bearcat teammates at the pinnacle of college football with a shot at an NCAA title.
He’s also got a chance to proves to NFL scouts and coaches that he’s worthy of a selection in next spring’s NFL Draft by playing well against an Alabama offense loaded with pro-caliber talent.
“Just keep the faith always, no matter what happens. Keep the faith and keep praying, and everything works out in the end,” Brooks said.
“He’s worked very hard, and it’s his time,” Brooks mother said. “He’s done nothing but dedicated himself to this sport, and this season. So we’re very blessed and thankful, and we’re very proud of him. No matter what, we’re just very proud of him.”
“I’m proud of him,” added Brooks’ father, Curtis Brooks, Sr.. “We’ve all been blessed. I’ve always been proud of him, outside of football. He’s a good person.”