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Inside The Chart: One Last Walk

One Last Walk:  Djimon Brooks reflects on his journey from walk-on to scholarship to starter at Georgia Tech

By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets) | Inside The Chart

The legend of Djimon Brooks began by getting lost on his way to his first practice.

It’s an inauspicious way to start a career, but Brooks admits it’s true.  In August of 2016, he headed out for Georgia Tech’s first preseason practice, an aspiring walk-on eager to prove himself as a useful if undersized defensive tackle.  Brooks hadn’t yet made the team, but if he acquitted himself well over those next few days, he’d earn a spot.  After slipping on his pads and #72 practice jersey, he strolled out of the Georgia Tech locker room, expecting to find the rest of his (hopefully) future teammates milling around on the Grant Field grass.

Panic quickly set in when Brooks gazed out at an empty field, baking under the August sun. If Bobby Dodd Stadium had crickets, surely he heard them.

“I had to do some stuff in the training room, so I was a little late getting out to practice,” Brooks said.

He wandered back through the locker room.  “I finally found someone and was like, ‘Um, where am I supposed to be?’”

A helpful staffer eventually led Brooks to the Rose Bowl practice field, where he made it on time (and with Tech’s coaches none the wiser).  It was an inauspicious start, but also an oddly fitting one for the Sandersville, Ga., native, who took a longer path than most to reach the field.  After beginning his career as a true walk-on, the 6-foot-1-inch, 286-pound Brooks ends it as a two-year starter, a multi-time captain, an answer to a trivia question, and a durable anchor of the Georgia Tech defensive line. He’ll make his final appearance in White & Gold this Saturday in Clean, Old Fashioned Hate against Georgia (12:00 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports).

As he’s laid the foundation for his program over the past three years, head coach Geoff Collins says he can’t think of a better avatar for his team’s values than Brooks.

“He’s turned into a pro’s pro – his demeanor, his attitude, his competitive nature, how he’s bought into the process.  There have been some games this season that he was arguably the best player on the field, which is no small task coming from where he’s come,” said Collins.

The praise is echoed by defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, who singled out Brooks this week as one of his steadiest players this season.  The sixth-year senior has started 10 of Tech’s 11 games, recording 28 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.  He may also lead the Yellow Jackets in the number of scuffs and scars on his helmet, a testament to his work eating up double teams and cancelling gaps.

“[There are] so many things that you don’t see on the stat sheet that a linebacker or second-level group may have.  He is somebody that has graded well and has battled and at times has played… an all-conference caliber player, and he’s played at his best,” Thacker said.

Unglamorous suits Brooks just fine.

“We’re in the trenches, so it’s a lot of banging down there,” he said.  “It’s not always pretty, but we try to make it as pretty as we can.”

He’s also used to keeping a low profile.  Coming out of Washington County High School, where he led the Golden Hawks to a pair of state runner-up finishes, Brooks struggled to attract recruiting attention.  Academics weren’t a problem – he graduated as Washington County’s class salutatorian – but he estimates he was still 5’10” by his senior year.  His best offers, he recalls, came from NAIA and Division III schools.  He instead enrolled at Georgia Tech with the goal of joining former teammate A.J. Gray on the Yellow Jackets.

First-day hiccups aside, Brooks made the team, though his first three years hardly offered a hint of future playing time.  He redshirted in 2016.  He appeared in one game in 2017, playing a handful of snaps late in Georgia Tech’s blowout of North Carolina.  He didn’t play at all in 2018.  He seemed destined to follow the fate of so many walk-ons:  dressed out but never leaving the sidelines, his name in the program but never in the box score, accounted for but essentially anonymous.

The arrival of Collins in December of 2018 gave Brooks a fresh chance to prove himself.  He made an impression on him and defensive line coach Larry Knight with his effort and consistency in spring practice.

“He just kept getting better and better and better, and understanding what he needed to do physically, strength-wise, flexibility-wise [and] explosiveness-wise to be able to contribute at a high level,” he said.

Brooks has been a fixture on Collins’ “Above The Line” chart ever since, rising from a rotation player to a mainstay at Tech’s three-technique nose tackle.  In July of 2020, Collins surprised him with both a scholarship and a piece of history, making him the first Yellow Jacket to wear the number 0 (the NCAA gave approval that spring for football teams to assign 0 as a jersey number).  Collins gave it to him as a nod to the fact he had “zero stars and zero scholarship offers” coming out of high school.

After graduating with his degree in economics in May of 2020, Brooks decided to use his additional COVID year to suit up one last time.  He has played this year while taking 12 credit hours toward a second undergraduate degree in History, Technology and Society; with his classes only meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Brooks has enjoyed a more immersive football experience this fall.

“It’s always funny seeing guys get ready for class.  You’re just sitting there and then they’ll be like, ‘Don’t you got class?’ And you’ll be like, ‘No, I graduated,’” he laughs.

After appearing in just one game over his first three seasons, Brooks has appeared in all 33 of the Yellow Jackets’ games since 2019 (22 starts).  His contributions gained wider acclaim this month when he was nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the top current or former walk-on in college football.

Dependability may sometimes feel like a backhanded compliment in sports.  It doesn’t always imply that a player has talent.  But Knight knows what Brooks’ example has meant to his defensive line room.

“If you come and watch the way that he practices, it looks the exact way that he looks in the game.  And that’s why he’s able to go and go and go,” said Knight.

His final chance to go comes this Saturday, where Brooks will be honored as part of the fourth-smallest senior class of any Power-5 program in the country.  Technically Brooks took part in Senior Day ceremonies last December, before he made the decision to come back.  With the restrictions due to COVID his family couldn’t join him on the field.

That won’t be an issue Saturday, where Brooks, the third of six boys, expects a sprawling group from Sandersville to cheer him on.  Kelly’s BBQ, the family restaurant in Tennille, Ga., usually hums with activity on the weekends, its pulled pork and scratch-made, ketchup-based barbecue sauce drawing customers from across Washington County.  They’ll be closed this weekend due to a severe short-staffing of Brookses.  The cheering section Saturday will include younger brothers Kamian, Javyn and Jabari, who recently earned Southern Conference all-freshman honors as an offensive lineman at Samford.  Older brothers Kelly and Karekin, who played at Mercer and Penn, may be there as well.  The group will also include Brooks’ walk-on forerunner: 27 years before he arrived at Georgia Tech, his Dad Kelly Sr. walked on as a fullback at Auburn.

Even with Georgia Tech’s struggles down the stretch, the soft-spoken, self-proclaimed country boy says he has no regrets about his final season.

“It’s a privilege to be out there with my teammates.  They’re allowing me to be out there on the field, so why wouldn’t I give my full effort chasing the ball?” Brooks said.

The chase concludes Saturday with Djimon Brooks heading out one final time onto Grant Field.

This time, he’ll know where he’s going.

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