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Inside The Chart: Walk The Walk

Georgia Tech at Miami – Saturday at noon (ACC Network)
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By Andy Demetra (“The Voice of the Yellow Jackets”) | Inside The Chart

The number flashes on his phone every night. Djimon Brooks always knows to pick it up.

“He’s my No. 1 fan,” he says.

Those conversations with Sgt. Willie Kelly Brooks, Sr. (Ret.) have become a part of his nightly routine now. Brooks Sr. played football in high school before joining the military. Almost three years ago he underwent partial amputation of both legs, the result of long-term health issues stemming from his service in Vietnam. Brooks Sr. has been living and rehabbing in a Veterans Affairs facility ever since, adjusting to a life of limited mobility. He finally moved back to his hometown of Sandersville, Ga., in July.

And every night, the retired sergeant can’t wait to pepper his grandson with questions.

“He calls me every night asking about football,” Djimon says. “He wants to know all the details, even with schoolwork – when I’m studying, when we’re working out, what we’re doing in workouts.”

Not that Brooks minds the Q-and-A’s.

“I like to hear the excitement in his voice. I can usually predict what he’s going to say by the end, telling me what I need to do, telling me how I need to carry myself,” he said.

Brooks Sr.’s pride is well-founded. After arriving at Georgia Tech as a true walk-on in the fall of 2016, Djimon (pronounced JAH-min) has forged his way into the Yellow Jackets’ rotation at defensive tackle. Last weekend at Duke, he recorded a career-high five tackles while leading all Jacket linemen with 68 “explosive efforts” according to Tech’s Catapult analytics data.

“I’m really proud of him and the way he comes to work every day with an unbelievable attitude, trying to get better,” said head coach Geoff Collins.

It has become a key part of the Collins coaching canon: We are an entitlement-free program. Every player, scholarship or walk-on, has a chance to compete and contribute. No one gets pigeonholed based on past playing time. Midway through the season, few players have embodied that mantra more than the 6’1,” 300-pound Brooks, who lines up as Georgia Tech’s “three technique” nose tackle.

Collins singled out his performance against Duke on his weekly radio show Monday.

“When the ball shows up in his gap, he goes and makes the play. He’s not hopping in and out of gaps like you see at a lot of places. Unselfishly, he’s doing it the right way,” Collins said on “GT:60. “He also named Brooks one of his “Three Stripe Life Award” versus against Duke, an honorific given to the Yellow Jackets’ top offensive, defensive and special teams performers of the week.

Despite the praise, Brooks still sees plenty of room for improvement. Recently he sought help from an outside consultant: his former Georgia Tech and high school teammate, safety A.J. Gray (2015-17).

“A couple weeks back, I got in touch with A.J. to get some help with my footwork. Coach was talking to me about my footwork,” Brooks said. The team had already practiced that morning, but he and Gray returned to the indoor facility that afternoon to do some lateral bag drills.

“I’m just proud of him,” said Gray, who now lives in west Midtown. “What he’s doing, that speaks a lot about Washington County.”

Brooks and Gray first teamed up together at Washington County High School in Sandersville, 130 miles southeast of Atlanta, where they earned a pair of state runner-up finishes. Their paths to Georgia Tech, though, could not have been more different. Gray won Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year as a senior and became a signature recruit for the Yellow Jackets. Brooks, who graduated a year later, had the pedigree – his father, Willie Kelly Brooks Jr., played fullback at Auburn from 1989-92 – but struggled to sniff any recruiting interest.

“As a senior in high school I was maybe 5-10. I hadn’t quite grown to as tall as I am now. I got a few looks from NAIA, D-III. Berry [College] kept calling me. For most of the other schools, my option was to walk on,” Brooks said.

Academics became his gateway instead. Brooks, who graduated as Washington County’s class salutatorian, was accepted into Georgia Tech – and, he notes, every other school he applied to.

“My Dad was like, ‘Don’t shoot low. You got into Georgia Tech – why not go there?’” he recalled.

Willie Kelly Jr. understood that path more than most.

“It was ultimately the same decision that I had when I was coming out of high school,” he explained.  “I had schools like Furman and Georgia Southern that wanted me to come as a preferred walk-on. I figured if I was going to walk on, I might as well do it at one of the Division I-A schools. I was accepted into Auburn, and that’s the route I took.”

By the spring of Djimon’s senior year, Willie Kelly Jr. had also reached out to his former teammate at Auburn, then-Tech defensive line coach Mike Pelton. They met up on the field after the Yellow Jackets’ spring game. After consulting with Tech’s coaches, Pelton invited Djimon to try out.

In almost every college football program, walk-ons get subdivided into two groups. Preferred walk-ons are assured a spot on the team. The other group, to which Brooks belonged, have no such luxury. He could have helped his cause by asking Gray, his former teammate, to put in a good word to the Tech coaches.  Brooks, though, didn’t even bother to tell him he was trying out.

“I just saw him walking down the street one day and told him,” he said.

Brooks enrolled at Tech in the summer, but the Yellow Jackets didn’t hold their tryouts until fall classes began. Even that got off to an inauspicious start.

“The first day of school, I came out. Everybody was already at the indoor. I came in the locker room, I got dressed, and I walked out to the game field [at Bobby Dodd Stadium]. I was like, ‘Where is everybody at?’ I had to ask around.” Brooks said.

Some helpful staffers eventually pointed Brooks to the Brock Football Practice Facility. Brooks made the team, joining brothers Kelly (Mercer) and Karekin (Penn) in Division I football, but his career at Tech moved on unremarkably. He redshirted in 2016. He appeared in one game in 2017, playing a handful of snaps late in Georgia Tech’s blowout win over North Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium. He didn’t play at all in 2018.

When Collins came in preaching his entitlement-free philosophy, Brooks admits he was guarded. Walk-ons get sold hope often.

“I was a little, ‘Okay, he’s saying that. I’ll have to see.’ But I tried to keep my head straight and work hard at whatever opportunities I get to prove myself,” said Brooks.

That hard work didn’t go unnoticed by Tech’s coaches. Brooks first realized he could get playing time during spring practice.

“I remember the first time I ran with the ‘A’ group, Coach Collins kind of stopped practice. I was confused, like, ‘Why are they calling me over there?’ I thought I was in trouble. He explained to everybody how I had been running around, being first to every drill, and that I had earned the opportunity to get reps with the ‘1’’s,” he recalled.

“I was like, ‘Wow. So he might be serious about this.’”

Brooks made Georgia Tech’s “Above The Line” chart for the Yellow Jackets’ season opener against Clemson; though he didn’t start, he logged 19 defensive snaps and recorded his first career tackle against the defending national champions. He has had a tackle in all but one game since, rotating with teammates T.K. Chimedza, Chris Martin and Brentavious Glanton on the interior of the Yellow Jackets’ line.

An economics major with a minor in biomedical engineering, Brooks tells his story with an easygoing, understated cadence. He brightens the most when talking about the support his family has given him on his unlikely journey to playing time.

“My parents and I always talked about what my goal was and how I was going to get there, always continuing to work to get there. They’re excited coming to the game, actually seeing me in the games now,” he said.

He hopes that group will soon include his biggest fan. The family patriarch, Sgt. Willie Kelly Brooks, Sr. (Ret.), has yet to see Djimon play in person. They hope he can attend Georgia Tech’s next home game against Pittsburgh on November 2.

The nightly phone calls have been sweet. Having the conversation in person would be even sweeter.

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