MOBILE, Ala. – Every good plan starts with a vision, right? And to see the goals in front of you with the steps required to put that plan into action only gives one a better chance to see the task through.
That is just one of the reasons it’s taken Jamal Brooks little time to become an immediate contributor for the University of South Alabama football team.
“I have a vision board, it’s the first time I’ve ever had one. You see a lot of successful people talk about having goals and writing them down, so I did that,” he explained. “I have a lot of goals, and I don’t necessarily want to name them; I will say I want to play in the Senior Bowl — that’s what attracted me here — and I wanted a shot at the NFL.”
“Jamal has a vision board in his apartment that he talks about all the time,” said first-year assistant coach Will Windham. “That shows me he has a vision of where he wants to go, and also that he is going to work for that.”
If one had asked Brooks as little as two years ago if his vision including wrapping up his collegiate career with the Jaguars, the likely response would have been a curious stare. Why would he — or anyone else — believe Brooks would depart Missouri, where as a junior in 2019 he posted 21 stops including a career-best seven in a win over Arkansas in the regular-season finale as the Tigers ended the year 6-6? And that came after he saw action for Mizzou teams that earned postseason bowl invitations his first two years with the program.
“Honestly, I didn’t think that I would be finishing my career somewhere else,” Brooks said. “After that season, a lot of unforeseen things happened at the University of Missouri — the coach got fired, Covid — but I didn’t see myself leaving Mizzou at that time.
“My name is Eugene Jamal Brooks Jr., if you ask anybody in my family I am a guy who is modeled after my dad — a hard-working man — and am proud to carry my dad’s name; I can’t think of a better father,” he said. “I was always taught that when you start something you finish it, no matter what it is. Throughout my recruiting process, I always thought that wherever I committed that’s where I was going and where I was going to stay. At the University of Missouri, the position coach and defensive coordinator who recruited me got fired after the third game of my freshman year and then I ended up tearing my ACL that year. It was a hard road, but with what my dad instilled in me I didn’t see myself leaving no matter what the circumstances were.
“Ultimately, I had to make a decision and gamble on myself. I love the game of football, I have spent many nights crying about the game of football and praying. Sometimes you have to take a chance.”
First, Brooks went into the NCAA Transfer Portal over the summer after receiving his degree from Missouri. Then came the search for a new home where he could use his one remaining season of eligibility. Ever since Kane Wommack took over the reigns of the Jaguar football program in December, he and his staff have been actively monitoring the portal in an effort to add an immediate infusion of experienced players to the roster; they in fact wasted little time taking advantage of the system with current starters Jake Bentley and Antawn Lewis transferring to South at the start of the spring semester.
By the start of preseason camp in August, the number was up to 14 individuals on the roster who came from another NCAA Division I school.
“We certainly wanted to identify everyone’s talent and their ability to contribute on the team athletically, but the best thing we did was evaluated everyone’s character. And every person we spoke to talked about the way in which Jamal carried himself, the way he had an urgency about learning the defense, the way he took care of business academically in his time at Missouri,” said Wommack. “For the linebacker position in our defense it’s so critical that that person is more than just a great athlete, he has to be a great leader. I think we identified those qualities in him, and as we talked about it we wanted to let him know this defense has been successful — particularly out of the linebacking corps — for a long time and what the opportunity was to run this defense from the ‘Mike’ linebacker position.”
While conversations between Brooks and the Jag coaching staff included his potential role on the field, they went much deeper than that.
“I think it started in the recruiting process, we Zoomed a lot because obviously Jamal was still in Columbia finishing up his degree at Missouri. We did Zoom calls with him, his parents and even his sisters, we got to know him on a deeper-than-football level, which started to build that trust,” explained Windham. “As we started getting involved in the defense we spent a lot of time together because he had to learn it fast, and to expedite that process we spent a lot of hours in my office talking about football and life. When you look at it as a coach, it’s deeper than the game of football because if the kids feel that they are more than just a player to you — that they are an actual person — it builds that trust level, and I think that happened pretty quick with Jamal and me; we have a lot of the same interests and hit it off pretty well, it’s been a good relationship so far.”
That approach was a key in convincing Brooks South Alabama was the place to spend his final season at the collegiate level.
“I had an idea where I would get interest from prior to entering the portal, those interests came but I didn’t want to walk into the same situation I was walking out of,” he said. “There is great competition at South Alabama, but I didn’t want to walk into a situation where coaches would tell me where they could see me fitting in the defense; I had that. I was looking for a coach who would tell me straight-up that we have guys here who can play the game of football — and we do, you see it every day with Quentin [Wilfawn], Shawn [Jennings], A.J. [DeShazor] and at the time Nick Mobley was still playing — and that they were looking for a guy who could come in and contribute and add into the group.
“You don’t get a lot of coaches in the portal who are honest with you,” he continued. “I had a heart-to-heart conversation with Coach Windham about how the Covid year ended, and having a coach who is so honest and raw with you and is looking to help you get better every day is what I was looking for. I heard from a lot of schools. The day I committed here, a big-time school in the state of Texas actually texted me but I told them I was committed now. I am proud and happy to be here.”
So what was Brooks looking for when talking to other coaches? “Honesty. Accountability. I was looking for a coach similar to my first collegiate head coach, someone who when they said something they were going to do it. I was looking for an opportunity,” he said. “I tell my coaches all the time — I don’t know if they think that I am just talking — that I enjoy being here, 100 percent more than they could ever imagine. I’ve played in some cathedrals, played in some beautiful places like in between the hedges at night at Georgia. I’ve played at Bryant-Denny Stadium, I’ve played in some loud stadiums, but nothing compares to being at a place where you are loved and are running out of the tunnel with a group of guys you know have your back.
“I had a group of guys who had my back at Mizzou, but that was nothing compared to this. With Coach Wommack and Coach Windham, it’s just a different feel here. What I have right now is what I was looking for.”
Knowing that he was entering a position room with plenty of talent and no guarantees of playing time, Brooks was going to have to work quickly in order to make his way up the depth chart and put himself in a position to contribute this fall. In order to make that happen, he once again relied on his vision.
“In short, I followed my vision board,” said Brooks. “My parents and others in the group I am close to have seen it, I literally have it mapped out for each step that I needed to take. When I came in I wanted to assess the situation that I found myself in and then I just went to work. The coaches feel like I have leadership qualities so I let it come to me, I wasn’t trying to tell the other guys to follow me. In my opinion that’s not what a leader does, you have to follow before you can lead so I came in and followed the team. I saw the direction and wasn’t necessarily conforming to standards that weren’t my own, everything the team was doing aligned with my personal standards so it was easy.”
With just one season left to compete at this level, that vision — combined with his determination and work ethic — made it impossible for the coaches to miss what he was doing on the field once preseason camp began.
“You could tell he just had a sense of urgency. Jamal wanted to know every nook and cranny of the defense, so that way he wasn’t surprised when he got on the field; whether it was a shift, a motion or a hard count, if the picture changed in front of him he didn’t freak out,” Windham said. “You want guys — especially at the linebacker position — who are really even-keeled, never too high and never too low, because they have to command the defense like a quarterback commands the offense. Jamal had a calmness about him, he had a sense of urgency, he always wanted to get the mistakes fixed as soon as possible. He was always hungry for more, hungry to learn, his work ethic is what has allowed him to make a quick impact.
“It’s a blessing for us to have him here, I can tell you that.”
Brooks’ work in the preseason has been showing up on the field throughout the fall. He has started all five games at the ‘Mike’ linebacker position, recording 19 tackles including a team-best five stops behind the line of scrimmage while also running back his first interception at the collegiate level 56 yards in the Jaguars’ last outing at Texas State. His efforts have helped rank among the Sun Belt Conference leaders allowing just over 310 yards and 20 points per contest while limiting the opposition to only a 21.2 percent conversion rate on third downs as well as a 56 percent success rate in the red zone — figures that rank first and second in the country, respectively, coming into Thursday night’s match-up with Georgia Southern.
But just as important has been what Brooks has brought the Jags on the field has been his influence off of it in the locker and meeting rooms.
“Obviously we watched some tape and had some game cut ups, and Jamal had some practice clips as well. He played some meaningful snaps for those guys in some big games against Arkansas and Tennessee, he was a physical body and could run,” explained Windham. “That was one of the things that excited us. But the nice surprise for us as we got to know him was the leadership qualities, the vocal ability and all those things he brings to the table. We had an idea, but he’s exceeded our expectations in that regard.”
In bringing in individuals like Brooks with just one year to play at South, Wommack’s hope is not just for results similar to what he has produced thus far but also to have an impact beyond that.
“First, I think Jamal did a tremendous job being a guy who has contributed without coming in thinking that he had earned a starting job. He knew he had to go earn it and he had to connect to his teammates, which I think he did a great job of;” he said. “As they were competing for jobs, they were also building friendships and a trust that you hope will carry over when adversity hits in games. He has also done a tremendous job of bringing along some of our younger players like Ke’Shun Brown and showing them the example of what it needs to look like moving forward for years to come.
“These seniors, they leave legacies, and that legacy carries on through these younger players which is how cultures are established year after year. In year one, I can’t think of a better guy to come in and help establish this culture and hopefully the younger people underneath Jamal will carry it on for years.”
“It’s something that I haven’t really thought about, but it does cross your mind if that makes sense,” Brooks added. “Each Sunday after our game I have in-depth conversations with our strength coach, [assistant head] Coach [Matt] Shadeed, about how my body is feeling and what I felt in the game. We always talk about how this program is still in its infancy stage on the way to what it will eventually be. My role in the building of this program is to be who I am right now, and that’s a leader on and off the field especially with my actions making sure that I am straining to do what is right day in and day out. Nobody is perfect, I make mistakes just like anyone else in the world, but I trying my best to do what is right.
“I feel that is going to be something people will look back and say that is what our program is built on, follow people like the greats who are in the NFL and also Jamal Brooks.”
Family has always played a crucial role in Brooks’ development not just as a man but in athletics. Growing up in Bessemer, Ala., he first played soccer before finding his way to the baseball field. Joining the Bessemer Tigers little league team eventually led to his playing football for the program, and by the time he got to Bessemer City High Brooks was on track to become a four-sport standout for the Purple Tigers. Not only had he heard about the athletic exploits of his father and other men on that side of the family, but Brooks’ two older sisters would go on to compete at the collegiate level as well — oldest sister Jamie was recruited to play basketball at Tennessee before eventually competing in track and winning multiple Southwestern Athletic Conference championships at Alabama State, while middle sister Jamila played both soccer and basketball at Talladega (Ala.).
“If you call either one of my sisters, to this day they will take the credit for my success. And I will let them have it,” he said. “Jamie used to fold me up like a rag doll way back when and Jamila did the same thing, but since we were closer in age I probably got her more times than she got me. I’m a competitive guy and I get it from both sides of the family, but mostly from my siblings; we compete to this day.”
It was around the time he was entering high school that Brooks figured out that football would be the path he would follow. A decision that is somewhat ironic considering how important family had been with his involvement in sports growing up.
“I played basketball because I could, I was that kind of athlete who could rebound and box people out. I was a kid you would say was good for five fouls a game. I could put the ball back up and score, I was a lot stronger than the other kids, but guys in the NBA are 6-foot-8 and I’m not. Throwing the shot put, I did it because I could get a free vacation to the beach every year if I made it to the state championship,” he recalled. “For me it really came down to baseball and football, I played a lot of travel ball growing up and feel like I could still play baseball right now — that’s the type of arm strength that I have, and I’m getting stronger all the time — but my problem with the sport is I didn’t control it all the time.
“The No. 1 reason I went with football was because I could get away from my dad,” he added. “When I go to his hometown they still talk about how great an athlete he and the other men in my family were. He knew a lot about baseball and basketball, but I didn’t want him to be my coach for reasons that looking back are just silly. Football was a sport he never played, so I had a high school coach who played in the NFL. Growing up my pee wee team was horrible, there was one game a year that I knew we were going to win and that was when we played Center Point. At Davis Middle School I finally got on good team and we didn’t lose, that was when I started to flash. In the spring of eighth grade you’re trying out for the high school team and I made some great plays, they told me I might play varsity that year. We got a new head coach at the high school, I just did what I do and really started to fall in love with the game and began to think it could take me somewhere.”
After earning second-team all-state honors on a pair of occasions — including following his senior season when he led the state with 168 total tackles — that took him to Missouri. Brooks had offers from a number of schools, but that’s not what he recalls about the recruiting process.
“The one thing I really remember from my recruiting process is that I rushed it. I committed before my senior season of high school, and maybe if the coaches who recruited me were still at Mizzou things might’ve been different,” said Brooks. “I had just started hearing from Alabama and Clemson, I was talking to Auburn, I heard from half the SEC at that time. It was fun when it started to say that I got an offer from Kentucky, Cincinnati, Maryland, and to see that the hard work I put in training three, four, five times a day in the summers pay off. I didn’t want to carry that burden into my senior season, so I rushed it — that’s what sticks out to me.”
Brooks did receive a degree with emphasis in business and sport management from Missouri this summer, and after first being enrolled in the sport management graduate program at South he has since made the move to work toward his master’s of business administration. The education path he has followed has been in preparation for what he would like to do when his days playing football are over.
“Getting a degree gave me closure, the whole reason I accepted a degree when I left was so I could feel like I accomplished something at the University of Missouri,” said Brooks. “But when that degree came to my house I cried when I finally saw it because it wasn’t the degree I wanted. That’s why I fought hard here to get into the MBA program — and I have two A’s in my classes right now.
“There are so many things that interest me. I want to have a diverse portfolio, I want to franchise different restaurants; there was a time I thought I wanted to be the reason there is a McDonald’s on every corner,” he continued. “I took a hospitality management class my freshman year at Mizzou and my dad told me that I’ll know I’ve made it when I make money in my sleep, which got me thinking. Not only do I want to franchise restaurants, I want to franchise hotels. I’ve thought about being on ESPN and becoming the next Stephen A. Smith or Shannon Sharpe type of personality, and recently I’ve thought about getting into coaching. I’ve had so many experiences — more bad than good — with this level of football, I haven’t been able to just sit down and talk to a coach since my freshman year of college and just laugh. I don’t want other kids to experience what I have in the past, I want them to experience what I have here at South Alabama so I’ve thought about getting into coaching because of that.”
With his interests off the field generally based around outdoor activities such as riding four wheelers, fishing and hunting — “for food, I’m not a game hunter, I want to specify that” — as well as spending time laughing and joking with family, Brooks knows whatever professional path he pursues where he wants to do it from.
“I have desire to give back to the city of Bessemer, but I don’t necessarily have a desire to live there. I love my city, I will rep my city until the day that I die, but a lot of people feel the same way that when you get out you don’t go back,” he said. “I know I want to be in the South — Georgia, Alabama, Florida, maybe even Tennessee — somewhere where I can have land and be outdoors.”
Regardless of which path he decides to follow, one should trust that the end result will be good. Because if there is one thing that Jamal Brooks has proven over the years, it’s that having a vision can make any plan become a success.
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