Watching Brandon Brooks fulfill his potential with Eagles was a joy

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Watching Brooks fulfill his potential was a joy originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Whenever I think about Brandon Brooks, I’m transported back to Houston, where the summers are hot enough to make the Devil sweat.

It’s the kind of sweltering heat that can humble any player, even the ones who think they’ve experienced summer heat before. Because they haven’t experienced training camp in Houston; it’s like practicing in a bowl of soup.

So maybe my memory is melted … but that’s when I first knew Brooks was going to be great.

Particularly, I think back to the summer of 2013 when Brooks was just entering his second year in the NFL. He wasn’t even a full-time starter as a third-round rookie out of Miami (Ohio) in 2012, but there he was that summer on the practice fields along Kirby Drive battling 1-on-1 against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year … and holding his own.

On a team with several Pro Bowl offensive linemen, Brooks was the only one strong enough and athletic enough to slow down J.J. Watt.

The last time I really thought about those 1-on-1 battles was in March of 2016. By that time, I had already been back in Philly for a year covering the Eagles when I found out that Brooks was coming to town as a free agent on a $40 million deal. That night on NBC Sports Philadelphia, I told those stories about Brooks’ facing off with Watt and declared that Brooks was going to be a Pro Bowler in Philadelphia. I’ve never been so happy to be right.

Watching him fulfill his potential as a player and as a man over the next several years was an absolute treat. It has been one of the joys of my career to get a front row seat for all of it.

In the last couple seasons, though, Brooks’ body failed him. The injuries piled up and on Tuesday, the 32-year-old officially announced his retirement from the NFL after 10 seasons.

Brooks walks away from the game as a three-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl champion and one of the greatest free agent acquisitions in Eagles history.

But I’ll remember him as the guy who came to Philly to live up to his potential. He did that and more.

RELATED: Salary cap ramifications of Brooks' retirement

While Brooks really enjoyed playing for well-respected OL coach John Benton early in his career, he didn’t begin to play at his highest level until he came to the Eagles and worked with Jeff Stoutland. Brooks made the Pro Bowl from 2017-2019 and started every game during the Super Bowl season.

His admiration for Stout is undeniable: “You are family and always will be,” Brooks said, getting choked up, on Wednesday.

In the 2018 playoffs, Brooks again started every game but tore his Achilles in the first quarter of the divisional round loss to the Saints. After the game, as some blamed the loss on an Alshon Jeffery drop, Jason Kelce argued the Eagles were “a hurt right guard away from getting back to the NFC Championship Game.” That’s how much his teammates thought of him.

The most amazing thing isn’t that Brooks returned to the field for the start of the 2019 season; it was that he returned better than he ever had been before. In 2019, Brooks was downright dominant — it was his best NFL season. Although he was egregiously snubbed by All-Pro voters, Brooks was named ProFootballFocus’s top offensive lineman and the fifth-best player in the entire league.

As much as Brooks did on the field, his contributions extended off it too.

In his first year with the Eagles in 2016, Brooks missed two games after his anxiety manifested physically to the point where he simply couldn’t play. He could barely stand. Those same issues also forced him out of a game early in 2019.

Each time those problems arose, Brooks spoke honestly and openly about his mental health. He talked about medication. He talked about therapy.

Undeterred by previously taboo subjects, especially in pro sports, Brooks didn’t hide from it. And in doing so, Brooks helped to destigmatize mental health issues for fellow teammates, fellow athletes and regular folks alike.

“I just really wanted to help others by sharing my story,” Brooks said. “It will always be part of my story. I just always tried to be truthful, transparent about it.”

On Wednesday, Brooks admitted that back in 2016, as a crowd of reporters gathered around his locker, he didn’t really know what he was going to say, how he was going to present it. He just knew he wanted to tell his truth.

That makes his words that day even more amazing.

“I’m not ashamed, I’m not embarrassed. It’s life,” Brooks said in 2016. “Hopefully if I can reach some kids out there that are going through the same thing and let them know it’s OK, life goes on, fight through it. Just like I’m trying to do.”

On the field, Brooks could do incredible things. Watching him pull on a run or get downfield on a screen was magical. A 340-pound guy should not have been able to do some of the things he did. But I didn’t marvel at any of that the way I did watching him deal with his anxiety issues under such a public spotlight.

I’ll miss watching him play, but I’ll miss chatting with him by his locker more. At least he’s staying local.

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On Wednesday morning, when I asked Brandon about the memories that flooded back to him in the wake of his retirement, it was fun that his first instinct was to take it back to training camp in Houston too.

“Dave, man, you’ve been with me a long time, so let’s take it back,” he said.

Brooks told a story of coming back to the facility overweight as a rookie and being Gary Kubiak’s “red ass of the day,” drawing ire from the veteran coach. Kubiak told him if he was going to be overweight, he might as well pack his bags. That was a wakeup call.

From there, Brooks shared his memories of former teammates like Duane Brown, Wade Smith and Chris Myers, memories of Arian Foster telling him how to reach his potential. Memories of joining the Eagles, meeting new teammates like Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson in Philly, and how it transformed his career. He also reminisced about the Super Bowl and the celebration that followed, watching fans spread their family members’ ashes. That’s when he truly realized how much the championship meant to the city.

It’s wild when I think that I have known Brandon for a decade. It’s even wilder to think that I was there to watch his entire NFL career up close and to see those memories form.

I’m just really glad I was.