Former basketball player overcomes major injury to graduate from UMD
By Chris McManes
Damon Brooks Jr. is a model of resolve, perseverance and resilience. For the past 11 years he has fought to overcome a traumatic injury, and this spring Brooks earned a journalism degree from the University of Maryland (UMD).
Brooks’ work ethic and positive outlook inspired his classmates to elect him to deliver the student speech at the university’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism commencement. He received two standing ovations.
“Sometimes you can’t control what knocks you down in life; staying down is a choice,” Brooks said during his May 22 speech. “But what we can control is our attitude, our impact on others and our ability to keep pressing forward despite the circumstances.”
Brooks’ life changed dramatically on April 20, 2012, just two days before his 19th birthday, when he was hurt in a dorm room tussle with one of his roommates. He landed on a concrete floor and suffered three misaligned cervical vertebrae and a bruised spinal cord.
Surgeons at UMD’s R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, in Baltimore, stabilized his neck with pins and rods and removed bone spurs. He was put on a ventilator to assist his breathing.
Brooks faced the possibility of being a quadriplegic and unable to talk. According to a story in Maryland Today, he was released from the hospital on May 8, 2012 and transferred to Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute for six months of rehabilitation.
Today, after five surgeries and countless hours of physical, occupational and other therapies, Brooks speaks clearly and can use his hands and arms. He gets around with a wheelchair.
Prior to his injury, Brooks loved to play basketball. As a junior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, he helped the Blue Devils win the 2010 4A state championship. He was a starter his senior year and continued his career at Goucher College in Towson.
As a freshman guard in 2011-12, Brooks averaged 7.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists. He shot 40.1 percent from the field. In what turned out to be his final game, he scored a season-high 20 points.
While he was undecided on a major during his freshman year, in September 2013 he decided to combine his love of sports and writing to become a sports journalist. He knew he would need a positive attitude to help him on his long and difficult journey to fulfill that dream.
“For my road to success, I knew I couldn’t go to school with a bad attitude or feeling sorry for myself or with any negative emotions,” Brooks said in a phone interview. “I said, ‘you have to find a way to overcome this, to process your anger peacefully and successfully.’ So I made a conscientious effort to make sure I was focused mentally, that my mind was sharp.
“Once I started school, I wasn’t going to stop until I reached my goal.”
Brooks transferred to Montgomery College in Rockville and earned his associate degree in general studies in 2019. He began at UMD the following year, calling it his dream school. He covered the Terrapin women’s basketball and field hockey teams for Testudo Times, produced podcasts and wrote about several other sports.
Brooks began a summer internship in The Washington Post sports department on June 5. He had previously interned for USA Today. He said he does 95% of his writing on his iPhone.
“I always have a computer in front of me whenever I write with all my stats [and] everything,” Brooks said. “But as far as being efficient and concise and being on deadline, it’s faster for me to write from my phone.”
Michael Howes, who just completed his freshman year at Merrill, remembers how he and Brooks covered field hockey games.
“He couldn’t go up to the press box like the rest of us, and he had a hard time getting on the field to interview people after the game,” said Howes, who writes for Terrapin Sports Central. “But he didn’t let that stop him from doing his job; he was still pumping out articles.”
Brooks said he enjoys writing more than podcasting.
“I like writing because it’s so challenging; there are so many different ways you can say things,” he said. “The creativity with it is unmatched. I’m so intrigued by it. I love the challenge and the thought process. It’s an art, and not everybody can do it.
“I really have a great fascination for it. I love everything about it. It’s something I have a deep passion for, and I’m really thankful that I found it.”
Howes saw Brooks frequently at Knight Hall, home to UMD’s journalism school.
“I found that seeing him every day and how dedicated he is to his craft was really inspiring,” Howes said. “I’m glad he got to be the commencement speaker. He was most deserving.”
Brooks, who minored in leadership studies, agreed that the lessons he learned playing sports have helped him battle through adversity.
“Never give up,” he said. “Everybody has hardships in life. We’re all gonna get knocked down. I like to equate things to boxing. You have to be able to take a punch. If you get knocked down, just make sure you get back up.”
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers sports for the College Park Here & Now.