When Head Coach John Harbaugh stood up in the locker room and awarded a game ball to Defensive Line Coach Clarence Brooks after the Ravens defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Oct. 1, the players whooped and cheered. Brooks, the Ravens’ longest-tenured assistant, is a popular and respected figure.
But only Harbaugh and a few others knew that Brooks was being honored in part because doctors had stunned him several days earlier with the news that he had esophageal cancer.
The day after the Pittsburgh game, Brooks told the team, starting with his pupils in the defensive line meeting room. “They just sat there,” Brooks said Monday, recalling their stunned reaction. “But then they all said, ‘CB, we’ve got you. We’re going to travel with you.’ It felt really good.”
Brooks, 65, went public Monday with his story, which has played out behind the scenes of the Ravens’ 2015 season. Since mid-October, he has endured 33 radiation and chemotherapy treatments, missed two games – the first games he has missed in four decades of college and pro coaching – and been forced to coach from the press box during games. On many nights, he has gone home at dinnertime to his wife, Justa, also a cancer survivor, rather than work into the late hours, as is his custom.
But after completing his treatment at Johns Hopkins last week, he is optimistic. The last remaining hurdle, set for late January or early February, is surgery to remove the tumor on his esophagus that was uncovered in an endoscopic exam in September.
“I always thought I was tough before,” Brooks said, “but this is the toughest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Brooks, a Boston native, has coached the Ravens defensive line since Brian Billick hired him in 2005. He is known for the often unfiltered commentary he delivers in a loud voice during practices and games; the refs get an earful on many Sundays. But the real measure of Brooks’ unique value is the track record of the Ravens’ run defense on his watch. It has never finished lower than No. 8 in the league in average yards allowed per rush.
Brooks has been a tenacious guardian of that high commandment of Ravens football, “Thou Shalt Stop The Run.” On Monday, Harbaugh called him the greatest defensive line coach he has ever been around.
“He gets on them, he’s demanding [and] he asks for their very best,” Harbaugh said. “He’s very clear in what he wants; he’s got a way he teaches it, and he wants it done that way. He’s not accepting ‘no’ for an answer. He’s not accepting ‘can’t’ – can’t, won’t, don’t, won’t.”
When Brooks experienced stomach pangs during training camp in August, doctors prescribed medication for an acid reflux condition. But when the problem persisted, he took the endoscopic exam that revealed the tumor.
As he tried to reconcile the news, it helped immensely, Brooks said, that his wife of 40 years had been through a similar battle. Justa Brooks has appeared on the field at M&T Bank Stadium as part of the NFL’s salute to breast cancer survivors.
“She’s my rock. She’s the one who keeps me going. She’s the one who got me through this,” he said. “With her having been through it, she could take me through all the feelings. As a coach, you always feel like you can handle anything that gets thrown at you. But this was different.”
The couple has two grown children and two grandchildren. Their son, Jason, coaches tight ends at Florida International University.
As Brooks sat in treatment at Hopkins three times a week, alone with his thoughts, he closed his eyes and thought of his grandchildren.
“That’s what I’m working for,” he said, “to get myself as healthy as I can and get through this so I can spend more time with them.”
The Ravens players and Brooks’ close friends on the defensive coaching staff have provided “tremendous” support, he said.
“To have players come up and tell you they’re praying for you, I work at a special place,” he said, adding that he has received emails and texts from many former players whom he has coached over the years.
As for his fellow assistants, Linebackers Coach Ted Monachino and Inside Linebackers Coach Wink Martindale have practically pushed him out the door on many evenings, he said, insisting that he go home.
“My treatments have been at 7 in the morning, and by 6 in the evening, I’m not much good,” Brooks said. “I need rest so I can function with the guys during the day in practices and meetings. I’ve had to cut back a little, but I think I’m the same guy out there coaching and in the meeting rooms.”
If the caliber of the Ravens’ run defense is any measure, he is. It has continued to excel in 2015, allowing just 3.8 yards per attempt, good for a No. 7 league ranking.
Initially, Brooks hoped to get through this season, get past his surgery and get back to normal in 2016 without having to go public with his cancer experience.
“When I first told John about it, I told him, ‘I’m not going to be a distraction. I’m no martyr. I’m just a football coach who is going through this,’” Brooks said.
But word leaked out. Brooks had to stay home for the Ravens’ Monday night games in Arizona and Cleveland because they conflicted with his treatments, and after the second game, ESPN’s Mike Tirico said on SportsCenter that Brooks was dealing with a “health issue.” Close observers noticed his absence from the sideline during games.
After he completed his treatments last week, Harbaugh showed the team a video of Brooks ringing a celebratory bell at the hospital – a tradition of cancer treatment. Encouraged by team officials, he agreed to tell his story Monday, admitting the experience has changed him.
“The things that used to worry me a lot, they don’t worry me a lot anymore,” he said. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”