A hole on the roster

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Kirk Brooks will be there in spirit when his Wolverines take on Mary Hardin-Baylor on Saturday.
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By Adam Turer

At this point in the season, no team is in need of extra motivation. Through unfortunate circumstances, however, the Wesley Wolverines will be playing with some additional inspiration on Saturday.

On Monday night, senior linebacker and team captain Kirk Brooks addressed his teammates before practice. He let his teammates know that the illness that has kept him out of Wesley's past three games was recently diagnosed as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Then, he told them not to worry about him and to take care of business in Texas on Saturday.

"He's been so darn positive. He's more worried about his teammates and coaches being worried about him," said Wesley coach Mike Drass. "He's a very mature young man and a consummate leader."

Brooks tore his medial collateral ligament in the season opener, but returned to the field five weeks later. He last played in the Wolverines' win over Huntington on Oct. 27. His last play was a fourth-quarter interception that helped seal Wesley's comeback victory.

"He's like the older brother of the linebacker group," said linebackers coach Tim Kane. "Not having him there on Saturday is going to be difficult, but we know he'll be there with us through texts and listening on the radio."

Initially, Brooks thought he was dealing with an upper respiratory infection. He would get winded easily, and his weight was down. When doctors scanned his chest and found a mass, he sat down with Wesley athletic trainer Chad Kragh as they searched online to prepare for all possible scenarios.

"We talked and joked and he helped me stay positive," said Brooks. "The worst thing we saw was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but we saw that there was a 97 percent recovery rate."

His doctors told him that he was surprisingly healthy for someone with the disease. They even told him that he could play this weekend if he felt that he had the energy. Then, the doctors scheduled his pre-treatment appointment for this Friday in order to begin chemotherapy sessions next Wednesday. While he would rather be with his team in Belton, whether on the field or in the coaching booth with Kane, Brooks trusts that his teammates will take care of their business while he takes care of his.

"The quicker we can get the treatment going, the quicker we can get it gone," said Brooks. "I'll have as many computers, televisions, and radios as I can find so I can be as involved in the game as much as I possibly can be on Saturday."

Brooks's positive attitude and athleticism will be two of his biggest weapons in his fight against cancer. Chris Norwell knows what Brooks is facing. The former University of Illinois defensive tackle and current defensive line coach at Thomas More was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma shortly after his playing days for the Illini ended.

"Being in great health as a football player will help him out in the treatment," said Norwell, who has fully recovered. "His body will be prepared a lot better because of all the work he put into it for football. He'll definitely be able to give this thing a good fight. The number one thing is staying positive."

Brooks, a double major in business management and accounting with a 3.3 GPA, uses preparing for a football game as a metaphor for preparing for cancer treatment.

"Coach always told us how hard it is to win one football game," said Brooks. "I feel good going into this situation knowing that my team is going to win. I know I'm going to be alright."

Wesley's helmets carry Kirk Brooks' number 50 on them this weekend.
@LMaginnis_52 via Instagram

While the NCAA allows 58 roster spots for playoff games, the Wolverines will only bring 57 players on the trip to Mary Hardin-Baylor. There will be an empty seat on the plane for Brooks, the leader who coaches look to to give tours to recruits, the captain who is the first to offer tutoring assistance to his younger teammates, the player who was the leader of the defense in training camp this year.

"We're not going to replace his roster spot," said Drass. "Number 50 is going to be with us in spirit."

This is the biggest battle Brooks has faced, but it is not the first time he has had to cheer for his teammates from a distance. He redshirted his second year due to injury. When he missed games earlier this season, he joined Kane in the coaches' booth. He has been a mentor to the rest of the linebacking corps.

"Some guys get really down when they're injured. He's never done that," said Kane. "From the beginning, he's just been so positive."

Kane and a few defensive teammates knew about Brooks's diagnosis before they took the field against Cortland State last weekend. The diagnosis doesn't change the game plan, but it does give the Wolverines some fuel to add to their fire.

"The linebackers had a little extra motivation going into last Saturday, playing for their brother," said Kane. "To keep him happy, we can keep winning. We're playing for a chance to win a national championship."

When he stood before his teammates on Monday night, Brooks had a simple message. After telling the players and coaches to stay focused on preparing for their rematch with the Cru, and before his teammates huddled around him to show their support, Brooks delivered words of humility, perspective, and leadership.

He told his teammates: "I've played my last game. I don't want this to be your last football game."

Dec. 14: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 16
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Box Score Recap Photos
Dec. 8: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, UW-Whitewater 14
Box Score Recap Photos
at Mount Union 28, Johns Hopkins 20
Video Box Score Recap Photos
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