keep pounding kid

Child Health | one month ago

Gridiron Grit: Brooks Fought for a Comeback – Now He’s Stronger Than Ever

When high school senior Brooks Mauk was told he may never walk normally again after a devastating injury on the football field, he promised himself he would not only return to the field, but he would come back even stronger than before.

For Brooks Mauk, now a senior at Weddington High School in Matthews, N.C., football has always been life.

“We’ve lived in several different places, but everywhere we’ve gone, the easiest place he’s fit in is on the football field,” says Brooks’ mom, Johni. “He was ‘football,’ that’s how he defined himself.”

But on October 7, 2022, that identity was challenged. Brooks knew in an instant his entire life had changed course.

Brooks and his team – the Weddington Warriors – had three minutes left in the fourth quarter of a home game when Brooks, playing tight end, tried to get an outside edge. He secured the block and planted his right leg. Then he heard a crack.

“I went down and rolled onto my back,” Brooks recalls. “I had never broken a bone before, and I thought it was my ACL at first. But then I grabbed my leg below the shin, and it twisted. That’s when I knew it was a bone.”

As Brooks was lying on the ground, he says he knew at that exact moment there was very little that could hold him back. He was in immense pain, he was angry, but his determination was activated.

“I made a promise to myself that I was going to come back from this,” Brooks says. “Regardless of what they told me. I knew I was going to come back.”

A Devastating Prognosis

Atrium Health physician Dr. Eric Warren, who is the team’s physician, and Huston Mattson, the team’s athletic trainer, were the first to reach Brooks on the field. Atrium Health is the official health care provider for Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Schools, Union County schools, and over 100 high schools throughout the Carolinas.

“We are blessed and grateful to have a team physician not only on staff, but on the field for each game,” Johni says. “Dr. Warren and Huston are qualified and knowledgeable, and they were able to take charge and care for Brooks quickly and appropriately.” Warren and Huston stabilized Brooks’ leg in a splint and sent him via ambulance to Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital.

“When we got to the emergency department at Levine Children’s, it was such a smooth process,” Johni says. “From the moment we got there to the moment we left they had every detail covered. It was an impressive level of care and a big relief to know he was in good hands during a scary time.”

After being evaluated by his medical team, Brooks and his parents learned that he had broken his leg in two places: the tibia (the shinbone) and the fibula (the smaller bone that sits next to the tibia).

Due to the severity of his injury, Brooks was told that he may not be able to walk normally again. The gravity of this statement didn’t hit Brooks until later, when he realized what this really meant: Brooks may never play football again.

“He was more afraid of not being able to play football than not being able to walk,” says Brooks’ dad, JJ. “When it hit him what the doctor had said, he was devastated.”

Brooks was taken to Atrium Health Mercy, a facility of Carolinas Medical Center, for a procedure called an open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF). During the surgery, the bone pieces are put back together in proper alignment and secured with a rod to help it heal correctly. The rod will permanently remain in Brooks’ leg.

The surgery was successful, and JJ says they were blown away by the care Brooks received.

“We can’t begin to express the gratitude we have for Dr. Warren, Huston, and the entire medical team who encouraged and supported Brooks from the moment he was injured until the moment he was able to go home,” JJ says.

Brooks says his care team had a huge influence on his comeback, including setting him up for the reality of the recovery process.

“My surgeon took great care of me, but he was also real with me,” says Brooks. “He said he had done everything he could to fix my leg, but this wasn’t something where I could just do 1,000 reps and it would be better. Now it was a mental battle. The only person who could get stronger was me.”

Gridiron Grit

Brooks worked hard in physical therapy and ran routes with his dad to help get him back to game-ready condition. But he didn’t just focus on himself during his recovery, he wanted to support his team from the day he got home from surgery.

“Two days after his surgery, Brooks rode in a golf cart – with his bandaged leg – to help support the guys,” JJ says. “He didn’t want to miss a practice.”

Brooks was on track to return by the beginning of the following practice season. He had a minor limp and wasn’t quite 100%, but he persisted. After several months of running routes and physical therapy at Atrium Health, Brooks was able to participate in summer training. Two weeks before the season started, his limp was gone. At the Warriors’ opening game, Brooks was running at full speed. During the game, Brooks scored on a 42-yard touchdown reception and recovered a fumble on defense.

"Before the game, I was extremely nervous," says Brooks. "But for some reason, like magic, once I hit the field, something turned on."

The magic didn’t stop there. Brooks helped his team win the NCHSAA 4A state championship this season. For his battle back, he was awarded the Thomas Davis Comeback Player of the Year for 2023. Brooks will also kick off the January 7 Panthers game as the Keep Pounding drummer.

“It’s just awesome,” says Brooks. “The people I’ve been able to meet along the way and being able to experience this with my family are positive things that have come from this experience.”

Behind the Fight

Seeing how things have worked out and the incredible recovery Brooks has been able to make is truly inspiring. But Brooks and his parents are quick to be honest – from the moment Brooks learned that he may never play football again, the mental and physical battles he faced along the way have been a somber reality.

Brooks says he’s had some dark days and long nights – doubting himself and his ability to do what it would take to return to what brought him the most joy. And although he had a community of support along the way, he also had people who doubted his ability to return to the game (or that if he did return, he would never be as good as he was before his injury).

JJ says it was the hardest thing Brooks has ever experienced, but the adversity only added fuel to his fire.

“He experienced his lowest lows,” JJ says. “But he pushed through the pain, and he found light in the dark. Hope was something we just had to hang onto. It would have been easy to give up, but he never lost that hope.”

Brooks may have hit bottom, but he dug in and made a remarkable return. Along the way, Johni says Brooks’ relationship with football started to shift.

“Brooks has gained perspective on how the game is just a piece of who he is,” Johni says. “This whole experience has grown him as a person.”

Running with a Purpose

The 6’4 senior has not surprisingly turned many heads this season, but Brooks’ character is even more impressive than his on-field performance. He says his biggest desire from this experience is not to gain attention for himself, but to be able to share his story to help others. After a game this season, Johni recalls seeing Brooks go over to a player from the opposing team who was being loaded into an ambulance.

“Brooks just wanted to offer some support to the other player who was going through a tough time,” Johni says. “He had been there and knew what it was like, he understood that fear and uncertainty. He wanted to let them know they weren’t alone.”

To those who may be experiencing a similar struggle, Brooks says to keep fighting.

“The reward is so much greater than the pain, and the sense of gratification you will feel is unmatched,” Brooks says.

Brooks is in the midst of determining his next steps after graduation, but he is excited to see how the pieces fall into place while remaining grounded in what’s important.

“I want to do something I love,” Brooks says. “But my top priority is providing for my family.”

Based on his track record so far, there’s no doubt Brooks will accomplish exactly what he puts his mind to.