Posted by: trevormeers | May 10, 2012

Big John

Less usually says more in an e-mail subject line. When the line bears only a person’s name, you can usually bank on finding bad news inside. Nobody sends a message titled “Joe Smith” to tell you that Joe just received a big promotion. Stuck with delivering bad news, senders typically keep it terse.

So when the e-mail from my wife popped up with the line of “Big John,” opening it was a formality. Coach was gone.

Pastor/Coach Brooks with my buddy Mike, who’s presenting an appreciation plaque at the end of our sports banquet in the basement of the Valentino’s pizza buffet.

John Brooks arrived in Nebraska from St. Louis, as I recall. But he was originally from somewhere down in Missouri’s Boot Heel, that funny knob of the state that hooks into the old Confederacy like a cowboy gripping a bronc with a square spur. All we Nebraska kids knew about the Boot Heel was that it was one of those places defined by how close it was to some other place that was pretty much dripping off the edge of the map. Just like people prove North Dakota’s remoteness by saying, “You know, it’s practically to Canada,” people told us the Boot Heel was almost to Mississippi, and we’d nod and wonder how John Brooks and his family made it all the way up here to the prairie.

He came to our church to be a childrens’ pastor and “bus pastor,” which was a calling somewhat unique to the 1970s and ‘80s, as far as I can tell from ecclesiastical history. Around that time, conservative churches purchased fleets of tired school buses, painted “Bible Baptist Church” in black letters over the school’s name on the side and sent the Bluebird arks out to collect young souls for Sunday school. They seemed like rolling city missions to us regular church kids, considering how they typically visited every trailer park within a 10-mile radius of the church and brought in all the kids whose parents couldn’t be bothered to take them to learn about Jesus.

It took a special breed to lead a bus ministry, and Pastor Brooks had the sweeter-than-iced-tea demeanor tailored to sharing the Good News with kids who scared the graham crackers out of us regulars. We showed up in polyester three-piece suits for church each week; the bus kids wore leather belts with “Rowdy” carved into the back. Pastor Brooks embraced us all like a big Southern teddy bear with a round face and a soft drawl. He addressed every male he met as “Brother,” whether they were an 80-year-old deacon or a 4-year-old wiping snot from his nose as he climbed onto the bus. It wasn’t long before we all called him “Big John” when we were out of earshot. The nickname was an obvious choice and spoken with as much respect as the name given to the heroic miner in the Jimmy Dean song.

Me with Pastor Brooks when I helped coach the Jr. High team in college. At this point, I still hadn’t caught on that his gentle approach tended to work better than my Bobby Knight Wannabe tactics.

All of us in junior high had heard that sports played some role in Big John’s past, but we didn’t give it much attention. Some folks said that with the way he’d torn the cover off the softball in a factory-worker league down in St. Louis, he could’ve been a slugger for the Cardinals if he’d had a few breaks. Big John didn’t pass the eye test for a big-league player. But I’d read enough about Babe Ruth to know that a guy didn’t have to be svelte if he could swing the lumber. So who’s to say what Big John used to do at the plate back in that thick Missouri air?

The stories about him on the basketball court, though, really seemed like a stretch. Until you got into a pickup game with Big John. Remember how old guys always told you during manual labor projects to “Let the shovel do the work”? Such was Big John’s hoops philosophy. He never seemed to be spending much more effort than it took to rock on the front porch, yet he was always knocking the ball loose from young wanna-bes like me, stepping into a passing lane at the right second and snatching rebounds away from guys who actually got off the ground. It was like the ball was always doing the work.

And then there was the shooting. While the rest of us scrummed it up in the paint, Big John would camp out beyond the three-point line and wait for someone to kick out the ball. Then, barely rocking on his heels, he’d drain it from downtown. Maybe with a few breaks, he would’ve been playing for the old Kansas City Kings, too.

When my sophomore year of high school ended, my tiny Christian school—which happened to meet in the church building—was looking for a new boys’ basketball coach. We’d gone 3-and-a-bunch on the season, and our 23-year-old coach had taken his inch-thick-playbook and moved on to other opportunities. One day, my dad came home and said the principal had announced the new coach. “It’s Pastor Brooks,” he said. “We’re doomed,” I thought.

I had no qualms with a minister running the ball team. In our world, we had a pastor for a principal and pastors for referees at all our games. Even the janitor probably could’ve done a solid breakdown of Five-Point Calvinism if you’d bothered to ask. Sublime and secular were one steady stream to us. And I had nothing against Big John as a person. In fact, I considered anyone in the bus ministry a Baptist saint. But I was sick of losing. And a slow-talking reverend who lived by the stationary jump shot didn’t seem like the solution for a team that desperately needed some fire and schooling in the fundamentals if we were going to start beating anyone besides the home-school “all-star” squads.

First week of practice came in the fall, and midway through a scrimmage, I was following my usual game plan: overcommit to every play. If fast and aggressive were good, I figured hyperactive and maniacal were better. During a deadball, Big John sauntered over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Brother,” he said, “you’ve got to just relax. Let the game come to you. Trust me. It will.”

That was more or less the essence of his coaching for me that year. Wait for the game to reveal its seams. Let the ball do the work. Our playbook consisted of three plays. Just about every week at church, Big John would sneak up behind me, grab my left hand like a catfish that just crawled up on the porch, and say, “Well, you do have one on this side, too! I’ll be!”

We finished second in our region.

Senior year, we dared to believe. We’d kept the core of the old 3-and-infinity team together long enough to grow up, and now, unbelievably, we had a shot at winning our region, the tiny Christian school equivalent of a state title. We were 12-0 when we headed to a tournament in Minnesota, where we’d face teams from Pennsylvania and California that had more guys on the team than we had in our high school.

The first game followed Vegas’ prediction, with us losing by 21. In the locker room, I was taking our first loss of the year as an utter failure. I’d been outplayed by a stud being spirited all over the campus of the host college by the drooling coach, and all the specters of my sophomore year were rising from the grave. I laid on the floor with a towel over my head, doing my best impression of pouty NBA players I’d seen on TV.

Big John walked into the locker room, jerked the towel off my face and stared me down with an angry burn I’d never seen on his gentle face. “Brother,” he said flatly, “you’re a senior and the leader of this team. You need to get up off the floor, act like a man and start leading.” I was too stunned to do anything but obey. I got up and dropped the pout. We lost again the next day, but then dropped only one more game before the regional tournament in Kansas City.

KC had long been the scene of our season-ending hoops drama. The prior year, our first-round game was a tight one, lasting into overtime. With all of my hoop dreams on the line, Big John called a timeout in OT, but strangely didn’t stand up as we approached the bench. “Brothers,” he said to us, “gather close. It seems I have just split my pants.” From his perch on the bench, he took us home that day, and on to the championship a year later.

Any reflective person occasionally picks through their past like an archaeologist, trying to spot the events that formed who we are. That year brought nothing more than a championship at a tiny high school that even the local newspaper ignored. But I can’t write my own history without that tournament and Big John. The six-year journey that ended with success forged a key part of the self-confidence that has always made me believe I could achieve what I went after.

And thoroughly woven into that story is the good ol’ boy who took us to the promised land. I last saw Big John at Christmas of 2010, when we stopped in for a service at my old church, which is still attached to my old school. He and I caught up after the sermon, with his first question being how my daughter was doing after a recent surgery. He asked for my phone number so he could type it into his contacts, even though I couldn’t think of any real reason for him to call. A year or so later, the e-mail arrived. I didn’t even know he’d been sick, but the subject line still left no doubt. Without opening the message, I started thinking back to what’s obvious. Whether I’m gutting out a long race, wrestling an article into existence or trying to convince a room full of people to try my idea, it’s easy to see me following the playbook of a gentle guy who turned out to be more coach than I ever thought possible. I’m as Type A as Big John was molasses, but my wheels never turn so fast that I can’t hear his drawl telling me that whatever the game may be, brother, you’ve gotta relax and let it come to you. Trust me. It will.

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Responses

  1. Thank you Trevor. This was a fitting tribute to a wonderful saint.

    • I also enjoyed reading this, so many memories. He and Mrs. Brooks touched so many in different ways.

  2. I loved reading this Trevor! Thanks for writing it. I hope you and the family are doing well.


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