Gerald Brooks seemingly had it all ... a three-time all-conference nominee, a conference rookie of the year award and a leader on a team that advanced to the NCAA Division II East Region semifinals.
But in the bounce of a basketball, that all changed.
Brooks, a graduate of Schenley High School, helped the Spartans to the PIAA Class AAAA championship game in 2006 and decided to continue his playing career at IUP.
"I walked on to the IUP team," he said. "Through the years everything has been nothing but a grind, nothing but hard work."
But that hard work quickly paid off.
As a freshman, Brooks, a 6-foot-5 forward, started all 26 games at IUP and averaged a team-high 12.7 points with 8.1 rebounds to earn Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference rookie of the year in addition to second-team All-PSAC West honors.
Over the next two seasons he continued to improve and work hard and emerged as a force to be reckoned with for the Crimson Hawks.
As a sophomore in 2007-08, he averaged 12.4 points and 5.2 rebounds to again earn second-team all-conference and in his junior year, averaged 15.5 points and 6.9 rebounds to land first-team All-PSAC West in leading IUP to a 22-8 record and into the East Region semifinals. Included in that season was a 32-point outburst against Slippery Rock in a PSAC quarterfinal loss at the Rock.
"I remember he played wire to wire and played so tough, but it was our night that night," recalled Slippery Rock coach Kevin Reynolds, who was in his first season at SRU at the time. "We haven't had that many nights against IUP. He was a very good player back then."
But as good as Brooks was, as bright as his future appeared to be with a dominating senior season just ahead, he walked away from it all. After leading IUP into the postseason as a junior and tucking away his first-team all-conference plaque, Brooks quit the team and dropped out of school.
"It was gut-wrenching," he said of his decision.
But, he said, it couldn't be helped.
"My father died at the time, I was raised by my father in a single-parent home. When I lost him, I kind of lost everything, all ties to everything. I was focusing on taking care of my baby sister. I was focusing on taking care of my daughter. My mom had to come back from Detroit to come help us out.
"It was really just me working. I had to put clothes on their back and make sure they ate. I had to make sure all the women in my life were OK before I even thought about what I was going to do."
But after a three-year layoff, Brooks decided it was time to play basketball again. He enrolled at Slippery Rock in the fall of 2011 and decided in 2012 to play basketball again. After sitting out the fall semester to fulfill transfer obligations, Brooks was once again competing in the PSAC in December.
Initially, however, it wasn't so easy.
"I had to lose 85 pounds," Brooks said. "I weighed in at 301 pounds and I'm down to 215. I put in a lot of work at the local recreational center. It was hard. I'm still getting back. I still don't feel as comfortable as I used to feel, but it will come."
And he's playing a much different role at Slippery Rock. While he was the go-to guy at IUP, Brooks has been coming off the bench since his season started Dec. 18 against West Chester. Heading into Wednesday night's home game against Gannon, Brooks has yet to start through 12 games but is averaging 13.5 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.
"Gerald is a very nice addition to our team," Reynolds said. "When you add a three-time all-conference player to your team, any coach would love to have that. Another thing about Gerald is he has come in and accepted his role. Even though he has been an all-conference player, we bring him in off the bench. We have two other guys who play with him who are all-conference as well in Tabari Perry and Devin Taylor.
"When you take three years off of playing, it's going to take some time to get your 'A' game back. We know that and I think Gerald knows that as well. He's going to have some rust but the talent is there, the toughness, the grit. All the things he brings to a team, the enthusiasm, he's a hard worker. All those things he still has."
The Rockets have been battling at the top of the standings all season and are in a dogfight for first place heading into a key stretch of their schedule. Slippery Rock is 13-4, 10-3 in the PSAC West before Wednesday night's clash with Gannon (16-3, 10-3).
The Rockets travel to Indiana for a key PSAC West showdown with eighth-ranked IUP (15-2, 11-2) Saturday.
It will be the first visit to IUP for Brooks as a member of the Slippery Rock basketball team.
"When you go from an offense that was run through you [at IUP] to being a part of an offense, it's humbling," Brooks said. "It's 100 percent different.
"But if you focus on the team and you focus on what you do best, which is being there vocally, which is being the glue, which is being a positive image and presence ... when you see me you know something good is coming out of my mouth at all times, never losing my head, the rest will just come. That's what I focus on now."sportscollegedistrict
Rick Davis: email@example.com or 412-263-3789.