Driving back from Yakima last December, Kyle Brooks was feeling miserable.
The longtime Prairie boys basketball coach had started to feel ill during the Falcons’ two-day stint at the SunDome Shootout, and on the long drive home on Dec. 28, he was feeling worse.
“Bless the kids’ hearts, I had several kids in the van say ‘Coach, are you alright?'” Brooks said. “And said ‘yeah, I’ll be alright’ and this and that. I was just coughing and feeling not good at all. When you go on a trip like that, you don’t have extra people to drive the van home. You’ve got to get the kids home. And I was able to do that safely. And at the same time, I was just proud of the kids, just the way they were; they were a caring group. Then Jan. 3 came around and I didn’t know anything for a month.”
Brooks was suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves in the body, eventually leading to paralysis.
It left him in a semi-conscious state. He needed a ventilator to help him breathe. He lost his eyesight for a while.
But 10 months later, Brooks was back on the court with his players in limited workouts earlier this month.
“It was emotional,” Brooks said. “I hadn’t been on our gym floor since the middle of December of last year. This is starting my 22nd year. Just to see the kids to be excited to be in the gym, to see the coaching staff, it’s been great. … It just becomes a part of you, and I miss that. I miss the sound of the ball on the floor, the kids running up and down the floor.”
Brooks said getting back with his team was a big motivator in his recovery. But he also had another carrot to chase.
“My oldest son was going to have a daughter in June,” Brooks said. “And I kept telling my daughter-in-law that I’m going to be there and walk in to see my granddaughter. That was kind of my goal. I was very determined and motivated to get on my feet. People with Guillian Barre, it can take a really long time to recover. But I was able to get up with a walker and walk at the three months.”
After several weeks in the hospital, Brooks moved to a care facility to assist with his rehabilitation. By late March, he was able to go home, where he was able to continue his recovery, walking with his walker in the halls of his home and later around his neighborhood.
All through the long process, he was inspired and thankful for all the support he received from former players, other coaches, even the referees.
“The really tough thing for me was that I was sick and so bad off for a long time,” Brooks said. “And it’s still a challenge for me using my hands, typing and stuff. I just could not respond to all the texts that I got.”
While in the hospital, he received a card from his own high school basketball coach from Marshfield High in Coos Bay, Ore., flowers from the state coaches association, as well as a parade of other well-wishers.
“In one day, I think this was the big three,” Brooks said. “I had Trace Keesee, who used to coach football and track at Prairie, come in to visit me. A little later that day, a legendary (Prairie) baseball coach named Don Freeman came and visited me. And then a little while later, here’s (former longtime Columbia River basketball coach) Gene Dettorre. I just remember being humbled by those guys taking their time to see me.”
He was also touched by the outpouring of sympathy from the community. His wife Jane share images of banners of support from students at rival schools like Hudson’s Bay, Kelso and Fort Vancouver. In March, Prairie High School honored Brooks prior to a playoff game against Timberline.
“They put up a video when they had a night (at Prairie) that was just for me,” Brooks said. “My son was at Home Depot the other day, and I saw someone with a ‘KB’ T-shirt that they had from the night, which was cool to see.”
But Brooks was most appreciative of his assistant coaches Jimmy Tuominen, Steven Bjornstad, Cody Barton and Ethan Rouse. Tuominen took over the head coaching duties, leading the Falcons to the bi-district tournament.
“Every July, the (Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association) gives out a positive coach award,” Brooks said. “And it happened that I won the award for 2019, but I didn’t get to celebrate it in July (at the WIBCA Hall of Fame banquet) because of COVID. It’s been rescheduled for next July.
“Well, because of the job Jimmy did, for 2020 Jimmy will receive that positive coach award. And I’m not sure that’s ever happened – an assistant getting that. It’s just amazing. … So this July, we get to receive those awards together at the Hall of Fame banquet, which is pretty darn cool.”
Brooks returned to teaching at Prairie remotely this fall. But being back on the court with his players was a big lift, even though he’s taking necessary precautions.
“Our athletic director, Jason Castro, he’s such a good guy and we we’re on the same page so much,” Brooks said. “He told me to be there a little while, and then he wanted me to get out, just to be safe. So I’ve been doing that. And the reason I’m able to do that is I have such a great coaching staff.”
Brooks’ recovery is still an on-going process, but he feels more and more back to normal each day.
“Little victories every day,” he said. “I’ve got a long way to go. But I’m very thankful of where I’m right now, too. … It kept getting easier and easier. I think it was just a blessing for the Lord and the strength he gave me to be challenged to get back on my feet.”
His experience, especially the support he received, also gave him a new perspective.
“It made me want to be a better person,” he said. “I want to be more giving and kind. Things that you think you are but know you could do better. All the things I saw in other people, I want to be more like them and support other people that way.”
And that starts with his players at Prairie and helping them navigate the pandemic and the uncertain future of the upcoming basketball season.
“I have a lot of anxiety about the future and what that’s going to happen for our kids,” Brooks said. “I’ve got to look at my players and say ‘Hey we’re not to going to start today.’ But the one thing I keep telling them is ‘you’ve just got to have hope that we’re going to start. … Let’s not be thinking of winning or losing. Let’s just get you back on the court.’ We’ve just got to hold out hope and stay positive.
“And I’ve also told them this is a great time to get stronger.”
Just like Coach Brooks.
Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at (360) 735-4538, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter handle @360TMart.