49ers' Brooks took the long way toward being a star linebacker
Ahmad Brooks has overcome injuries and off-field college trouble to make impact
DC Vic Fangio's arrival paved the way for Brooks to finally enter the starting lineup
Brooks is focusing on improving his pass rush skills after having seven sacks in '11
Of all the people who have touched or influenced his football career, 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks ranks his family at the top of the list. His late father, Perry, who played 92 games in the NFL as a defensive lineman for the Redskins (1978-84), used to call him before every game. Now, he hears from his mother, Vergie; his older sister, Krsunthia; his older brother, Perry, Jr. -- or all three. They always preach the same motto.
Play hard. Play smart.
On his right wrist, Brooks wears a rubber bracelet with those four words and his father's name on it. Krsunthia gave him his first bracelet (black with red lettering) before a preseason game in New Orleans last year, and she has offered to get him more in a variety of hues. Gold with red letters, for example, would match the 49ers' colors.
"It's a reminder to me of what I've been through," Brooks said. "Pretty much what got me here."
Until last year, Brooks was virtually unknown, even inside the Bay Area. And much of the information about him that did drift out was of a negative nature.
His story is one of redemption. Big-time high school player who gets a scholarship from Virginia only to be dismissed from the team after three seasons because of a marijuana possession charge. Enters the 2006 NFL Supplemental Draft and is picked by the Bengals in the third round, but suffers a groin injury early in his second season, winds up on the injured reserve list and gets waived. Is claimed by the 49ers but doesn't play in '08 and goes through an up-and-down learning curve the next two seasons.
Brooks finally became a starter last season -- a perfect fit for the scheme new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (hired by new coach Jim Harbaugh) was installing -- and had seven sacks, three pass breakups and 50 tackles (all career highs), plus one forced fumble.
If his performance in San Francisco's season opener in Green Bay on Sunday was a harbinger, Brooks will be a disruptive force again this season. He pressured Aaron Rodgers down the stretch and sacked the quarterback for a seven-yard loss on the Packers' final possession, helping the defending NFC West champions secure a 30-22 victory.
So, why did it take Brooks, who is 28 and in his seventh NFL season, this long to emerge?
Injuries set him back early. He was inactive for several games as a rookie with the Bengals because of neck and groin ailments. Injuries flared up again in 2007, his second season, when he tore both of his groins in the second game. When the 49ers claimed him on waivers in August 2008, he hadn't healed completely and was made inactive for the entire season. Then he missed the first two games in '09.
Brooks didn't play in an NFL game for over two years (Sept. 16, 2007 to Sept. 27, 2009). Some teams would have given up on a player like that. Some players would have given up on themselves. But Brooks' confidence never wavered.
"I was still on the 53-man roster," he said. "I was still traveling with the team. I was still practicing every day, as if I were preparing for a game. So it wasn't like I wasn't doing anything."
Finally, Brooks had a chance to showcase his skills in 2009. He played in 14 games and had six sacks and five forced fumbles. After missing the 2010 opener because of yet another injury (he lacerated his kidney during training camp), he sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees in Week 2. He made his first start for San Francisco in a December game in Green Bay and sacked Rodgers twice.
Then came his emergence in Fangio's defense, a 3-4 scheme that might not have been much different from the 3-4 run by former coordinator Greg Manusky, but was friendlier to Brooks' skills.
"It was a system he could excel in if he did the right things, which he did," Fangio said. "We put him in there, told him this was his job and it was time for him to do it -- or not do it."
Brooks took Fangio's cue. He started every game, played about 90 percent of the snaps and contributed his share of plays among a linebacker corps that may be the best in the NFL. In addition to Brooks, there are Patrick Willis, who has gone to the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons and has been a first-team All-Pro selection four times; Aldon Smith, who had 14 sacks as a rookie; and NaVorro Bowman, another up-and-comer who is in his third season. They helped the 49ers, who last year ranked first in the league in stopping the run, second in opponents' first downs and second in scoring defense, advance to the NFC championship game in Harbaugh's first season.
"We definitely had a good defense last year," Brooks said. "Coming off a good season and coming into this season, I feel more confident out there in knowing my assignments and knowing what to do."
Brooks, who in the past had sometimes been criticized for not being in shape or for his work ethic, recommitted himself during the offseason. He spent more time at the team's facility in Santa Clara, working out with some of the 49ers' gym rats. He observed some of his teammates' work habits and attention to detail that make them better players.
Harbaugh noticed. He said Brooks came into training camp in the best shape he's been in.
Another past charge against Brooks was that he didn't know the defense or the plays well enough. Perhaps coaches didn't always put him in the right position. The Bengals first tried him at middle linebacker, but he's much more effective on the outside.
"He's a very physical outside linebacker," Fangio said, "We kind of ask him to do a little bit of everything. He's got to be an excellent run defender, he's got to drop into pass coverage, and, most importantly, he has to be an effective outside rusher for us."
When the 49ers go to their nickel defense, Brooks will line up at end but he doesn't always stay there. Fangio will move him around. For example, when he sacked Rodgers on Sunday, Brooks came rushing up the middle.
Brooks gets more of a chance to be a pass rusher in Fangio's scheme. If there's one thing Fangio wants to see Brooks improve this season, it's his pass rush. Specifically, Fangio would like to see more consistency in that area. Sunday's game against Green Bay was a good first step in that direction.
"I wouldn't necessarily say I've been working on my moves a lot, but I've been working on my hand placement, my bull rush," Brooks said. "Just trying to find something that works for me."
Brooks could have gone on the free agent market after last season, but the 49ers kept him in the Bay Area by signing him to a six-year, $44.5 million contract, including a guaranteed $17.5 million. Although not necessarily given to reflection, Brooks realizes he's a fortunate man who has managed to put past troubles behind him (he was charged with assault while in Cincinnati) and emerge as a late bloomer.
"When I look back on my college career, I didn't give it my all," he said. "I did things I shouldn't have done and it bit me in the butt. And I kind of regret it. But that's what made me into the person I am today. It makes me not want to do those things again. I think about the consequences before I take any actions.
"Very few guys make it to this point, make it to the NFL. And even when they get into the NFL, it's all about staying in the NFL. I'm so thankful being in the position I'm in. I don't want to take this for granted. I want to seize all the opportunities I can. When my career is over, I want to say, 'I gave it my all.' "
Under a different set of circumstances, Brooks would have finished his career at Virginia on a high note, been drafted in the first round of the regular draft and become a star long before now. But he chose a different path, one he can't change now.
"I could have had this, I could have had that," he said. "But I didn't, and I just made things harder than what it should have been. But this is God's plan, and this is obviously what I needed to go through."
While his career appears to be on an upward swing, Brooks realizes it is still a work in progress and there are no guarantees that the rest of the journey will be free of detours. There will ber missed tackles, team losses, perhaps another injury to overcome. But should he need a little boost of inspiration, all he has to do is look at his wrist and read the inscription.
Play hard. Play smart.