"Bag of emotions": Tigers' Brooks prepares for Alabama homecoming

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The World Meteorological Organization has a strict procedure for naming hurricanes.

The distinctions are drawn from a list of male and female names which rotate every six years, and are seldom retired. In hurricane seasons that feature more than 21 tropical cyclones, the additional storms are assigned names from the Greek alphabet.

Little about the process is random, and even less of it holds particular meaning.

But as Belinda Sutton-Brooks watched a Category 4 hurricane move north in the direction of her home in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this week — Michael made initial landfall in the Florida Panhandle Wednesday — she saw the storm, and the name that had been attached to it, as something bigger.

The hurricane carried a familiar name: Michael, the same one that once belonged to Belinda’s brother, Michael Sutton. That Michael attended the University of Alabama once upon a time, where he played football for the Crimson Tide under the tutelage of the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant. The connection with the school has persisted within the family after Michael’s passing, and the ties to Tuscaloosa remain deep.

And so as a hurricane bearing her brother’s name affected the Yellowhammer State just days before her son, Missouri linebacker Jamal Brooks, returns home to Alabama to take on the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Belinda took it as a sign.

“He is coming to his home state and playing against the team that my brother played for,” she said. “Now that (the storm) makes you go ‘hmm.’”

You may not believe in those sorts of things, but Belinda Sutton-Brooks most certainly does.

Homecoming festivities on Alabama’s campus will coincide with something of a homecoming for Jamal Brooks this weekend when the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa for a bout with the No. 1 team in the nation. Growing up just 45 miles from the campus with Alabama football running in his family, the sophomore had dreamt of playing at Bryant-Denny Stadium long before he committed to Missouri in July of 2016. Saturday, that opportunity will finally come.

Even with the help of teammates not using their tickets, Brooks was only able to secure 15 seats for friends and family, something the Tigers’ linebacker called “sad.” This was a game many of those friends and family members had marked on their calendars last fall when Missouri’s 2018 schedule was released, and the ticket shortage put a damper on Brooks’ homecoming. But many who couldn’t get one of those 15 tickets bought ones of their own; they weren’t going to miss this one. And while they won’t all be sitting together like they hoped, the Jamal Brooks fan club will be out in full force Saturday night.

Though the Brooks family has been waiting anxiously for this second weekend in October to roll around all fall, Missouri’s linebacker is trying to treat the date with Alabama just like any other. Brooks refuses to get swept up by where he’s playing and who the opponent on the other sideline is. There’s nothing extra to prove, he feels.

“Everyone gets caught up in the stigma,” Jamal Brooks said. “‘Oh my god, it’s Alabama, man.’ For me, that’s just another team that’s on the calendar.”

Playing off the pressure that this weekend might bring after a midweek practice is easy. Actually doing it under the lights Saturday may prove more difficult.

In addition to loved ones in the stands, he’ll also find some familiar faces in crimson on the opposing sideline. When Brooks steps onto the field, he’ll reunite with players he trained with in high school. Others will be lifelong friends from church — Eugene Brooks, Jamal’s father, recalls his son reading full chapters from the Bible as early as 5 years old.

“I think it’s going to be exciting for him,” Eugene Brooks said. “It’ll be a bag of emotions flying around just getting to play against them.”

Keeping his emotions in check will be an added challenge for Jamal Brooks come Saturday’s prime-time, ESPN kickoff, and it’s part of why the 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker, who also contributes on special teams, has been so focused on staying focused. Inside familiar confines and with more family on hand than usual, Jamal Brooks doesn’t want to lose his edge.

Yet for the all the intensity and concentration he plans to bring with him into Bryant-Denny, Jamal Brooks plans to soak the moment up, too. Yes, he must remain focused on the task at hand up against No. 1 Alabama. But when he steps out onto the field Saturday, a childhood dream will come true.

That’s not something he or his family will be quick to overlook.

“It’s going to be fun going back,” Jamal Brooks said. “It’s going to be really exciting. It’s homecoming for them, so it’s homecoming for me.”

Up in the stands, the emotions will flow strongly. The Brooks family has seen Jamal Brooks play countless times and travels regularly to home and away games each fall. Sutton-Brooks and Eugene Brooks have felt the sense of pride and excitement of watching their son play a thousand times before. But this time, just an hour from home in a city and a stadium they know well, things will be different.

This weekend for the Brooks’ — just like those Southeastern Conference commercials say — just means more.

Eugene Brooks says he’s not quite sure what he’ll be feeling or thinking as he watches on in the crowd Saturday night. For him, it’ll just be one of those moments where he can’t say for sure until it happens. Sutton-Brooks, though, knows exactly what she’ll be thinking.

“If my brother was alive,” she said. “I know he would be front and center on Saturday.”

On her mind will be Michael and the excitement he would have felt, watching his nephew play on the same field he did so many years ago. He sent here a sign earlier this week, and on Saturday, Sutton-Brooks will watch on with pride, and with a sense of comfort, too.

Supervising editor is Theo DeRosa: sports@columbiamissourian.com, 882-5730.

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