Lessons from Brook

Like most people from Nebraska, I watched the Big 10 Network premier of “Unbeaten: The Life of Brook Berringer” earlier this week. It is a wonderfully produced documentary and it brought back all kinds of memories of a triumphant life that ended tragically.

For those not familiar with Brook, he was a quarterback at Nebraska who helped lead the Huskers to the 1994 National Championship. In 1995, Brook lost the starting QB job to Tommie Frazier…Nebraska again won the National Title and Tommie finished second in the Heisman balloting…while Brook watched from the sidelines.

But throughout the ‘95 season Brook’s character shined even brighter as he accepted his back-up role with dignity and humility…always putting the team and its goals first. While his time on the field lessened, he became even more of a role model, speaking at schools, FCA groups, and visiting hospitals. His message was overcoming obstacles, persevering, setting goals, and living life with passion.

If you haven’t seen the documentary on Brook, I highly recommend watching his inspirational life story.

One of the best things about working in athletics is getting to know the athletes and coaches. Just being around them makes you a better person. Not just admiring their talent, but their hard work, determination, dealing with setbacks, and having the courage to compete on a pressure packed stage that is filled with both praise and criticism.

I became particularly good friends with Brook during the 1995 football season. As producer of the Tom Osborne television show, I mentioned to Brook the possibility of doing a feature on his passion for hunting. He was all over it and soon had us lined up to go duck and goose hunting as well as following him on a quail hunt with his two Brittany spaniel dogs Juke and Bodie.

The ancient Greeks would say Brook Berringer was a person touched by the Gods. Athletically, he was good at everything…football, basketball, snow and water skiing, a world-class shot with a gun. He had Hollywood good looks and an unmatched personality. He had the rare combination of confidence and humility. Brook was charismatic, funny, smart, caring…and a mischievous twinkle in his eye that made him very fun to be around. When Brook turned on the charm…which was pretty much always…it was impossible to say no to him.

For our duck/goose hunt, we met at Brook’s trailer house at 4 am and drove 60 miles to Frank Hoppe’s blind on the Platte River. I took my son Zach, a 6th grader, along. I’m not a hunter so it was a new experience for him and getting to hang around Brook Berringer was something no Nebraska kid would pass up.

It was a beautiful crisp, cool morning and watching the sunrise from the confines of the blind was breathtaking. In order to get to the blind, we had to cross a small stream. Zach and I didn’t have waders so Brook carried Zach and then me across the water piggyback style. He didn’t do it for show…that was just Brook’s nature…always looking for ways to help others. At the end of the hunt, Brook took Zach aside and taught him how to use a shotgun, stressing safety and the thrill of shooting a powerful weapon. It was a day both Zach and I will never forget.

A couple of days later, we went on an early morning quail hunt. Me, with my video camera and Brook with a shotgun and his dogs. The hunt was a success but Brook wasn’t happy with how his dogs worked that day. He wanted to go pheasant hunting. I told him that I already had way more video than I needed…but Brook was persistent…and impossible to say no to. So the next morning, we were at it again…up before sunrise…on another successful hunt and this time Bodie and Juke worked like the professional hunting dogs Brook had trained them to be.

The best part of these hunting trips for me was spending time with Brook in the car. We talked non-stop…not about football…but about life. Our dad’s, family, faith, careers, and fun stories from our past. Brook was a huge country music fan and I loved hearing the stories of how he talked or snuck his way backstage to meet some of the biggest stars in the country music world. And in typical Brook fashion, the stars soon wanted to hang around him…as he forged friendships with some of Nashville’s biggest names.

Brook’s dad died of cancer when he was just seven years old…but in that short time Warren had a tremendous influence and impact on his son. In the fall of ‘95, my dad had terminal cancer and when he passed away on March 27, 1996, Brook was there to comfort me. I’ll never forget his simple caring words of wisdom. “The hurt of not seeing your dad anymore will never go away, but all of the great memories you had with your dad won’t ever go away either.”

22 days later, Brook was gone.

I’ll never forget April 18, 1996. Brook came up to HuskerVision shortly before noon looking for Rick Schwieger. In my last conversation with Brook, I reminded him that we needed to play racquetball or golf soon. He said, “Schmahl, there is no way you will ever beat me in anything involving athletics.” I responded, “you can’t dodge me forever, Brook”…knowing those were two sports where I would have the upper hand.

Brook was projected to be a 2nd round pick in the NFL draft that weekend, and after a likely career in pro football, Brook wanted to be a pilot. He already had his pilot’s license and flying small planes was one of his passions.

Around 3 pm, I got a call from a former colleague at KOLN-TV saying there had been a small plane crash just outside of Lincoln. There were two fatalities and they were pretty sure that Brook had been the pilot.

I called Shot and Kirk into my office to tell them the bad news…and also to ask if they had seen Rick over the past couple of hours…knowing that he and Brook were good friends and that Rick had flown with him before. None of us had seen Rick…and now our fears were that we had lost two good friends in the crash. Knowing I would likely be the one to call Rick’s wife Kris brought a cold chill to depths of my soul.

About 10 minutes later, Rick came running into my office to tell us the tragic news that was now quickly spreading throughout the Athletic Department. I was never so happy to see someone, but that joy quickly turned to grief as the four of us mourned the loss of the friend we loved and admired.

Nebraska held its annual spring football game on April 20th. The night before a national championship celebration was to take place in the stadium with “Sawyer Brown” playing a concert. Brook had made the arrangements and was even going to perform on stage with his friend Mark Miller, the lead singer.

The celebration was obviously cancelled, but that night I put together a four-minute tribute video that was played before the spring game and also at Brook’s funeral. I was humbled when asked to serve as an honorary pallbearer.

That Friday was the hardest edit session of my life. Working in the quiet, dark control room well past midnight, I would edit for a while and then have to stop to let the tears flow. This went on for hours, but there was also inspiration and I think it was one of the best videos of my career. Here’s a link to that video accompanied by the Celine Dion song “Because You Loved Me.”

So what are the lessons that I learned from Brook?

  • Always keep a positive attitude especially when facing adversity.
  • Never give up.
  • Give back to others, especially kids.
  • Care about people. Always strive to have a positive impact on others.
  • Live life with passion and joy!

Until watching the documentary on Brook’s life earlier this week, I didn’t realize that he is one of my inspirations in writing “The Last Train.” I’m so glad that even after being gone for 18 years, Brook Berringer is still having a positive impact on this world.

“Life is like a rollercoaster. There’s going to be a lot of ups, a lot of downs…and that’s what I want to tell you about. To achieve all of the different things you want to achieve in life, you’re going to go through some rough spots. Perseverance is a key in my life and I think is a key in everybody’s life…the ability to overcome adversity is going to be very important in your life.”

Taken from a 1995 Brook Berringer speech at an elementary school

Medical/Personal Update:

My tumor marker numbers keep going down, it was 20 at my last report…but chemotherapy is sure starting to kick my butt. I get pretty sick for about four days but thankfully have been bouncing back strong for the next ten days prior to my next treatment.

Next Stop: When life gives you a 2nd chance

The 1995 hunting story I did on Brook for the Tom Osborne Show.