Back in college, Elijah Brooks had his future mapped out. Or so he thought.
He never envisioned himself as a coach, let alone the big cheese at one of the most prominent high school football programs in the country. And certainly not at the age of 27, a mere four years his graduation from William and Mary.
But life can be unpredictable. Brooks, who rushed for 2,536 yards in three seasons at W&M, dreamed of playing in the NFL. Instead, he's following a legend at DeMatha, which opens its season Saturday against Phoebus at the Virginia Beach SportsPlex.
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"It's definitely been a blessing," said Brooks, who is going into his third year as head coach. "I never thought I'd be in this position. I'm truly fortunate to lead such a prestigious football program."
Brooks, now 29, is a DeMatha guy. Playing for Bill McGregor, he rushed for more than 3,500 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in his career. He also was a four-year point guard on Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten's basketball team.
Just imagine … playing for two of the most legendary coaches in the history of high school sports. Some of that was bound to rub off on him.
Brooks' first stop out of high school was Kent State, where he ran for 409 yards and a touchdown as a redshirt freshman. He transferred to William and Mary, where he twice flirted with 1,000 yards. He finished with 944 as a junior and 931 as a senior.
"We're usually cautious about taking transfers," W&M coach Jimmye Laycock said. "We want to make sure they left for the right reasons and they'll fit in here. When I met with Elijah and his parents, I was very impressed.
"He fit right in here and he communicated well with the players. He had people skills. He had leadership skills. I didn't have a crystal ball, but I'm not surprised he got into coaching."
Yet coming out of W&M, Brooks had his eyes on the NFL. The draft came and went, and he wasn't one of the 22 running backs called. Nor did he receive any invitations to camp. Brooks wasn't sure what would happen next, but he did have his degree in kinesiology.
Then a familiar voice called.
"When the NFL didn't work out, Coach McGregor asked me to return to DeMatha as the running backs coach," he said. "I was thinking I'd do it couple years and then move on to something else. But God had other plans for me."
Brooks was an assistant for four years while also teaching world history and psychology. Then, in March of 2011, McGregor announced his retirement.
Less than two months later, Brooks was a surprise hire. With a fairly thin resume, he was replacing a coach who had won 280 games over a 29-year career.
"I didn't know how it would play out," he said. "I think the school understood what I stood for. I was a DeMatha guy and they saw my ability to lead. But honestly, at 27, I definitely didn't anticipate getting the job."
Brooks' first season at DeMatha was so-so, at least by the program's standards — six wins, four losses. But he had only seven returning starters, so that should have been expected.
Last year, the Stags improved to 9-3. Today, DeMatha is ranked 15th in the USA Today pre-season poll and already has five Division I commitments (with maybe a dozen more to follow).
But as more coaches are seeing these days, in public and private schools, Brooks has dealt with tragedy and controversy.
In February 2012, Rico Webb, a lineman who had just signed with Alabama State, died from a blood clot in his lung. Seven months later, following a game in Hillside, N.C., five DeMatha players were suspended for bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms.
"Without a doubt, losing Rico was the toughest thing I've ever had to deal with," Brooks said. "And then the unfortunate incident last (September). Every coach has to deal with adversity. Every team has to deal with it. We're just hoping if it comes, we're able to move on. And we hope it's not to that magnitude."
No, the job isn't all fun and glory. It's time consuming, even (especially?) at a so-called "football factory" where players are recruited. In addition to coaching, Brooks teaches two weight training classes. And there's his wife and 21-month-old daughter, who he doesn't see as much from August through December.
It wasn't what Brooks saw himself doing. But it happened, and he wouldn't change anything.
"I found myself loving it," he said. "I love having an impact on the kids and I see myself in so many of these guys. Honestly, I thought I had my life laid out for me in college, but life took another turn for the good. I can't imagine doing anything else."
WHO: DeMatha vs. Phoebus
WHEN: 5 p.m.
WHERE: Virginia Beach SportsPlex (2181 Landstown Road, Virginia Beach)