John Anthony Brooks: Instant American Sports Hero via Hertha BSC Work-in-Progress

by Randall Hauk

In the United States hyperspeed popular culture, a perfect storm of circumstances can create the right environment for an individual to skyrocket to stardom in just a moment’s time.

John Anthony Brooks stepped into the swirl of the sports world’s biggest stage at halftime of the United States opening group-stage match to replace the injured Matt Besler. The full-scale assault mounted by Ghana that preceded Besler’s injury and need of replacement continued after the break, putting the lanky 21-year-old center back directly in the path of the Black Stars’ attack.

When the heartbreaking equalizer finally came in the 82nd minute, it was of no great surprise; Ghana had won the only two prior meetings between the two nations, both times at the World Cup. And, the United States’ bogey-team had been dominating possession and hammering their opposition both bodily and with a barrage of shots since surrendering the 1:0 lead just 29 seconds after kick-off.

Four minutes later, Graham Zusi curled a corner kick into the space in front of the Ghana goal, where Brooks skied over midfielder Sulley Muntari to redirect the ball with his head down- and goal-ward. When the ball struck the turf and bounced over the outstretched mitt of keeper Adam Kwarasey, the mantle of “American sports folk hero” was reserved for Brooks, pending retention of the resecured lead until the final whistle.

If you’re reading this, you know what happened.

I’m not saying that we Americans tend to go to extremes sometimes, but . . .

A shade more than ten months since facing a decision over which of his parents’ birth countries he would represent, the young defender with outlines of the German city of Berlin and US state of Illinois on either elbow, became cap-tied to the United States and emerged as the hero in what will long reign as one of the sport’s defining moments in his father’s homeland.

It seems safe to assume that the overall awareness of Brooks before 7 p.m. EST among those now celebrating him over here in the US ranged somewhere between completely unfamiliar to somewhat unfamiliar. And while recent NBA Championship winners like Tim Duncan and wildly famous runners-up like LeBron James are forced to momentarily cede the spotlight to “Johnny Soccer,” let us provide you some background on America’s newest sports idol.

It will hardly seem so by comparison to what’s happening right now, but the summer of 2013 was a very exciting time for John Anthony Brooks. His hometown club, Hertha BSC, was preparing for its return to Germany’s top flight, having earned their return to the Bundesliga after running away with the 2.Bundesliga title. Brooks scored Hertha’s lone goal in the season-ending home draw against Energie Cottbus to say farewell to the second tier.

Shortly before the opening match of the 2013-14 season, Brooks received an invitation from US national coach Jürgen Klinsmann to join him in Sarajevo for a test match against Bosnia-Herzogovina. Brooks had appeared four times for the US U-21 squad, which would seem to indicate that a move to the senior side was a natural progression in his international career.

But Brooks had also appeared once for Germany’s U-21 squad and was forced to simultaneously consider an invite from Horst Hrubesch for another in Freiburg against France. As Brooks consulted with his family and other advisors, the shorter route to full international play was clearly through the United States. Not only was he being invited to already join the US senior team, but Germany was already blessed with a backlog of world-class central defenders. And while confident top athletes do not necessarily take the path of least resistance to achieve their professional goals, finding playing time behind Mats Hummels, Per Mertesacker, Jerome Boateng, and Benedikt Höwedes was not a realistic goal for the immediate future.

With no disrespect intended toward Besler, Geoff Cameron, or Omar Gonzalez, Brooks had to consider that he had a much better at seeing the pitch sooner rather than later by embracing the American half of his heritage.

Could the fact that Klinsmann has been a member at Hertha BSC since 2004 and has a full spread of international accomplishments to his own name have given the US’ coach an edge over the home nation of both men?

“To play for the USA was no difficult decision,” said Brooks on the official website of the US Soccer federation. “I spoke with my family; everyone gave me advice. They were all very happy with my choice.”

Part of decision-making process: In the US, you can be compared to Abraham Lincoln.

But before he could begin his journey to American glory, there was the matter of Bundesliga debut, which was scheduled for just five days before the Wednesday test match.

Much like his competitive debut on Monday for the US, Brooks scored Hertha’s second and game-deciding goal less than an hour after taking the pitch as a debutant to Germany’s top tier in a 6:1 romp in front of a raucous home crowd of 55,000. Not only was Brooks’ 32nd minute tally the game-winner, but he was named to Kicker magazine’s match day best eleven

And they all lived happily ever after . . . right?

That would be the Hollywood version, of course, but Berlin is decidedly not Hollywood.

Brooks had just enough time to enjoy victory before he had to leave his club teammates to join his new international teammates. Paired with Cameron in the starting central defense, Brooks logged 90 minutes in his first match under Klinsmann, which was a 3:4 victory, but also showed that the level of competition in the Bundesliga is decidedly not international play, with more-experienced Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic providing opportunities aplenty for improvement for the young defender.

Even so, victory is victory, and Brooks is not one to overlook such an important distinction.

“It is nice when one can celebrate his international debut with a victory,” said Brooks after the match. “That was a good experience for me.”

Unfortunately for Brooks, it was the last real “good experience” he’d have for a while.

The following weekend, back at his day job with Hertha, Brooks was limited to eight minutes as a substitute, with coach Jos Luhukay giving his long-time starter some extra rest after playing two full matches in the span of five days.

Six days later, Brooks again had limited playing time, though it was his being removed from the pitch in the 23rd minute that shortened his day, rather than his being rested. Initially, the speculation was that Brooks had been injured during play, but Luhukay later told the media that his motivation for replacing his young rising star with former captain Peter Niemeyer had nothing to do with player health.

“After a nervous start, I needed to swap-in more of a winner’s mentality. I wanted to get more of a winning mentality and more experience onto the pitch,” explained Luhukay later. “Subbing Niemeyer should bring more security and stimulate his teammates.”

“He did that excellently.”

Luhukay did not bother to veil, even thinly, his message to his young defender. Brooks may have been among the most well-regarded central defenders the prior season in the second league, and Brooks may have recently emerged as a full international, but Brooks still had plenty of work to do to become a contributing regular for a club in one of the world’s top professional leagues.

It was a message that would be repeated throughout the season in which Brooks battled injury and wild fluctuations in form, while his club went from early-season surprise to late-season strugglers.

But just because a message is sent does not mean it is received.

Luhukay and Brooks in a moment of more-direct communication.

Despite the rather public shaming of Brooks, he was back in the starting eleven for Hertha the following match day. In a 2:0 loss at VfL Wolfsburg, Brooks was whistled for a foul after long-time Bundesliga midfielder Diego went to the ground in the penalty area after Brooks lightly brushed against him. Hertha players were quick to appeal to the referee that Diego had greatly exaggerated the contact, protesting the awarding of a penalty.

While it’s usually the player who exaggerates the foul and the match officials who bear most of the blame when a dive turns into a penalty kick, Luhukay refused to completely acquit Brooks of culpability.

“That was inexperience against experience,” was the lesson Luhukay sent again through the press. “Diego will gladly take that.”

In match day six action at SC Freiburg, Brooks again was removed early from a match, but this time it was an actual injury to an elbow that triggered an eight-match absence from the pitch.

When Brooks was again fit for club service and ready to return for Hertha in an early December match against fellow promoted side Eintracht Braunschweig, the moment was again preceded by thoughts of international service as the World Cup final draw saw the United States and Germany drawn into the same group.

During the 77 days Luhukay was without Brooks’ promise and height, Hertha surrendered ten goals on set pieces. After 90 minutes in the 2:0 victory over Braunschweig, Brooks’ club coach seemed pleased with Brooks, saying he had left “a very positive impression.”

It was not, however, a lasting impression.

Brooks again was yanked from the pitch the following weekend, after being victimized by a quick give-and-go play that led to an equalizer for visiting Werder Bremen. Luhukay, visibly angry with the concession, again sent Niemeyer on as a first-half substitute.

When asked about again pulling Brooks from play in the first half, Luhukay was again ready with a hard message for the defender.

“We are in the Bundesliga,” explained Luhukay. “It is hard-hitting here.”

“John must grow up.”

Brooks was relegated to the bench for all but five minutes of Hertha’s next nine matches, between illness, injury, and, largely, being out of Luhukay’s favor.

Meanwhile Brooks continued to gain time with the US national team, logging 180 minutes over two matches in November and March. Brooks’ club performances and absences were not at all hindering his ability to gain favor with Klinsmann.

An injury to team captain Fabian Lustenberger opened the door for Brooks’ return to service for Hertha, leading him to ultimately appear in seven of Hertha’s nine final matches without once being yanked from the pitch by Luhukay.

That’s not to say the Hertha coach didn’t have more to say about Brooks’ development and professionalism.

In an incident worthy of American-style off-pitch sports coverage, Brooks decided to get a large tattoo on his back, leading Luhukay to again question whether Brooks yet possessed the proper focus to develop into the promise his young career had shown, not because of the tattoo specifically (though Luhukay had said once in an interview that he would never get one), rather the timing of getting it done, as it happened during the season.

Rumors have it that Aerosmith’s Joe Perry is looking to trade his jersey for a Brooks.

While Hertha collected just five points over the final ten match days of the season, Brooks became emblematic of the Berlin club’s struggles, often being placed at the feet of the younger players and their tendency to be distracted with off-pitch matters rather than fully committed and focused on their professional career. Though Luhukay said publicly that he would judge Brooks on sporting terms first and foremost, rather than on things like tattoos, it was clear that Brooks had, yet again, fallen short of expectations.

For fans of the US national team, however, the Bundesliga is another planet, making the end of the domestic season just five weeks ago history of a distant and barely relevant nature. In Brook’s new context, he’s a young superstar who said he dreamed he would score an 88th minute game-winner just two nights before he scored an 86th minute game-winner, storming to the forefront of the American sports conscience.

But the heat of the momentous accomplishment, though it will last long in memory, is already ebbing. What few US fans were even aware of Brooks’ troubling domestic season have likely forgiven it, if they cared about it whatsoever.

Yet, along with his new heroic identity, Brooks will also be saddled with expectation. Whatever number of US fans were following his Hertha career over the ten months since his decision to pick the USA will be greatly increased when the 2014-15 Bundesliga season starts later this summer. We Americans are quick to put an athlete into a place of esteem, but we can be just as vehement in shouting-down a player if we think he’s dogging it.

Luhukay’s tough-love approach may not be what Brooks wants right now, especially if he turns out to be the type to let fame and fortune obscure the reality of the situation, but it might be the exact best situation for Brooks, Klinsmann, and US Soccer.

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Author:Randall Hauk

Randall is a displaced Michigander living in Seattle, trying to balance obsession with Detroit sports and a love for FC Köln with fatherhood and family time. Follow him on Twitter @odroku and check out his Fußball blog: American Geissbock."
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