Panthers rookie Jonathon Brooks brings memory of his father to next stop


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — James “Skip” Brooks has been gone for two years. But the father of Carolina Panthers rookie Jonathon Brooks had a seat at his son’s NFL Draft party and has a prominent spot on his right forearm and a permanent place in his heart.

After the Panthers traded up in the second round to draft Brooks, most of the focus was on his recovery from knee surgery and the Panthers’ decision to take two Texas players in the span of a day and a half after drafting only one Longhorn previously — 29 years ago in the team’s first year of existence.

So fans likely haven’t heard much yet about Skip Brooks. But they should soon enough when Jonathon Brooks taps his right forearm after his first NFL touchdown to memorialize a man who helped coach his two boys growing up, taught Jonathon how to play running back and good-naturedly bragged about his own football exploits.

Brooks was a freshman at Texas when his father died at 49 after a blood clot traveled to his heart on March 28, 2022. The date is tattooed in Roman numerals on the right arms of Jonathon and his older brother, Jordon, as a tribute to one of their two biggest fans.

“My dad would be going nuts for all this. He’d be ready to go down to Carolina. He’d be talking about it at his job,” Jordon Brooks said. “Because all this stuff we’ve done beforehand — playing outside and going to the field with him and all these summer trips to San Antonio, Corpus (Christi), Florida, Louisiana, wherever we went to play — I can’t imagine how happy he is right now.”

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From left, Jordon Brooks, Jennifer Donovan, Jonathon Brooks and Skip Brooks. (Courtesy of Jennifer Donovan)

Skip Brooks was a commercial truck driver who hauled lumber and industrial-sized pipes on 18-wheelers across Texas from his home in Hallettsville, a city of 2,700 people about halfway between San Antonio and Houston. When his sons started playing football, Skip arranged his schedule so he’d be home to help coach their youth teams.

Skip was a high school running back in Shiner, Texas, in the late 1980s and early ’90s and used to jokingly tell his boys, “You’re lucky they didn’t have video back then.”

Jonathon and Jordon’s mother, Jennifer Donovan, said Skip’s family and friends have confirmed he was a talented back. “So I’ll give him the credit. I wasn’t the football star, for sure,” she said, laughing.

Jonathon said his dad was often on his “butt” at practice, but he enjoyed having him as a coach.

“I took a lot of notes from him. He played in high school. He was pretty good. He knew what he was talking about,” he said. “And then my brother was playing, so I could learn from both of them.”

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Kidney disease ran in Skip’s family, and he was on dialysis for several years before receiving a transplant around 2013 when Jonathon was 10. For the next eight years or so, he was able to continue working, umpiring Little League baseball games and attending his sons’ games at Hallettsville High. The Brooks brothers were teammates for one season in 2017 when Jordon was a senior receiver and Jonathon a freshman running back.

But after Skip’s feet began to swell and he started feeling poorly, he restarted dialysis in December 2021. A few months later, he underwent surgery on a Thursday to have a port placed in his right arm. Skip’s arm was uncomfortable over the weekend, but he told Jennifer he didn’t want to go to the hospital. When he woke up Monday morning having difficulty breathing, Jennifer called his doctor and was told to take him to the hospital.

When she got him into the car, he leaned over and passed out. Paramedics tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him when they arrived at the emergency room. “They eventually just said a clot must have been in his body and traveled around, and his heart couldn’t handle it,” Jennifer said.

Jonathon had just finished a spring practice walkthrough when he returned to the Longhorns’ locker room and saw a series of missed calls from his mom and brother.

“I felt like something was wrong because they text all the time. We always text. We call, but for me to have missed calls from both of them — multiple — it did make me question,” he recalled. “My heart dropped. I was nervous to call back because I felt like something was up.”

Jonathon got in touch with his brother, who told him he needed to come to the hospital immediately. Panthers rookie tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders was with Jonathon at the Longhorns’ facility.

“All I remember is him getting a call, and then I just saw a look on his face. He was like, ‘What?’ And I just saw him break down in tears,” Sanders said.

A cousin picked up Jonathon for the 90-minute drive from Austin to Hallettsville, where his brother met him outside.

“He gets to the hospital. Everybody’s outside, and he’s looking at me,” Jordon said. “I told him to come here, and I just shook my head no. He hugged me, and we started crying together.”

Jonathon picked up some clothes from campus and returned to Hallettsville, where a few days later he was joined by more than 30 teammates and coaches for the funeral at Shiner Lutheran Church. Sanders was among the players who rode the chartered bus to be with Jonathon, who appreciated their support over the next several months.

“Just being around them, they’re funny teammates, so they were cracking jokes and kind of kept my mind off of it. Because when I got alone, that’s all I would think about,” he said. “So being around them, being around football, it really helped me get my mind off of it in a good way.”


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Jonathon Brooks celebrates a TD at Texas by pointing to his right arm and the tattoo he has to remember his father. (USA Today)

A few months after losing their father, Jonathon and Jordon drove to Victoria, Texas, to have the date of their dad’s death tattooed on their arms. It was their third matching tattoo. On their right wrists, they have “Brooks 4 J,” a reference to the four J’s in their family (James, Jennifer, Jordon and Jonathon). And on their biceps: “For him I’d risk it all … My Brother’s Keeper.”

The first time Jordon remembers his brother saluting Skip by touching the tattoo was after a touchdown run near the end of Texas’ 49-0 win over Oklahoma in the 2022 Red River Showdown. It quickly became a tradition, with Jonathon also doing it at the beginning of games and the start of drives as a reminder his dad is still with him.

“Everybody around my community knew him, loved him. He was a great person,” Jonathon said. “He was quiet. That’s kind of where I get my shyness and quiet (personality) from. He was just a good person overall to everybody in Hallettsville. I think he’s well kept alive through everyone.”

After mostly sitting behind Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson his first two years at Texas, Brooks enjoyed a break-through season last fall. With six 100-yard games, Brooks was among the country’s top five rushers when he tore his ACL against TCU on Nov. 11. He missed the final three games and elected to skip his senior season and enter the draft. Despite the injury, many draft analysts had Brooks rated as the No. 1 running back.

Jennifer organized a draft party at a reception hall in Hallettsville, with gumbo, sausage wraps and chicken strips on the menu. One of her co-workers brought a couch. Jonathon and his girlfriend sat on one end, with Jennifer and Jordon on the other end. In the middle was an empty seat, save for a framed photo of Skip and Jonathon.

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Jonathon plans to do something similar when he gets married.

“I feel like he’s there for me. He’s always with me,” he said. “And I know if he was here, he’d be sitting right next to me on that couch because he was my biggest fan.”

Most of the nearly 300 people gathered at Blase’s Place thought the Dallas Cowboys would take Brooks with the 56th pick because of their ties to him. Cowboys team doctor Dan Cooper performed his surgery, and Longhorns running backs coach Tashard Choice played for Dallas from 2008 to 2011. Jordon said a lot of folks at the draft party wore Cowboys gear.

There was also some pre-draft buzz linking the New York Giants to Brooks with the 47th pick. The Panthers also were high on Brooks after bringing him in for a top-30 visit.

According to league sources, the Panthers liked Brooks, Rutgers cornerback Max Melton and Texas A&M edge rusher Edgerrin Cooper at No. 39 before trading back with the Los Angeles Rams and recouping a second-round pick in 2025. Panthers general manager Dan Morgan then moved back up to No. 46 — one spot ahead of the Giants — and selected Brooks as the first running back off the board.

Panthers coach Dave Canales praised Brooks’ size (6 feet, 216 pounds) and versatility after adding him to a running backs room that now includes Chuba Hubbard, Miles Sanders and Rashaad Penny. “Best back in the class,” Canales said. “And we were so fired up to be able to bring him in and create that competition.”

Brooks sat out last weekend’s rookie minicamp but has said he expects to be back by training camp. Whenever Brooks returns, Sanders — who arrived in Austin with Brooks as part of the same recruiting class — is expecting big things.

“We started one chapter of our life together … and (now) started a whole new chapter of our lives together,” he said. “I know what type of player he is, what type of person he is, what he’s gonna bring on and off the field. I can’t wait to see what he’s gonna do when he touches that field.”

In the meantime, Brooks’ mom and brother are planning to relocate to Charlotte with him. He said the three have grown closer in the two years since Skip’s death.

“You have to cherish everything because none of us expected him to die that day. I feel like it was so sudden. You never know what could happen,” he said. “So for me to be close to them, spend as much time as I can with them — for them to have supported me my whole journey — it means everything.”

(Top photos: Joe Person / The Athletic and Ed Zurga / Getty Images)



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