GVSU track and field athlete shines for Lakers

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Tori Brooks participates in the mens high jump competition.  The Kelly Family Sports Center hosts the Bob Eubanks Open Jan. 15, 2016.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Tor’i Brooks participates in the men’s high jump competition. The Kelly Family Sports Center hosts the Bob Eubanks Open Jan. 15, 2016.

Jacob Arvidson

It was the final and most daunting event of the seven in the men’s indoor heptathlon that faced Grand Valley State’s Tor’i Brooks.

He had been a member of the GVSU track and field team for less than a month, yet there he was, 1,000 meters away from possibly breaking a GVSU record. Not only that, but Brooks had never completed a full heptathlon before.

The 1,000 meter run took all of Brooks’ energy, but his time of 2:48.92 was enough to finish the heptathlon with a score of 5,046, breaking the previous GVSU record of 4,942 set by Steve Reives in 2013.

Brooks’ record-breaking performance happened at the Saginaw Valley State Jet’s Pizza Invitational in late January. Being from Saginaw, Michigan, a lot of his family members who usually wouldn’t get to see him compete were there.

It was his family that gave him the drive to finish out the grueling last 1,000 meters.

“That was extra special for them to be able to give me that encouragement and to push me to beat the school record,” he said. “To do it in front of them, and in a place where I was born and grew up a little bit, was extra special for me.”

The heptathlon record was special for Brooks and his family, but also for the GVSU coaching staff, especially jumps coach Steve Jones.

“I was so excited when he broke the heptathlon record,” Jones said. “It was his first ever combined event and he did it without great performances in the jumps, which are his strong suits. I am hoping this weekend he will be able to break the record again and better his national standing heading into the championship segment of the season.”

Jones coached 2007 U.S. high jump national champion Jim Dilling. He sees parallels between Dilling and Brooks.

“(Dilling) made me a better coach because as I challenged him to be better, he challenged me to learn more in order to challenge him,” Jones said. “Similarly, I am finding the same patterns I found in those years. I am diving more into trying to be a better coach for (Brooks) and myself.”

Brooks was born in Saginaw but moved in with his mother and sister in the Grand Rapids area, where he attended East Kentwood High School. East Kentwood perennially boasts the best high school track and field program in the state and Brooks was able to develop into a star.

“Dave Emeott and that program instilled a lot of values within me,” he said. “They taught me what my goals should be and how to be a winner, and understanding that when you’re out there and you’re able to compete, that’s a blessing and it’s the biggest blessing that you have.”

Brooks is still connected with his high school roots.

“I’m very involved,” he said. “I go back to East Kentwood and talk to their students and give them my best advice on how to be successful in high school and college, not only as a student, but as an athlete as well.”

After graduating from East Kentwood, Brooks enrolled at Michigan State and joined the track and field team there, but an injury to the patella tendon on his left, plant leg kept him out of competition.

“My first year was extremely rough for me,” he said. “Going through an injury as an athlete is pretty devastating. Especially coming from a program where they taught me how to be a winner and how to enjoy myself.”

After a difficult year at MSU, Brooks decided to pack up and head home to Grand Rapids where he joined Davenport’s track and field team the following year.

“I just had a connection with the coaching staff there,” he said. “I didn’t really have the best connection with my coach at MSU. Ultimately though, it stemmed from wanting to be closer to home and missing my mother and making sure I could help my mother and my sister out as best as I could.”

Brooks spent three years at Davenport. In 2014, he became Davenport’s first national champion after he won the NAIA indoor high jump competition.

“It was a big honor,” he said. “That feeling will never be replaced by any other experience unless we are able to win a men’s championship at Grand Valley. I was very humbled by that experience.”

Davenport made sure Brooks knew how much his accomplishment meant to it.

“The university definitely rolled out the red carpet,” he said. “They were extremely excited about that achievement by me. They appreciated my hard work and that definitely went a long way with me.”

After three years there, Brooks made the decision to transfer one final time. This time he chose GVSU.

“We recruited Tor’i while he was a senior in high school at East Kentwood,” Jones said. “Track is an interesting sport because you can compete across divisions easily, so we would see him at meets frequently. Myself, nor coach Baltes, are ever going to hold a grudge against a kid for choosing another school and when we would compete against him, he always would come over and say hello.”

The good relationship between Brooks and GVSU paid off for the Laker program.

“He approached us after he finished at Davenport and let us know he had one semester remaining in his eligibility and one year of indoor and outdoor,” Jones said. “Our staff felt he could be a difference-maker to help us win the NCAA championship this year.”

Brooks felt a connection with the GVSU coaching staff, but also with future teammates like Darien Thornton.

“Darien was a big influence in me selecting Grand Valley State,” Brooks said. “Along with being a great competitor, he’s just a great guy. He really worked to make me feel comfortable.”

Thornton knew how much Brooks could add to the GVSU team.

“When I first met Tor’i on his visit over the summer, I told him that if he chose GVSU he would get the opportunity to be part of something really special,” he said. “I let him know that we got second at indoor nationals and the entire team was hungry for more. I also explained how we have the greatest coaching staff in the nation that not only care about you as an athlete, but as a person and how you develop.”

Now that Brooks is a Laker, his first priority is bringing the men’s track and field team its first national championship. He is also looking ahead at the Olympic trials in July. Brooks’ older sister, Tia, competed at the London Olympic Games as a shot putter for Team U.S.A. He believes he can join her at the Rio Games in 2016.

“I’m one meet away from it,” he said. “I’m one meet away from being able to break that barrier and get a jump that qualifies me for the trials. Things are starting to click right now. It’s February, it’s about that time and I believe I’m one meet away from breaking through and being able to get one of those jumps. I know it’s in the cards. I know it’s in the future. I’m just trusting in the process and taking it one step at a time.”

GVSU head coach Jerry Baltes’ motto for the team is, “Stay hungry. Stay humble.”

“He is a great young man,” Jones said. “Very talented, yet very humble. Tor’i epitomizes that statement.”