A week and a half ago, I sat down with Miami University's 2018 Commencement speaker Brandon Brooks. He's an offensive guard for the Philadelphia Eagles and a Super Bowl Champion, but Brooks is strikingly similar to any other Miami graduate.
Brandon Brooks is 6-foot-5, 335 pounds and every inch of him looks like the National Football League player he is. Then, he shakes your hand and sits down. He smiles and rocks back and forth in the office chair pulled out for him in a video room in Miami Football's Athletic Performance Center. He looks around a little bit, focuses and then smiles again.
Brooks is as much a former Miami student as he is a Super Bowl Champion.
He didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up. The first thing he does when he comes to Ohio is catch-up with old friends in the Cincinnati area. The first thing he does when he comes to Oxford is go to Mac and Joes for wings. He misses 45 East and its "House Pasta." He can still remember his residence halls - McFarland, Flower, Hahne and Heritage Commons - and notices all the buildings that have changed or been added.
And, when Brooks got the call to be Miami University's commencement speaker he was as excited and nervous as anyone else would be.
"Out of all the things that I've accomplished, being the commencement speaker at Miami is probably top two," Brooks said.
Brooks has played in and won a Super Bowl. He's played in front of hundred of thousands in countless football stadiums and he's spoken in front of a couple hundred people, but he hadn't spoken in front of a football stadium filled with several thousand people.
"At first, I was like, 'Oh this is going to be easy, I can throw something together, it's no big deal,'" Brooks said. "But as time got closer I was like, 'This is commencement, man.'"
Brooks sat down with a speech writer four or five times to figure out how he was going to say everything he wanted to say. The seriousness with which he took his job as commencement speaker comes from a deep love for Miami.
"[Miami] showed me a completely different life. I thought success was one thing, then I came here and saw it on a much grander scale," Brooks said. "I was able to, I guess, more well-round myself. My dreams became broader. Some of the friends and connections you meet here can be life changing."
His love started like many other Miami students. After de-committing to Wisconsin University, Brooks was looking for a school with strong academics, a good football program and a social scene. He wanted something different, but wanted a school in the Midwest, close to his hometown of Milwaukee. When he visited Miami, he knew it was for him.
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"Just like everybody - it was fall, beautiful out there, icing on the cake was Brick Street and I was sold," Brooks said.
That love only grew, as it does, as the seasons changed. Academic semesters and football seasons came and went. He would be named to the second-team All-Mid-American Conference three of his four years. Brooks would win the MAC Championship in 2010 as a junior. He graduated from Miami in 2011.
He remembers how his commencement ceremony was set up at Yager Stadium (horizontally, not vertically as it was this year). Brooks can easily remember receiving his degree, one which he has come to learn holds a lot of weight. And, he's one of 200,000 alumni who still gets annoyed when people think he went to the University of Miami.
Students who graduated know they'll miss Miami's classic red bricks, and they realize they'll miss the organizations they've called home for their past four years, but Brooks confirms that it's the people you miss the most - not the campus, not the football program.
"[I miss] hanging out with the guys I played with," Brooks said, softly. "You don't realize that this is the only time of your life when you have responsibilities, but you don't yet, and all your close friends, even if you live on the other side of campus, are a 10-minute walk away."
During Brooks' commencement speech, you could tell he easily related to his audience on other levels. Not a person in the crowd could boast of being a Super Bowl Champion, and many likely couldn't say they're pursuing an M.B.A., but Brooks thanked his mom as many others would that weekend.
He spoke about the racial tension on campus and reflected on being an activist. He mentioned Beat the Clock at Brick Street. Brooks reminded the audience to dream big, to love and honor and to pursue unity with peers. He encouraged everyone to seek help when dealing with their mental health.
Brooks fits the mold of a Super Bowl Champion, but he more aptly fits the mold of a former Miami Student.
"The biggest thing is, I have a lot of pride for this school. I think it represents me well," Brooks said. "I've always been the underdog - whether it's the University of Miami versus Miami or you guys claim to be a public ivy, but not an ivy league school or even in the state, athletic-wise, where people are like, 'Oh, are you coming to a Miami game?' and they're like, 'No, we're going to Ohio State.' Shit like that, where it's always something. I feel like it really fit me."
In the spirit of graduation, new and old Miami alumni are often asked about what advice they would give to current students. When asked about what Miami students shouldn't do, Brooks advises to avoid the seal and to not drink underage Uptown.
"Oh!" he said as an afterthought. "Don't drink too many Trashcans at Brick Street, because they can be really bad for you."
Brandon Brooks will always be a former Miami student.