University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Night of the Train

U of M student and Gopher football player Shannon Brooks was grappling with depression and overwhelming grief 18 months ago. Today he wants to share his mental health journey with others.

Photos by Itraeu Compton:

On a cold night in December 2019, Shannon Brooks, a University of Minnesota senior and a running back on the Gopher football team, was lonely, depressed, and desperately missing his mom, Sharon, who had recently passed away at the age of 43. Brooks had spent that evening freestyle rapping with friends in a studio. But even doing something he loved with people he loved didn’t buoy his spirits.

As he walked back to his apartment, Brooks couldn’t stop his brain from turning over all the losses that were piling up in front of him, including the end of his football career. From the time Brooks started playing football when he was in elementary school, the sport—and his outsize talent—had both defined him and put him on a path to a promising life. Now, at the end of his fifth season as a Gopher, he couldn’t see a future for himself.

“I was thinking, this is all I’ve been my whole life—a football player,” says Brooks, who is now 24. It’s late March and we are sitting in a sunny spot on the steps of Johnston Hall, looking out on a campus that, due to the coronavirus, is mostly empty. Brooks is a naturally enthusiastic person, who wants to honestly share the story of his life so far. But remembering that night, he looks down. “When football came to the end, I felt like I had to come to an end. It got that bad.”

Brooks says that after he left his friends and the studio, he walked along University Avenue. “I got so depressed and was overthinking,” he says. “I was freaking out about my future.” It was during this moment of jumbled emotions that Brooks decided to jump a high fence separating University Avenue from the nearby train tracks. He remembers saying to himself, “I want to be with my mom,” before running toward the side of a speeding train.

Suicide prevention and support

If you or someone you know is in crisis and in need of immediate assistance, the following resources can help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Throughout  Minnesota: call **CRISIS (**274747)

Crisis Text Line: is available for free, 24/7 by texting MN to 741741

The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386

Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline at 833-600-2670

A last-minute moment of hesitation may have saved his life, but the train hit him, hurling him high into the air and knocking out two teeth. Although he made it home on his own after the incident, he later passed out and was transported by ambulance to the hospital, where he remained for two days.

Today Brooks is the first to say he’s lucky to be alive. But he also wants people to understand that the miracle isn’t only that he survived a suicide attempt: Rather, it’s that he found a path beyond football, grief, and a challenging childhood filled with loss. Through telling the story of his struggles with mental health, he hopes he can motivate other people to care about theirs.

Brooks was born in 1996 and spent his early childhood in Atlanta. His dad, Andrew Evans, was in and out of the lives of Brooks and his older brother, Kalyn, who is now 25 and a Marine stationed in Texas. Brooks describes himself as a “mama’s boy,” and says his love for music comes in part from watching his mom Sharon freestyle rap herself when he was a kid.

But there were challenges. Sharon struggled with drugs and the young family bounced around from apartment to apartment. The stability in the boys’ life came mostly from their grandparents, Sharon’s mom and her dad, who is also a Baptist pastor. Brooks fondly remembers the family having Bible study on Wednesday nights and going to church on Sundays throughout high school. Today, he has a cross tattooed above the knuckle of his right index finger. He also wears a walnut-sized ring on the same hand from the 2019 Outback Bowl, when Minnesota defeated Auburn.

Brooks has a tattoo of his late mom, Sharon, on one arm, with the words, “Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.”

Hoping to create a more predictable life for her sons, Sharon moved the family an hour north to Pickens County, Georgia, when the boys were in middle school. That’s when people started to notice that the wiry kid with the sweet smile could move the football down the field.

The promise of this new beginning for his family fell apart when Sharon was arrested and sent to prison. “I don’t remember what she did or what happened, but I knew she was going to be away for a few years and at that point, we really had nowhere to go,” Brooks says. At first, the boys lived with Sharon’s boyfriend. Then they moved in with the family of a school buddy, whose mom was raising four boys on her own. Adding two more to the mix was a lot to handle.

Brooks missed the first day of seventh grade, which caught the attention of his new science teacher, Melissa Weeks. “As a teacher, it’s like, ‘Who doesn’t come on the first day?’” Weeks says today. “Everybody comes on the first day because they miss their friends, and they know they’re not going to do any real work or learn anything. Usually if there are attendance issues, those start popping up later. We weren’t sure if [the boys] had moved back to live with their grandparents because they had just moved to our school the year before.”

Brooks would make it to school on the second day, and Weeks says she felt an instant connection to him. “There was just something in him [where] I knew he needed somebody,” she says. She started giving him help at school to keep him on track academically. Then, that extra push turned into evening tutoring sessions. When Brooks was in eighth grade, Weeks asked Kalyn and Shannon to move in with her and, with Sharon’s blessing, she became their legal guardian.

Weeks was single and had no kids, and she’s honest that raising two teenage boys was a challenge at best. She says Brooks wasn’t always happy about her rules and expectations. But she and Sharon backed each other up. “If they were causing any kind of problems for me respectwise or not doing what they were supposed to, I could text Sharon or call her and she was on it,” Weeks says.

While Brooks doesn’t shy away from describing the turbulence of this time, he doesn’t remember being particularly depressed or anxious, although he says he had a “serious anger problem,” to the point of needing to take a special class to learn how to cope with his emotions. Football gave him a positive way to channel his intensity. “Probably one of my biggest addictions with playing football was just being able to go out there and compete and not get in trouble for it,” he says.

As a running back for the Pickens High School Dragons, Brooks helped the team advance to the regional playoffs for the first time since 2005. He played varsity all four years, scoring 68 touchdowns and rushing almost 5,800 yards in his high school career. He was named Class AAAA Offensive Player of the Year and was ranked as a three-star prospect by ESPN.

When Brooks was a senior, his coach told him that the University of Minnesota was interested in him and assured him it was a great opportunity to play in the Big Ten at a school that would also offer him an excellent education.

Brooks was a valued team member for the Golden Gophers from the start. “He would give me energy,” says Rodney Smith, a fellow Georgian and Gopher running back who now plays in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers. “We were waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, and he would walk in the building with a smile on his face, talking about playing a game or music. I love and admire Shannon’s positivity.”

Brooks adored being a Gopher. “It felt like family as soon I was on the team,” he says. “They brought me under their wings, even all the coaches that I’ve had —Coach Fleck, Coach Claeys, Coach Kill, and all my teammates. Even the alumni ... it’s true support. It’s true love.” Brooks would rush for 1,728 yards in his first three seasons. During his freshman year, he gained national attention when he scored a 71-yard touchdown against Purdue, avoiding a number of tacklers.

“Shannon’s personality can be contagious, and that’s a positive thing to have on a football team,” says Gopher’s Head Coach P.J. Fleck. “He was a leader on the field through his play and hard work, but he was also one of the biggest supporters we had —and that includes when [he] missed time with injuries.”

Brooks’s optimistic outlook would be tested in 2018. First, he tore his ACL. Then, in October, he was arrested for a fight with his male roommate. Brooks was never charged, but he says his mug shot was on the internet for anyone who searched for it to see.

At first, Brooks was able to take the ACL tear in stride. He’d been hurt in high school, too, and felt optimistic that with training and rehabilitation, he’d heal and play again. Then, Brooks received a phone call from a family friend, but he was in the training room and didn’t pick up. Later he listened to his voicemail and learned that Sharon had had a seizure and stopped breathing. She’d also suffered brain damage as a result. (Media reports say drugs may have been involved. Brooks says he has been told differ - ent accounts —some involved drugs, some didn’t —but he never was given a definitive explanation. “I just know she stopped breathing,” he says.)

The friend urged Brooks, who was then 21, to fly home immediately. But while he desperately wanted to be with Sharon, Brooks also knew that flying would make his knee swell. “I remember going home to my apartment and just crying and grieving,” he says. “But I was also [physically] hurt. I wanted to go see my mom, but I’d also just torn my ACL.”

After discussing his options with his coaches, Brooks decided he needed to go to Georgia to be with his mom. Standing at her bedside in the hospital, he and his brother made the gut-wrenching decision to take her off life support. “We didn’t want our mom to be a vegetable, just lying there,” he says. “She wouldn’t want that, either. So, we decided to pull the plug and let her rest.”

Looking back on it, Shannon says he now can see that Sharon’s death was the first of a cumulating pile of challenges that would lead up to what he now calls his “train incident.”

“I think what saved my life [at that point], honestly, is football,” he says about the next few months. “If I wasn’t playing football, there’s no telling what I’d [have been] doing.”

But while the football program remained a source of support and security while he continued to grieve, Brooks’s body was betraying him. During the first game of his senior year, against Indiana, Brooks tore his other ACL. “I start crying on the field,” he remembers. “I was thinking, ‘Man, I just lost my mom and tore my left ACL. Now I just tore my right one, the first game back after putting all that work in.’”

That disappointment gradually turned to despair during training for his fifth and final season, when he had a third ACL tear. Still, Brooks kept struggling on in order to support his team.

“He never gave up and always worked his way back,” says Fleck. “I think a lot of that had to do with his teammates and the responsibility he felt to them. He wanted to contribute to the team and help it work toward its goals.”

While Brooks was able to finish his final season, his anxieties were building. His good friend Rodney Smith didn’t see any warning signs of Brooks’s increasingly troubled outlook, he says, perhaps because Brooks generally is such a positive person. And Brooks’s surrogate mom Weeks was in Georgia and wasn’t able to gauge how he was faring.

“I don’t think I realized how low he’d gotten,” she says.

Running toward that train, Brooks says he experienced a last-minute moment of clarity. He began to turn, not realizing he was already dangerously close to the train. That’s when he says the train hit him in the head, knocking him to the ground.

Somehow, Brooks made it back to his apartment, where his roommates called 911. While he was able to walk to the ambulance, he passed out on the way to the hospital. When he came to, Coach P.J. Fleck and his wife, Heather, were at his bedside.

“My players are like my children,” Fleck says. “I felt love, compassion, and empathy. I felt nearly every emotion when I saw Shannon in the hospital.”

The football program would later connect Brooks with Carly Anderson, a psychologist who directs sport psychology services for the U of M Athletic Department. Brooks also began working with other therapists to help him process what had happened and why.

“Honestly, it helped,” Brooks says of his therapy. “Because they were there to listen and help me figure out what’s going on and gave me tips. And I took those things and still use them.”

The turning point in Brooks’s recovery happened during the time leading up to the Outback Bowl on January 1, 2020. While Brooks was injured and couldn’t play, he traveled to Tampa to be with the team.

“I was so lost,” he remembers. “But I’m a man of faith. The only person I could turn to at that moment was Jesus.” Brooks describes watching a sermon on YouTube where the pastor talked about asking God for a personal message and how, afterward, he received a text from a close friend, saying “I love you bro, you’re here for a reason.” The text from his friend linked to an article about another college football player who had died by suicide after stepping in front of a moving train.

The similarities to his own life stunned Brooks. He says he realized in that moment that his life after football would be dedicated to helping others who struggle with their mental health and who might also be suicidal.

Today, Brooks lives in Minneapolis with his girlfriend, Sadie Ernstmeyer (B.S. ’20). He is considering offers to coach high school football, having turned down an offer to play for an indoor football league in Boston. He has also started a new career as a motivational speaker, giving talks to high school students and young athletes about the importance of talking about mental health challenges.

“I really want to encourage athletes to share their stories,” Brooks says. “Their stories are going to relate to so many more people than just my story will. I just really want to spread that awareness because I know that’s my purpose.… If you really feel like you’re having problems, mentally, it’s so good to reach out and talk and go get help.” Brooks has also founded a group called Suicide Survivors. It’s a nascent nonprofit he wants to use to create a community and platform for young people to learn about mental health issues.

In addition to practicing his faith, Brooks maintains a regular exercise routine—when it’s warm outside, he loves to run by the Mississippi, otherwise he works out at the Los Campeones gym. But he says that a key component to maintaining his positive mental health comes from simply sharing his story and supporting other people who are struggling.

“Shannon is resilient,” says Rodney Smith. “No matter what he’s going through. He always wants the best for other people. And he would sacrifice himself for that. He loves to see people happy, loves to see people smile. He brings energy to the room.”

Brooks understands that his journey won’t always be easy. “Things are going to get hard,” he says. “Of course, things are going to get hard just because that’s life itself. Honestly, I’m thankful for what I’ve been through. It’s taught me so much and it’s opened my eyes so much. That’s the way I know I can live in peace.”

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the senior editor of Minnesota Alumni.

What is Mental Health?

Enjoying good mental health doesn’t mean being continually happy or never experiencing periodic sadness or situational anxieties. Instead, good mental health is generally characterized by aspects of well-being, from being able to feel joy and gratitude to experiencing a sense of meaning, purpose, optimism, and self-esteem. Good mental health means being able to positively cope with challenging situations such as temporary emotional upsets, or with feeling sad or confused or even lost for a time.

Psychologists and psychiatrists often use the Flourishing Scale to assess a person’s well-being. The scale was developed by Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and the University of Virginia. It weighs the subject’s response to these statements:

· I lead a purposeful and meaningful life.

· My social relationships are supportive and rewarding.

· I am engaged and interested in my daily activities.

· I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others.

· I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me.

· I am a good person and live a good life.

· I am optimistic about my future. People respect me.

“When I think about mental health, I think about it as a counterpart to physical health,” says Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, a U of M psychology professor. “Physical health is when your systems are all working well and your digestive system is working well, your cardiac system is working well, your motor system is working well. I think that’s similar to mental health. It’s when your mental systems are working well.”

Poor mental health, on the other hand, may reflect a temporary or longer-term lack of well-being or positive coping abilities.

Psychology professor Patricia Frazier (M.A. ’84, Ph.D. ’88), who specializes in trauma and resilience, says that today, mental health professionals are increasingly viewing mental health as a spectrum. “There’s the example of social anxiety, which can range from mild discomfort to really debilitating anxiety that rules your life,” she says. “So, we’re all somewhere on that dimension.”

The term mental illness, although it also reflects a state of disordered mental health, is generally used to refer to longerterm, clinically diagnosable mental issues, which might include chronic depression, uncontrollable anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more.

Many mental illnesses can be effectively treated with medication and support. Others are lifelong conditions, known as “severe and persistent” mental illness.

The Benefits of Talk Therapy

Treating a mental disorder or illness is a highly specific process that takes many factors into account, including a patient’s willingness to work on their challenges. Both medication and psychotherapies are effective and complement each other. But while pharmaceutical companies spend an estimated $5 billion a year marketing medications to treat mental health problems, research shows that psychotherapies are as or more effective than medication. For example, the American Psychological Association says these are the most effective forms of psychotherapy to treat depression. 

Behavioral therapy focuses on the relationship between behavior and mood to target current problems and symptoms and focus on changing patterns of behavior that lead to difficulties in functioning.

Cognitive therapy entails modifying pessimistic evaluations and unhelpful thinking patterns with the goal of disrupting these and reducing their interference with daily life.

Cognitive behavioral therapy targets current problems and symptoms and focuses on recognizing the relationship between behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, and changing patterns that reduce pleasure and interfere with a person’s ability to function optimally.

Interpersonal therapy focuses on improving problematic relationships and circumstances that are most closely linked to the current depressive episode.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines strategies of cognitive therapy with mindfulness meditation to modify unhelpful thoughts and develop a kinder, more loving self-view.

Psychodynamic therapy focuses on unconscious thoughts, early experiences, and the therapeutic relationship to understand current challenges, improve self-awareness, and support the patient in developing more adaptive patterns of functioning.

Excerpted with permission from the American Psychological Association.

College and Mental Health

Given that half of all mental disorders emerge by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24, the college years are a key time when it comes to a person’s mental health. “When kids go off to college and they’re going to go into a dorm, enormous changes take place,” says Sue Abderholden (M.P.H. ’80), executive director of the National Association of Mental Illness of Minnesota (NAMI-MN.) “You have to do your laundry. You have to manage money. You have to manage your time. You might be away from home and so your safety net is gone. You are trying to make new friends. It’s a whole lot of change that’s happening at once. For some kids, they can thrive on it; for others, it’s a really difficult time.”

For all students, the Covid-19 pandemic added more stress to the college experience. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 18- to 24-year olds reported higher levels of suicidal thinking during the pandemic months—more than any other age category—and they rated their general mental health as “low.” Abderholden attributes this to a number of factors, including the longevity of the pandemic and the loss of jobs that paid tuition and living expenses.

To support students during college years, Abderholden recommends parents make a proactive plan with their kids before college even starts. That includes signing release forms with doctors and mental health providers and school counseling services that allow parents to be in the loop when a child older than 18 needs help. And before the semester starts, research what services are available on campus.

Preventing Suicide

When it comes to preventing death by suicide, talk matters. “There is a myth that people feel that if they ask someone about their risk for suicide, that question will give that person the idea to go ahead and kill themselves,” says Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, a U of M psychology professor who researches self-harm, suicide, and depression in adolescents. “But without asking the questions, it’s really hard to know what’s going on in somebody else’s mind and to know how we might be able to offer a hand in supporting them.”

Klimes-Dougan says it’s important not to agree to a person’s request that you not tell anyone else that the individual is potentially suicidal. “You want to convey that you would want to keep their information private but that your care for them would supersede [that request],” she says. “You can’t make that promise because if they are in a dire situation, you want to be able to reach out and get support from other sources, such as a hotline or mental health facility, an emergency room, or even calling the police or first responders if it is an emergency.”

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