Sunday, February 18, 2001

'Deadbeat dad, can I have your autograph?'

Fans ignore Brooks' trouble off the field

        James Brooks sat at a metal folding table, his back to the door, signing his name to posters, pictures and little plastic Bengals helmets. A guy to his left collected the customers' tickets; a guy to his right handed him pens.

        Autograph shows are soulless productions at best, and this one was no different. People paid $8 for Brooks' signature, got it, then quietly shuffled out, heads lowered, as if at a viewing.

        What would you do?

        You have a program from Super Bowl XXIII, the last time the Bengals were any good. Tim Krumrie has signed it. So has David Fulcher. You've got Eric Thomas on there, too, and Barney Bussey will be at the show tomorrow. James Brooks, the Bengals' all-time leading rusher, is here today.

        And yet ...

        This is a man who owed $110,000 in support payments to two of his children, by different women. He spent three years in London, avoiding that. When he came back to the States in the fall of '99, they arrested him at the airport. Two Novembers ago, Judge Steven Martin sentenced Brooks to three months in jail and told him to get a job. Brooks belonged in the deadbeat dad hall of fame.

        This is also a man who has a right to make a living. James Brooks is trying to manage, to maintain, to hold on. He wants the next 10 years of his life to be better than the last 10. That's all.

        Brooks was also, pound for pound, the best football player I've ever seen. On Sunday afternoons, James Brooks had as much character as anyone.

        What would you do?

        We struggle with this now, as athletes stray further from civility and their wealth and fame put them in a zone most of us neither inhabit nor understand. It's tough to be a fan when we know so much about the people in charge of our affections.

        “I have a hard time getting an autograph from a player who in my opinion is not a very good human being,” said Chris Bryson. Yet Bryson, 31, stood in Brooks' line, clutching a Super Bowl program and a Bengals mini-helmet. Bryson was also wearing a Green Bay Packers' baseball jacket, an irony he grasped immediately.

        “Would I get Mark Chmura's autograph?” Bryson asked. A Wisconsin jury just acquitted the former Packers tight end on sexual assault charges involving a 17-year-old high school girl. “If they'd found him guilty, no,” Bryson said. “Even now, I'd be hesitant.”

        There is something creepy about paying for the signature of a man who ignored his children. Or maybe there isn't. Brian Wise had Brooks sign a photo of the halfback, taken with Brian's two sons 11 years ago. The younger son was 2 when the picture was taken.

        “Any guilt?” I ask Wise.

        “We've got to learn to forgive,” Wise said. “James made mistakes. He's making good on it. I won't judge him.”

        Well, OK. You can't blame Brooks for signing $8 autographs. You can't fault the public for wanting them.

        Brooks was to appear be tween 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday. By 4, there was no line. I asked for a few minutes of his time; Brooks declined.

        The best back in Bengals history ignored one of his most fundamental duties, being a father to his children. These people standing in line: Do they know this? Should it matter?

        Brooks gave them pleasure on Sunday afternoons. Is that enough?

        Beats me. I don't know what to make of it. Except, ultimately, this: Admire athletes for what they do. Not who they are.

        Athletes aren't role models. They need role models. You wonder how James Brooks' script might have changed, if he'd had a few. But you don't have to like who Brooks is to enjoy how he played.

        The signature is for the football memories. Skip the rest.

        E-mail: Past columns at

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