BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
While players on both teams will no doubt be thinking about he health of former Razorback and current Tiger Greg Brooks, Jr., LSU and visiting Arkansas will do their best to get a win Saturday in what has been a competitive Battle for the Boot series lately.
It was revealed by his family on Wednesday that Brooks, a Louisiana native who played three seasons for Arkansas before transferring to LSU, had surgery last Friday for a brain tumor.
He missed LSU’s 41-14 road win at Mississippi State on Saturday due to what Tigers head coach Brian Kelly said at the time was a medical emergency.
Brooks, who had 186 tackles and 6 interceptions during his time at Arkansas, had suffered vertigo earlier in the season and it returned last week according to Kelly.
“Yeah, we were trying to find out what the symptoms were,” Kelly said Wednesday on the SEC Coaches Teleconference. “And he had another episode. He had dizziness again on Wednesday of last week.
“Finally we said enough’s enough and we got an MRI and that’s when the tumor was located. So the vertigo was just a symptom of what was obviously a larger issue.”
Brooks, whose family made the announcement of the tumor and surgery via a statement Wednesday morning on social media, told Kelly that wants to play later this season.
“Yeah, that’s so hard for me to even know what…there are so many unanswered questions,” Kelly said. “I don’t even know that I could even begin to give you the medical pieces relative to the surgery to even give you an educated answer to that.
“I saw him in the hospital on Sunday. You know, he was still coming out of a heavy sedation so we weren’t able to have a lucid conversation. I know before he went in, he was pretty clear about playing again this year, but that’s Greg Brooks.”
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman noted that he had reached out to Brooks’ family on Monday.
“Caring, loving, smiles all the time,” Pittman said of Brooks. “Competitive. Great teammate. Great person and family. That was easy by the way because that’s who he is. I was able to talk to Maw Maw on Monday, I guess it was. We’re just continuing to pray for him.
“In a nutshell, and I mean this with all my heart, he’s a wonderful, wonderful kid. And that didn’t change when he decided to go back to his home state of Louisiana. We have prayed and will continue to pray every day for his health.”
Pittman talked about the mindset the Razorbacks (2-1, 0-0) must have when playing at LSU (2-1, 1-0) Saturday night on ESPN at 6 p.m.
“You know, it’s amazing,” Pittman said. “You have to continue to play hard. You have to play in honor — just like LSU did last week — of Greg, and there’s certainly a big part of that on our team.
“We’re very competitive, we want to win and all that, but when tragedy is put in our life, we have to honor those times and that’s what we’re going to do. He was a wonderful teammate here, and I could not think of one negative thing to say about him or his family. It’s tough. Our kids know it as well. But all we can do is represent him in the way that we play.”
Pittman was asked if he might meet with Brooks or his family.
“I can’t really answer that right now because I haven’t spoke with Coach Kelly, and I want to make sure I overstep any type of boundaries there,” Pittman said. “I want to have high respect for them and their program as well. But if it’s at all possible…if I thought that it would help him, I certainly would do a lot of things.
“At this moment, I don’t have plans to see him, but I’m not telling you that we haven’t talked about it and that it’s not in the works.
Pittman shared a memory of Brooks’ pick-six interception off a pass from Mississippi State’s KJ Costello on the game’s first series during Arkansas’ 21-14 win in Starkville on Oct. 3, 2020.
It was the first win of Pittman’s Arkansas coaching career and ended Arkansas’ 20-game SEC losing streak, which dated back to a 38-37 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 28, 2017.
“There’s several,” Pittman said. “But the one thing that comes off the top of my head is we hadn’t won an SEC game in 20-something games, and we go to Mississippi State and Greg picks a pass for the first touchdown of the game and takes it all the way back for seven. It kind of sprung us into that win. I’ll never forget that and the look on his face after that pick-6.”
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Kelly is wary of an Arkansas team that lost 38-31 to BYU last Saturday at home.
“Certainly this week presents a great challenge from Arkansas, another SEC matchup and our first SEC game in Tiger Stadium so I know our guys are excited,” Kelly said. “It’s a rivalry game. It’s the Battle for the Boot, which is an annual trophy between both teams, started back in ’96.
“Both these teams certainly understand these games have been close and hard fought the last three games. I think there’s been a three-point difference in each game.
“The kids know each other, recruit against each other. Actually a couple of the players have played on each team. So there’s a great understanding of both programs. I have a great deal of respect from Coach Pittman and what he’s been able to bring to Arkansas: A toughness and physicality.
Their defense is playing really well in terms of their total defense and their rush defense.”
Kelly is impressed with Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson, who did not play in LSU’s 13-10 win in Fayetteville last season, but led the Razorbacks to a 16-13 overtime victory capped by Cam Little’s 37-yard field in Baton Rouge in 2021.
The Tigers won 27-24 in Baton Rouge in 2020.
“Again it’s led by KJ Jefferson, a three-year starter, you know 50-something plus touchdowns,” Kelly said. “A big, physical quarterback that brings a presence to the position.
“Outstanding running backs in (Rocket) Sanders and (AJ) Green, a very capable wide receiver corps and defensively they’ve got two of the top guys in terms of sacks in all of the SEC.
“So, looking at that, plus their special teams. They’ve got one of the best punt return guys and he returned a punt 88 yards for a touchdown against BYU.”
Kelly notes his team must bring the same edge to this Saturday’s game as it did the last.
“… We’re excited about playing at home at Tiger Stadium,” Kelly said. “But we have to play with the same kind of competitive edge we played with against Mississippi State. That’s college football. It’s can you do this consistently and that’s what we’ll be looking for from our team.”