Some Payson High School student’s wiped tears from their eyes, others sat with their mouth agape, listening in shock to Kevin Brooks sobering tale Wednesday afternoon. Brooks, a vibrant, well-spoken, enthusiastic 30-year-old, sat motionless from the chest down in a wheel chair.
When Brooks was 21 years old, he killed a longtime friend and paralyzed himself in a drunk driving accident.
Hoping to prevent students from making the same tragic and preventable mistakes he did, Brooks, a Canadian, travels North America recounting the fateful night that changed two families’ lives.
“As young people, we don’t think ahead,” he said. “We don’t think about the consequences.”
From the age of 12, Brooks said, he had always been a rambunctious child, hanging out with older friends and doing stupid stuff, like smoking cigarettes. By eighth grade, he was smoking weed, drinking and perfecting his party guy persona.
Skip a few years and Brooks said he was doing more partying, drinking and now driving when he drank.
On the eve of the crash, Brooks, then 21, attended his little sister Haley’s dance recital and a photo was taken of Brooks and his two sisters standing — this would the last photo taken of Brooks standing alongside his family.
“I never saw it coming,” he said, “I never thought it would be the last time.”
After the recital, Brooks headed off to a house party where he met up with a longtime hockey friend, Brendan, who was 20 at the time.
After drinking at the first party, Brooks decided he wanted to head over to another party.
He got into his red Chevy Cavalier and started driving, not thinking twice about the fact that he was already impaired.
“I was a crazy driver when I was sober,” he joked.
After attending another party, Brooks stopped by his dad’s house and picked up more alcohol. When he walked back to his car, Brooks said he stopped and stared at his car and a voice told him to stay home.
“We can listen or ignore it,” Brooks said of that little voice, “I ignored it.”
Brooks hopped in his car, left his dad’s house and headed off to another house party.
“I don’t even remember being at that party,” he said.
Friends told him later that he left around 3:30 a.m. with Brendan.
“Once you make that choice there is no going back,” he said. “But it is human nature to think that it will never happen to you.”
Brooks guessed he probably sped down the road, going 70 or 80 mph in a 50 mph zone.
“I was excessively speeding and drunk,” he said. “There was factor, factor, factor when you add it all up.”
Brooks rounded a corner he had made hundreds of times, but instead of turning, his vehicle went straight, hitting a curb, launching into the air, rolling several times and landing on its roof.
Brooks hung from his seat belt severely injured with a collapsed lung and a dozen other injuries. Brendan had hit his head.
“We can make a choice so fast and the consequences last a lifetime,” Brooks said. “When I got into a car, I always wore my seat belt and that saved my life.”
Brooks only learned the details of the crash when a student attended one of his talks and told his mother about it. She was one of the paramedics that pulled Brooks out of the car.
After being cut out of the car, Brooks was taken to the hospital and his family was called.
“Your family never wants to get that call for you,” he said to the PHS student body.
“When they got to the hospital, they were not prepared for what they saw,” he said. “I had swelled up to double my size.”
When Brooks finally woke up, his first memory since leaving the party, he could not move or talk.
“I tried to yell but I could not,” he said. Unaware of where he was or what had happened, Brooks became terrified and started pulling tubes from his body.
To prevent him from injuring himself more, doctors strapped Brooks to the bed.
“I still tried to pull myself out, even with my shoulders mangled.”
As Brooks finally improved, he was weaned off pain medicine and was finally able to think cohesively.
“No one told me what had happened at that time,” he said.
Brooks first question to his mother was why couldn’t he move. She told him he was paralyzed.
For Brooks, a snowboarder, skateboarder, surfer, runner and all around active person, this was devastating news.
“I started freaking out, I tried to wiggle my toes,” he said.
Later, Brooks asked if anyone was in the car with him. His mother told him Brendan was and had died.
“I didn’t see that one coming, I couldn’t even comprehend my friend dying,” he said. “I didn’t even remember him in the car. It hit me that I had ruined his family’s life.”
”It is hard to describe the feelings of how that felt.”
At Brendan’s funeral, Brendan’s family asked everyone to say a prayer for Brooks’ recovery.
“That support gave me a huge boost,” he said.
The weeks and years following his recovery, Brooks said he often thought about suicide.
“I didn’t think I deserved to live,” he said. “I thought about quitting, but couldn’t do it. The thought, ‘I want to live’ kept going through my head.”
When his friend Jordan killed himself (in an unrelated incident), Brooks said it was a wake up call.
“His funeral hit me so hard,” he said. “I saw it and realized it could be my own. I thought then that I would never quit on life.”
Through a tremendous struggle, Brooks finally learned to breathe on his own and recovered mobility in his arms.
“The smallest things in life were like mountains to climb,” he said of his recovery. “My little sister Haley is my motivation.”
Years after the crash, Brooks said it has taken a long time to forgive himself.
When he calls Brendan’s family, they continue to offer their support and have never once blamed him.
At the conclusion of his talk, Brooks asked students to take a moment to appreciate the day.
“It is a gift that we sometimes take for granted,” he said. “Appreciate the people who love you and who you love.”
After listening to Brooks’ story in near silence, the entire auditorium stood and applauded.
Later on his Web site, Brooks blogged about the event.
“One student stood up, then another, then a few others, and then the rest followed. I received a loud and lengthy standing ovation that absolutely made my day!”
Student council secretary Michelle Daniels said she would definitely think twice when driving in the future.