Apr 18, 2016

The End of Volleyball Is a New Beginning for Kat Brooks

Reporting Texas

Kat Brooks sits in front of her cubby in the volleyball locker room just as she would before each home game. "I still like to come in here sometimes," Brooks confessed, hanging up her uniform for display. Taylor Weese/Reporting Texas

Kat Brooks sits in front of her cubby in the volleyball locker room just as she would before each home game. “I still like to come in here sometimes,” Brooks confessed, hanging up her uniform for display. Taylor Weese/Reporting Texas

Kat Brooks can sleep past 5 a.m. She can eat Hot Cheetos whenever she wants. She can get her nails done on the weekends.

Her passion for volleyball took the place of those simple pleasures when she started playing the game 10 years ago. The former University of Texas volleyball libero’s last semester of college is her first as just a student.

“It’s extremely hard to let something like this go, but I’m happy,” said Brooks, a 22-year-old Hawaii native who is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in journalism. “This is the first time in my life where I haven’t had my schedule planned out for me. I can eat when I want, sleep in and plan without such rigid regiment.”

Brooks played 124 matches for the Longhorns as a libero, a position that specializes in defense. She and her senior teammates won four consecutive Big 12 Conference championships and advanced to a school-record four Final Four appearances. Brooks ended her volleyball career with 58 set aces, 136 assists and 609 digs.

Now, she’s finding peace in her departure from athletics.

Unlike many student-athletes, Brooks never intended to pursue her sport after graduation. Brooks says having this realization before she even got to the Forty Acres has helped her cope.

“I knew volleyball was going to end, and I didn’t want to prolong my transition from athlete to working professional longer than necessary,” Brooks said. “I always knew I needed to be good at things other than sports.”

For Brooks, volleyball started as a pastime when she was 11 years old growing up in Honolulu. It became more than just an after-school activity the summer before her freshman year at Punahou School, a private college prep school. Brooks was one of 50 players her age selected to attend a camp conducted by USA Volleyball. The invitation convinced her that a Division I athletic career was a possibility.

Her mother, Arlene Brooks, said she was nervous about Brooks’ being recruited, given the multitude of defensive specialists in the nation.

“We were extremely supportive, but we also knew there were a lot of really good 5-foot-4-inch liberos,” Arlene Brooks said. “But Kat always worked hard and earned a starting spot.”

Brooks entered the Texas volleyball program with her now fourth-year roommates, Amy Neal and Molly McCage. Neal, from Austin, was named 2011 Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year for the state of Texas. McCage, from Spring, was a Top 25 recruit. Brooks knew she had to prove herself, but that wasn’t her top priority.

For Brooks, the most important factor during the recruiting process was finding a school where she would not have to choose between academics and volleyball.

“I am not the type of person that can just wing a test,” she said. “I study very hard, but I know it’s worth it. I don’t understand why people would ever waste their opportunity to learn at one of the best universities in the world.”

Her passion in both the locker room and study hall was always clear to her teammates.

Neal said she was constantly impressed by Brooks’ efficiency and ability to get an A in almost all of her classes.

“Out of all the seniors, Kat was always the one focused on school first,” Neal said. “She got things done early, and she was so steady and organized.”

Brooks remembers a trip back to Austin after a game in Lubbock. She was exhausted. The trip was long. She had a history midterm the next morning. Because players are rarely excused from exams, she spent the flight home studying while her teammates slept. Brooks woke up the next morning and got an A on her midterm.

That’s just one of the many times Brooks had to deal with the consequences of a busy schedule.

Last season, she had class from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. She ate lunch with her team. She had practice from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., then went to the weight room to lift. She ate dinner with her teammates. Mandatory study hall lasted from 7 to 9 p.m.

The 13-hour days have paid off both on and off the court.

Brooks was named Academic All Big 12 First Team all three of the years she was eligible. She was also one of six UT student-athletes to receive the Dr. Gerald Lage Academic Achievement Award, the highest academic honor for the Big 12 Conference. Nominees are required to have at least a 3.8 GPA as well as 100 earned credit hours.

Brooks says the validations make the sleepless nights entirely worth it.

“I’ve really come to admire her,” Arlene Brooks said. “I could never have carried a full college load while playing volleyball and done so well at both.”

Her career over, Brooks can go shopping with friends and take classes that conflict with team practice times. For the first spring semester of her college career she can go out on a Thursday night because she doesn’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. on Friday mornings for an off-season workout. She’s not taking that for granted.

Brooks is enjoying the sleeping in and girls’ nights out. But the change in her life really sank in as the team’s first preseason match on March 26 approached — a game she would not be part of. She distracted herself by diving into preparation for the next phase in her life. Nothing is firm yet, but she’s considering an internship this summer in Austin before lining up something full-time in the fall.

“A lot of athletes say you die two deaths. That might seem dramatic, but the day you stop playing is kind of like losing a part of your identity. You identify yourself as an athlete for so long,” Brooks said. “I am always going to have that piece of me, but there is so much more of my life to live. And I’m ready.”