While most kids put their head on pillows and dream of NFL stardom, Jordyn Brooks tackled them instead.
Each night before bed, Brooks, then a young boy in Dallas, gathered every pillow inside the small apartment he shared with three siblings and a single mother, lining them up as offensive linemen between the bed and the wall. While wearing his pads, no shirt, Brooks would work through formations, hitting the gaps to make imaginary NFL plays.
"The pillows were his opponents," said his mother, Lynn, with a laugh. "He did that every day, nonstop."
That apartment was one of five different homes Brooks lived in as a child, the family just feeling fortunate to have one. His mother scrambled to keep the family afloat, eventually moving it from Dallas to Houston in hopes of a brighter future. Money was tight, but the way Brooks saw it, those pillows would be professional linemen one day.
Brooks might have been the biggest surprise of the first round in April's NFL draft. The Seattle Seahawks' top pick at No. 27 overall was not a consensus Day 1 player despite becoming a Butkus Award finalist for outstanding linebacker play at Texas Tech. At least one website that covers the draft even misspelled his name (Jordan instead of Jordyn), which is funny because the hospital attendants did the same thing on his birth records, according to the family.
But Brooks was hardly surprised by his story arc. He realized his football gift early in life, and he decided it would cleanse him of the financial struggles and trust issues that affected him.
"Realizing what we went through, I always told myself this is where I want to be," said Brooks, 22.
Lynn Brooks found herself with no income, no car and fresh off a separation from Jordyn's father, who Jordyn says wasn't always around for his formative years.
She didn't have a support group, but she had God, praying for unwavering strength for her kids.
"I had to act like it was OK," she said. "I was going into the room and in the closet and you can't hear me crying."
The family turned to Interfaith Family Services, transitional housing to help families in crisis. At the time, Brooks and twin sister Jasmyn were around 7, sister Tiya was 13 and another sister, Brianna, was 17.
Brooks referred to it as a shelter, but Lynn said it was more a mechanism to help families avoid shelters, aiding with job placement and goals of permanent housing after two years.
Brooks recalls sharing a bunk bed with Jasmyn, with a bed for Mom close by and a pull-out couch in the living room. The gates on the unit doors felt like protection from a suspect neighborhood.
The family enjoyed home-cooked meals of Italian or Mexican or chicken and mashed potatoes. Once a week, the after-school program at Interfaith had pizza, and Brooks said he was "always the first in line," looking forward to those slices all week. When he wasn't tackling the pillows, Brooks loved to freestyle rap over beats for his sisters in the kitchen and sneak Hot Cheetos and Honey Buns. The program included field trips for the kids and after-school programs.
With no car, Lynn would rely on a friend for transportation or take the bus to work. She started with Perot Systems in provider relations, eventually making about $15 per hour.
"It was hard," said Lynn, who now works in medical case management. "But I was never satisfied with accepting things. I made sure [the kids] made every minute count and always wanted more."
Brooks estimates the family spent about five years in hardship during his youth, relying on food stamps and a pair of K-Swiss shoes at Payless to get him through a chunk of the school year. Brooks recalls Interfaith taking the kids to Payless twice a year, and it was "sometimes embarrassing" to wear the shoes with the same few outfits, but he understood sacrifices had to be made.
"We could have been living on the street," Tiya said. "But [our mom] loved us enough to make sure we had a roof. I think that's another reason why Jordyn remains humble. He remains loyal to his friends, because they've been through poverty too."
Without the daily rides to football practice from local coach Trent Edwards, who still keeps in touch with the family, Brooks isn't sure he could have committed to the Pleasant Grove Falcons youth football team, which set the stage for his career. Brooks calls that a turning point. He long admired his mother's resolve and has mostly good memories of Interfaith, but he knew "this is not how we're supposed to be living."
Taking the field, even at a young age, expanded Brooks' playbook of possibilities. Lynn said he was "mesmerized by the game," and while other kids messed around on the sidelines between snaps, Brooks intently studied what the other team was doing.
"Those times made me want to go harder, take football a little more serious," Brooks said. "I wanted to get us out of that situation one day."
So the youngest of six kids started plotting his steps: Become a great all-around player so that when high school hits, you're ready for the scholarship.
This worked well when the family later moved to Houston around 2008. He became a standout running back at Stratford High School. Things slowly got better for the family too, which eventually moved into a house. Lynn had moved there for better job opportunities, a new start.
But Edwards recalls Brooks crying profusely when the family left Dallas. Brooks had found a football home, and the group of coaches "were like his father figures to him in a way," Edwards said.
Brooks cherished that emotional support. He always had a bond with his real dad in a football sense. His father, West Brooks, played at TCU in 1979 and 1980.
Whether playing running back or linebacker, the younger Brooks could set the pace with his strength and speed. But that football kinship didn't offset the absence of Dad. And as the only male in the house, Brooks says he felt the need to be strong, to have a plan.
Tiya says West Brooks was in Jordyn's life, visiting the kids and talking to them on the phone. Jordyn was quiet and immersed in football, and West was a quiet man too, leading to a lack of communication, Lynn said.
Edwards, who once ran the Falcons program, estimates that about 85% of his football players over the years had a single mother, and he noticed those kids were either reserved or the class clown type that sought attention. Brooks was very quiet -- until he got comfortable. "I do believe his [dad's] absence affected him a lot," Edwards said. "He was looking for that father."
West attended a few youth football games over the years, and the family says he saw his son play Big 12 football in person too.
"I never held anything against him. Our relationship is restored," Jordyn Brooks said.
Last offseason, shortly after the new Texas Tech staff, under Matt Wells, took over, coaches broke players into groups of 10 to spark conversation.
The goal: share stories, get to know teammates. Players were in a circle, and the usually quiet Brooks opened up. Word got around to coaches that Brooks had shared the difficulties of his past and that he was grateful to return for his senior season.
"I've had friends in the same situation as me and they didn't make it to this point," said Brooks of his trajectory. "I'm not lucky -- I'm blessed. So I was going to take advantage."
His new defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson, later asked Brooks what his goals were for 2019.
Make the All-Big 12 team, Brooks responded.
Patterson called him out for dreaming too small: With that size (240 pounds) and speed (sub-4.5 40), think first round, All-American. After the season opener, a ho-hum 45-10 win over Montana State, Patterson challenged Brooks to write down an evaluation of his play. He wrote four lengthy paragraphs on areas that needed improvement.
The two set a plan: Grind in study hall early in the week, work on becoming an NFL pro later in the week.
Months later, Brooks -- fresh off 20 tackles for a loss in 11 games -- walked into Patterson's office and pointed out that nearly everything he promised that offseason came true.
All that was left was the draft. "It took a while to develop trust, but once that happened, it took off," Patterson said. "Everything just clicked for him."
Patterson knew Brooks had first-round talent. Questions existed about his pass defense, to be sure. But Tech played Brooks as a quarterback spy for half the season out of necessity, said Patterson, to handle athletic dual-threat passers. That might have pigeonholed him as a run stopper. Patterson says Brooks could have played safety with his athleticism, and Seattle's Cover-3 defense is perfect for his range.
The Seahawks tried to trade back in the first round, like they always do, but when a deal with Green Bay fell through, they zeroed in on Brooks, the highest player on their board at the time. General manager John Schneider lauded Brooks' speed for his size, along with his leadership skills and love of football. Patterson had a good talk with a Seahawks national scout in the pre-draft process, and the team came away impressed with Brooks during his combine interview.
"I knew football was a way out, and I loved the game, and I needed to grow at every phase," Brooks said. "I had that chance at Texas Tech, and I'll be able to get that in Seattle."
After a flurry of phone calls on draft night -- including one from the game's best inside linebacker, new teammate Bobby Wagner, who called within minutes of the pick -- the magnitude of the moment became clear to Brooks.
His family will be forever changed, with a contract of nearly $12 million over four years on the way. For comparison, last year's No. 27 pick, safety Johnathan Abram, signed for $11.5 million, including $10.25 million guaranteed and a $6.38 million signing bonus.
But Brooks has to laugh when asked about how he might spend the money. He's admittedly a "cheap guy," implementing a needs-based spending plan that prioritizes groceries over eating out.
Since his past has taught him to plan, he knows step one involves a pretty sizable investment.
"I want to get [the family] one big house where they can all live together, not have to worry about bills," Brooks said.
Lynn believes her son's compassion will lead him to help others in his professional life too. She's always had a desire to help young families staving off homelessness, knowing firsthand how programs such as Interfaith help with safety and self-esteem.
She hasn't talked to Brooks about helping on such matters, but she's noticed "he definitely has a soft spot there. We never tapped into it, but I can see it," she said.
Brooks isn't planning too far ahead just yet. Grasping the Seahawks' defensive scheme over Zoom calls five hours per day is his current focus. But life is in a peaceful place. He'll move to Seattle sometime this summer, with visions of playoff wins and Pro Bowls.
This is the moment he's waited the better part of two decades to savor.
"It just made me a lot more humble, grateful for the things I do have," Brooks said. "I think going through everything at such a young age made me a better person."