WASHINGTON Ahmad Brooks opened the front door to his parents' house and stepped into a haze.
There was a pot burning on the stove. The water had long since evaporated, and the kitchen had filled with smoke. There were turkey sausages on the counter that had never been put into the pot.
He went upstairs expecting something terrible and found it: His father, Perry Brooks, a former Washington Redskins defensive tackle, lay stricken on the floor.
Brooks' death last year at age 55 shook the Woodbridge, Va., community outside of Washington, D.C., where Brooks worked at a Nissan dealership and a barbershop and where the friendly ex-player reminded fans of better days. He had played on two of the team's Super Bowls squads in the early 1980s.
For Ahmad, his father's passing triggered an awakening. Ahmad's talent always had suggested NFL stardom, but he had failed to realize those dreams while his father was alive.
"I think the death of his dad really caused him to reflect a great deal," said Bill Brown, Ahmad's high school coach. "He knows what his dad's expectations were for him. And he knows he had not met those expectations that we all had for him. They were high expectations, and I don't think they were unrealistic."
Today the prodigal son returns with new focus on his career and a real hunger for this game in particular. The Redskins might play here, but to Brooks, FedEx Field is his birthright.
"I grew up in that area, so I feel like FedEx is my field," he said. "That's the team I grew up watching. That's the team my daddy played for. So I feel like it's my team more than theirs. So when I step on the field, I'm going to tell them boys that: 'This is my field.' "
Brooks could do it all as a prep
Perry Brooks had two sons.
Perry Jr. funny, vivacious, outgoing like his dad was a star player at Hylton High School. One day he told Brown about younger brother Ahmad, then an eighth grader.
"He said, 'When you see my brother, you're going to see someone special,' " Brown said. "Of course, every brother says that."
In this case, it was true.
Ahmad, quieter and more serious than his dad and older brother, was a 6-3, 180-pound freshman. By the eighth game of the season, he was starting on the varsity.
Brown said Ahmad Brooks is the only boy he has coached who could have played any position on the field. As a sophomore, he lined up at the disparate positions of wide receiver and middle linebacker, and he finished that season with 202 tackles.
Brown recalled a sequence in a playoff game in which Ahmad stopped an opponent's late drive with an interception. On the next play, he fooled the rival cornerback with a double move and caught a touchdown pass that won the game for Hylton.
Before Brooks' junior season, Brown moved him to running back. During a scrimmage, Brooks broke free on a 60-yard run. One tackler couldn't bring him down, so another joined in. When Brooks still didn't fall, a third boy entered the fray and ended up breaking Brooks' ankle.
He sat out the season. That began a pattern of trouble that would continue in college and the NFL.
"As long as Ahmad was in there playing, as long as he was involved, everything was fine," Brown said. "The minute he gets hurt and he gets away from it, he didn't deal with it well. I think he got distant from what was important. I think he'd be the first to tell you that."
Virginia career had ups, downs
Virginia beat out Florida State, Tennessee and Virginia Tech to land Brooks, USA Today's national Defensive Player of the Year following his senior season.
He became the centerpiece in coach Al Groh's 3-4 defense. Groh used him as an inside linebacker on base downs and at outside linebacker in passing situations. Groh had coached pass rushers such as Andre Tippett, Lawrence Taylor and Willie McGinest in the NFL, and he said Brooks fit nicely in that lineage.
"For a while there, he was our kickoff return man," Groh said. "Imagine a man of that size returning kickoffs. There were a lot of guys who were quickly dissuaded from tackling him."
But there also were problems.
Charges of marijuana possession in 2003 were dismissed after he completed requirements of his probation.
In 2005 a knee injury marred his junior season. Brooks returned from that injury, but more violations never divulged by Groh or Virginia led to Brooks being dismissed from the program in 2006.
If Brooks had entered the draft following his sophomore season, when he was a Butkus Award finalist as one of the nation's best linebackers, he would have been a first-round pick.
Concerns about drug use, his weight and his commitment caused him to fall to the third round of the supplemental draft to the Bengals.
Brooks started five games at middle linebacker for Cincinnati in 2006. He suffered a torn groin in the second game the next season and got into more trouble, including an assault charge in Northern Kentucky, and the Bengals waived him before the 2008 season.
The 49ers, one of the teams that had shown the most interest in Brooks during the supplemental draft, claimed him. But even then, Brooks' place in the NFL was tenuous.
Mike Nolan wanted to cut him during the season, but general manager Scot McCloughan refused. Nolan was fired later that year and replaced by Mike Singletary.
Brooks didn't play a snap in 2008. He showed up the following offseason overweight and out of shape but still managed six sacks as a third-down pass rusher.
After his father's death, however, Brooks began to emerge from his haze. And this year, he committed to realigning his career with his destiny.
An offseason of dedication
Instead of returning home to Virginia as he had in previous offseasons, Brooks moved to Atlanta and hired a trainer.
His offseason of atonement included placing a phone call to Groh "He wanted to let me know that he was working hard, that he was taking advantage of his opportunity," Groh said and driving 6 1/2 hours by himself to Angie, La., where his father is buried.
The rest of Brooks' family had gathered there Dec. 4 to mark Perry Brooks' birthday. The 49ers were in Green Bay that weekend, and Brooks couldn't attend.
So he went alone.
"It is true when you hear that saying, you don't know what you have until it's gone," Brooks said. "It's like, damn, it's still unbelievable that my father's not with me, but at the same time, it's reality, man. It's life. I didn't want to face it. Now I have to."
Said Perry Jr.: "He felt like he really didn't show (our father) everything when he was here. My father died for a reason, for a lot of reasons, and one of those reasons was helping his little boy become a man."
Brooks has started every game this season, and he's one of a handful of 49ers defenders who have played all but a handful of snaps.
Brooks is the player who broke Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's rib and deflated his lung in Week 2. Last week against Cleveland (minus his helmet), he slammed into quarterback Colt McCoy, one of his four sacks this season.
A picture of that play "Doesn't even have his eyes closed, either," coach Jim Harbaugh gushed was hung in the team's meeting room last week, symbolic of Brooks' importance to the 49ers this season.
"I want to be one of the top outside linebackers, one of the top pass rushers," Brooks said. "I want to have somebody one day say, 'Man, that guy Ahmad Brooks was good. He was a beast.' "