It’s been a difficult few months for the athletics family at South Charleston High School.
John Messinger, the former football coach who led the Black Eagles to back-to-back Class AAA championships in 2008-09, died in November. In late March, Cathy Casto, wife of SC athletic director Bryce Casto, passed away.
Then on Friday, one of the integral parts of the Black Eagles’ run to consecutive state football titles, lineman Blake Brooks, died at age 29. Brooks also played at Marshall for three seasons.
Brooks, who won the Hunt Award as the state’s top prep lineman in 2009, is the fourth key figure from SC’s championship teams to die, following Messinger, quarterback and Kennedy Award winner Tyler Harris and lineman Richard Campbell.
Last season, Brooks joined the coaching staff at Capital as a volunteer assistant, working with the offensive and defensive linemen. Cougars coach Jon Carpenter said Brooks showed promise in his first year on the sideline.
“I told him at the end of the year that he was going to be one of those rare guys,’’ Carpenter said, “because not many great players become great coaches.’’
Carpenter said Brooks, an imposing 300-plus-pounder known for his smile and friendly manner, knew when to be easy-going and when to crack the whip.
“He was just such a big and kind person,’’ Carpenter said, “but man, he could get a lot of fire in his belly. He expected people to be excellent and he would teach them that.
“I remember that first week, I told him I didn’t know whether he was playing or coaching because he got into it. He was out there sweating and running around. He was on his way to being a great coach.’’
Donnie Mays, South Charleston’s current coach, was an assistant on the 2008-09 title teams. Mays’ first season with the Black Eagles came in 2006 when Brooks was a freshman offensive lineman and he was coaching the offensive line.
Mays took time Friday to share one of his favorite memories of Brooks, one of those trips when he took his offensive linemen to Quaker Steak & Lube for all-you-can-eat wings feast on Tuesdays.
“We talked about the games,’’ Mays said, “and then we got off talking about football and talked about things we’re doing in life and having fun. But the fondest memory I have of Blake is the night we did the Atomic Wing Challenge.
“Blake hated hot stuff, but we talked all of them into the taking the challenge. At the count of three, we’d all get a wing and do it at the same time. When everybody bit in, Blake didn’t because he wanted to see everybody’s reaction. Well, the first 15 seconds or so it’s not horrible because it hasn’t set in, so he takes a big bite and chews it up and swallows. Then he starts sweating profusely and we were all laughing at the table.
“Now he’s sweating and crying all over the place, and he went looking for something to drink but I told him, ‘Don’t drink water because it increases the heat.’ He’d never eaten something that hot before. So he gets a pitcher of milk from the server, but his lips are numb and he misses his mouth and milk is running all over his shirt.
“He looked like a 2-year-old eating baby food, and everyone was laughing so hard. That’s one of the things that stuck out to me, and that’s the kind of fun we had.’’
Mays also talked about the bond that was struck between Brooks and Messinger, an old football lineman himself who, like Brooks, was a dedicated weight lifter. Messinger, following his retirement as SC coach, opened the Holley Strength System training and conditioning gym in Charleston in 2015.
“They had that relationship that was very special,’’ Mays said, “and you could see it. It was genuine and it was special. He would look at John like a dad, and John would look at him like a son. It was a relationship a lot of kids would love to have.’’