‘Get back up the best way you can’: U.Md. grad delivers commencement speech on facing paralysis

30-year-old Damon Brooks was chosen by his peers to give the student speech at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism commencement ceremony. (Courtesy Merrill CollegeUMD YouTube)

Goucher College freshman Damon Brooks was days away from turning 19 when a wrestling accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Brooks, now 30, landed head first when another student grabbed him and threw him. The head trauma from the 2012 accident affected his memory and focus, as well.

While what happened shaped his life in ways he never expected, it didn’t stop him from crossing the stage on Monday, graduating from the University of Maryland’s journalism school.

Chosen by his peers, Brooks gave the student speech at the commencement ceremony, which started and ended with a standing ovation.

“I haven’t cried yet, but I feel it coming soon,” Brooks said, describing the ovations he got as “overwhelming.”

His paralysis, he said during his speech, was a “life-changing adversity” and his “introduction of being uncomfortable.”

It was during his rehabilitation that he discovered his love of writing and decided to switch his major.

“While I lost my mobility, I found something. I found my voice,” Brooks said.

The one-time college basketball player started covering sports, interning with USA Today last year. This summer, he landed an internship with The Washington Post.

“Sometimes, you can’t control what knocks you down in life,” Brooks said. “Staying down is a choice. But what we can control is our attitude, our impact on others, and our ability to keep pressing forward despite the circumstances.”

During his time away from school, Brooks worked on sharpening his memory.

“I had to work on my memory, be able to focus for long periods of time,” he said, adding that he had to improve his speech again.

Writing was his way of recovering mentally, he said. Expressing his feelings and emotions was both enjoyable and a solace, which brought him into journalism.

“It’s helped me a lot because obviously I’ve seen things that most of my classmates, my peers, have not seen,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of traumatic experiences that they’ve never encountered, and I hope they never encounter.”

He said what happened to him put things in perspective and completely changed his mindset.

“I just want to be a positive person in the community,” Brooks said.

His long-term goal would be to cover the NBA Finals and the Super Bowl. But for now, he just wants to find a job.

“When life knocks you down, don’t lie down,” he closed out his speech. “Get back up the best way you can. Terps for life.”

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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