The number was 33.
Until June 30 — the night Eric Brooks was shot to death at age 18.
Now, it’s 34.
And Spring Mountain football coach Aaron Masden despises it.
“I no longer want to continue to count the number of players that have played for us over the last 13 years that are in prison or dead,” Masden told his team during a prepractice meeting Tuesday afternoon. “The only real statistic I keep, that matters to me is that number — 34 … I’d like to freeze it for the rest of my time here.”
Masden and the rest of the Spring Mountain community are grieving the loss of Brooks — a former star player for the Golden Eagles — while preparing a new group of players to defend the program’s first state championship.
They’ll open their season Friday against Joshua Springs (California) with heavy hearts and Brooks’ No. 9 on their helmets to remind them of the greatness they hope to achieve and their own mortality.
“Somebody just like you a year ago was sitting in the same seat that you are focused on the same things you are,” said Masden, referring to Brooks. “I’m going to make another challenge for this team, that nobody ends up in prison or dead way too early.”
Spring Mountain is a correctional facility that sits atop Mount Charleston for males from ages 12 to 18 who need a little bit of guidance and whole lot of discipline.
Residents are sentenced by the Clark County Juvenile Court Judge and typically serve six-month terms. They can participate in athletics before their release into their home community, and Spring Mountain offers football, basketball, baseball, track and field, wrestling and boxing.
All the sports feature disciplinary components that serve to help their participants, who usually play one season with their team before leaving.
Brooks arrived at the camp last summer and joined Masden’s team, where he emerged as a star quarterback and defensive back — a dual-threat QB with game-breaking ability and a rover in the secondary with a high football IQ.
He guided the Golden Eagles to the Class 1A state championship in November, accounting for 10 touchdowns and 595 yards of offense in a 68-46 upset of Pahranagat Valley that ended the Panthers’ national eight-man record 104-game winning streak.
Coaches and teammates respected Brooks’ athletic ability and said he was good enough to play at most schools in the valley.
But his charisma and leadership reverberated up and down the roster and powered Spring Mountain’s championship run as much as his right arm.
“On that field, we became a family,” said Damariyae Royal, one of Brooks’ favorite targets and Spring Mountain’s lone returning player.
“It’s funny because I feel like I’m in the same position that he was in (as a leader) … It’s kind of ironic. When I was down, he built me up. He did that to everybody. When you were around him, you couldn’t be mad. He was always positive. He was an older brother to me, and I respected that.”
Masden doubled as Brooks’ case worker and developed a strong relationship with him. He said Brooks had drawn some recruiting interest from Mesa (Arizona) Community College.
“He was a leader. Leaders lead because they command respect,” Masden said. “You get to that point by not only your performance but how you treat others.”
Masden offered to stay in touch with Brooks when he left Spring Mountain, but never heard from him and shifted his attention to the rest of the kids. The coach was vacationing in Alaska when he received texts from co-workers confirming Brooks’ death, for which no arrests have been made.
He’s still “crushed and devastated.”
“We all know that’s a reality for the population we’re working with up here, but for it to happen so suddenly after so many positive things really kind of is devastating,” Masden said. “It hurts.”
But he’s excited for the season and sees it as a time to heal. Masden recruited a new crop of players from the 100 or so males at Spring Mountain and started practicing last month.
Athletic director Ed Chltenham, who has worked at Spring Mountain since 1980, said last year’s state championship had a tremendous impact on the internal and external perception of the program.
“The mentality (used to be) you couldn’t win anything,” he said. “(Now), we’re feared, north and south, in our division … That impact that (Masden) has had on the kids, and winning that state championship, that’s turned this program around.”
The players are well aware of the freshly minted legacy and eager for the chance to add to it.
They know about Brooks, too, and Masden isn’t shying way from the tragedy.
“I’m just trying to find ways to discuss (his death) with our guys so that they can learn from it,” he said. “Eric can have a positive legacy in the football program, but an impact on other kids like him, it should be to ‘Learn from my mistakes.’”
Masden spoke at length about the No. 34 during his speech Tuesday and reinforced that it’s the only number he tracks.
He doesn’t care about the yards, first downs, interceptions or touchdowns.
He doesn’t even count the victories since he took over the program.
Just the No. 34.
And for as much as he hates that number, he takes pride in the 166 of his 200 players who are still alive and not in prison.
“One hundred percent of our players and our kids in our program are on that path — prison or death,” Masden said. “Eighty-three percent that I know of, that we’ve coached, haven’t gone that route. I think it speaks long term to the message we’re teaching.”
Contact reporter Sam Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.