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His biggest goal: help team reach Arena playoffs



TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Duane Brooks of the Portland Thunder makes a move against an onrushing defender. Brooks leads the Arena Football League in kickoff returns for touchdowns this season with five.Duane Brooks has had a coming-out party as a kickoff return for the Portland Thunder.

Parties on back-to-back weekends, actually.

Brooks has been the life of the party in consecutive losses by the second-year American Football League team. He returned one kickoff for a touchdown at home against the San Jose SaberCats and then ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns in last week’s 52-40 road loss to the previously winless Los Angeles KISS.

With five TD returns this season for the 3-7 Thunder, Brooks is two off the AFL record with eight regular-season games to go.

Portland’s next game is 7 p.m. Friday at Moda Center against the 8-2 Arizona Rattlers, three-time defending league champs.

The secret to his runs to daylight indoors on the smaller AFL field?

“Just hard work and execution,” says Brooks, a 5-10, 185-pound jitterbug. “I try to read the holes the guys give me and do what I can.”

Pressed for a more detailed answer about what separates a good kickoff returner from a great one, Brooks says numerous things go into it.

“It’s a combination of speed, vision and God-given talent,” he says. “I was blessed with the ability to elude defenders and avoid tackles. Not necessarily break tackles, but just get out of the way of guys. I’m kind of slightly built, I’m not the biggest guy in the world, so I’m not a big target. I have pretty good body control and do a good job of keeping guys off me.

“It’s extremely difficult to take a kick back in any league, but especially in the Arena Football League, where you’re confined between walls. But as long as you’ve got help from the other seven guys in front of you, that gives you a chance.

“You have to get a clean kick and be able to have clean vision. That’s the biggest key part of it.”

BROOKSBrooks is still relatively new to returning kicks. He played quarterback throughout high school and went to Central Michigan as a QB. There, Brooks became a receiver, but he did not start returning kicks until he transferred to Stephen F. Austin in Texas his junior season.

“I felt like I hit my ceiling at Central Michigan,” Brooks says. “All the pieces that were in play were going to be in play for my next few years to finish my career there. I wanted a bigger role. I came from playing quarterback, where I had my hand in controlling the game, to playing receiver, where you have to rely on other guys to get the ball and do the things you want to do. I finished that season with about 30 catches. I was the third-leading receiver. The guys in front of me had 98 and 107 catches. To have a 68-catch gap was kind of awkward. I felt like I needed to get out of there and make plays.”

After his collegiate career, Brooks played for a time with the Colorado Ice of the Indoor Football League. In 2013, he joined the AFL Spokane Shock, where he caught 35 passes for 316 yards and six touchdowns. Last season with the Thunder, Brooks had 60 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns.

Brooks’ receiving game was spotty for the Thunder, and on April 23 the team put him on its “recallable reassignment” list, which in essence meant he was off the team and could look for another landing place. Then Portland’s leading receiver, Jamar Howard, got hurt and had to go on injured reserve, giving him the chance to return.

“It was surreal,” Brooks says, of the experience. “I got cut in Spokane, but called back nine days later. I had never been in a situation where I was put on a trade block and traded for a piece. It was weird and awkward even in the transition to come back. But I’m here to play football. God blessed me with the opportunity, and I’m trying to do the most of it.”

Brooks is leading the league in kick return yards and TD returns — even after the league overturned one long return against San Jose, ruling a week later that the play should be recorded as a fumble at the 1-yard line and TD off the recovery.

The one bugaboo for Brooks is ball security. Brooks put the ball on the ground twice against the SaberCats. But he says he can hang on to the pigskin.

“I don’t fumble very often. Fumbling is about losing focus and not taking care of the finer points of the game,” he says.

Brooks says his biggest goal is to help Portland win games and get into the playoffs.

“I’d like to put up a record-breaking season, but I’d really like to help this team get some wins, get into the playoffs and make a push for the Arena Bowl championship,” he says.

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