Brian Changed My Life Forever

by Andre Villa
founder of theStitch.com

Hi, my name is Andre Villa and I’m the founder of a new start-up called theStitch.com.  I first heard about Project HEAL SoCal through new friend Nikki DuBose, volunteer director for Project HEAL SoCal. Their mission of promoting a healthy body image and self-esteem completely resonated with theStitch’s rallying cry of Embrace Your Own Beauty – or #EYOB, so when Nikki told me about Project HEAL’s Surf Workshop with Saltwater sessions, I knew theStitch had to find a way to be part of it.

Saltwater Sessions’ approach to helping people recover from addiction – with a surfboard – is both unique and life-affirming. As they say, “Surfing isn’t easy. Neither is sobriety. Life, like the ocean, can be unpredictable.”  They give participants “the skills they need to stay on board. In the water and in life.”

I personally have a deep connection with surfing even though I have never been able to successfully catch a wave in my life! A San Diego surfer named Brian Brokaw changed my life forever… here is my story.

My friendship with Brian started the summer that I turned ten. We lived in the same neighborhood. In fact, Brian lived across the street from us – but he was seven years older and played varsity football for San Pasqual High – so he wasn’t part of the bunch of kids that spent the hot summer days playing outside together.  There was football, baseball, flash-light tag, pickle – you name it, we played it!

This one particular day I was bored, so I joined my little brother David and our friend Bradley in playing a game of catch with a football in Brian’s front yard.  We saw a new kid in the neighborhood approaching.  He was about my age and wanted to play, so of course we said, “yes.”  We were having a great time when, for reasons I can’t remember now, the new kid got mad at the younger Bradley and started pushing him around!

I immediately stepped in and said – “If you’ve got a problem with Bradley then you’ve got a problem with me!” He stared at me for a moment and then took off down the street as fast as he could. Thinking that was the end of it, we kept playing, but he came back – and this time with four other kids.  I could tell that they’d come over to even the score! I was scared and didn’t know what to do.  I yelled at David to run home and for once he listened to his big brother but Bradley and I didn’t have time to make it. I moved him behind me. No way was I going to leave him alone. I gulped.  We were completely outnumbered.

Then, without notice, Brian came out of his house and yelled, “Hey! That’s my little brother! Leave him alone!” Instantly I wasn’t afraid anymore. I didn’t even care if I got hurt.  Brain had just called me his “little brother.”

The kids all backed off and went on their way and Bradley and I jumped up and down with relief. Brian told me that he was proud of me, then added “We always stand by our friends.” We weren’t related of course, but the bond we forged that day made us family.

Brian spent a lot of that summer teaching us kids in the neighborhood, including the new kids, how to play football and baseball by the rules, but the most important lesson he taught us was really about fairness and kindness.

As a high school senior varsity football player, he was easily the biggest and the fastest so he made sure to always pick the smallest and youngest kids to be on his team.  You never saw little kids smile so big or walk as proud as when then they made their way to Brian’s side.  I always hated that rule because I was the third biggest kid so I hardly ever got to be on his team – but that became the neighborhood rule. Even when he and his real brother Craig weren’t playing with us, I made sure that we always picked even teams.

As the summer wore on, Brian would always join us in a game of football – as long as the Nebraska Cornhuskers weren’t playing.  His father, Roger, was a Big Red diehard – which meant that Brian and Craig were too. I would love it when Nebraska lost because it meant that they would come outside fighting mad, looking to let off some steam.  We would play football until it was too dark to see the ball. Oh, how I wish I could relive those days playing with Brian and the neighborhood kids.

Brian Brokaw

In addition to football, Brian loved to surf and would go surfing every single day if possible. My father would be leaving for work at 5:30 in the morning and invariably see Brian headed for the ocean, surfboard at the ready. They’d smile and wave at each other.  I was still asleep that early in the morning, but I’d be up by the time Brian got home and would run out to see him. He promised that he’d teach me to surf once I worked on my upper body strength. He wanted me to be safe in the water. There he was looking after me once again.

Fast-forward to October 5, 1985. I am now a freshman at San Pasqual High School playing freshman football just like Brian had. I enter Mrs. DeVroeg’s English class but she isn’t there. Something is wrong but all we are told is that there was an emergency and Mrs. DeVroeg was called to the office. Mrs. DeVroeg is Brian and Craig’s mother.  I am tense.  Jumping out of my seat I run to the office even though I knew this was breaking school rules. As I entered the office I saw Mrs. DeVroeg and Craig holding each other with tears running down their faces. Craig looked at me and said, “Brian died today, while surfing.” The worst day of my life…

Brain was my hero.  He made me feel safe.  He taught me about friendship and what it means to be family.  He taught me about fairness and the importance of being kind to everyone no matter what their age.  He was my everything, and most importantly “I” was his brother. As we got older, he also taught me what I consider to be the most valuable lesson he ever taught me, which was that it was okay to say to a male friend – “Hey bro, I love you.”  I only wish I had the opportunity to thank Brian in person and tell him just how much I loved him.

I played football with all the neighborhood kids up until the day I left for college and always made sure that I picked the smallest kid first.  Just as Brian did.  I owe so much to that 22-year old who lost his life that day.  I’m the man I am today in large measure because of him.

As I said, I never got a chance to thank him… so when I learned about Project HEAL SoCal’s surf workshop with Saltwater Sessions I had to smile.  Here was the perfect way to say “thank you” and honor Brian Brokaw’s memory at the same time.  theStitch came together and decided to sponsor two people for the workshop. I am not sure that I can attend because my emotions will get the best of me… when the day should be a day of enjoyment for all. If Brian knew about Saltwater Sessions he would lead the charge.

“Hey Brian, thank you. I love you!”

– Andre