Nineteen years removed from his Gonzaga debut, the wide-eyed experience still resonates with Spokane Police officer Winston Brooks.
A sure-handed point guard and transfer from nearby North Idaho College, Brooks often played in low-spirit, crackerbox gymnasiums, a gulf from the University of Illinois’ raucous, 15,500-seat Assembly Hall.
When Gonzaga – then a relatively obscure NCAA Tournament darling aiming for a fourth-straight appearance – opened its season on the road against the No. 3 Illini, it was baptism by fire for the Virginia native.
The sea of orange was overwhelming.
“We go out for the layup line, and there’s thousands of people screaming,” Brooks said of the Nov. 16, 2001, game, a 76-58 loss. “It was loud. I had never played in that kind of environment before.”
Brooks conveyed the similarities of playing in a hostile road environment and being an officer in a volatile climate, one currently spurred by a recent string of police brutality cases around the country that have evoked racial tension.
“Sometimes the citizens are against us, and we have to deal with that adversity. You can’t blow a fuse,” said Brooks, a Black man and 11-year police veteran.
“There are correlations, but here it can be a matter of life and death.”
More than two dozen Spokane Police Department employees competed collegiately in several sports and believe their experiences have helped in different areas of their careers.
Some, like former major-league pitcher and Spokane Police K-9 handler Todd Belitz, reached the highest level.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has a few former athletes, including former Eastern Washington tight end Nathan Overbay, a deputy who spent five years in the NFL before wearing a badge.
In their varying paths to law enforcement, many said they were attracted to public service, a team-like atmosphere and many of the job’s physical requirements.
Belitz, a former Washington State fireballer, had several MLB appearances with the Oakland A’s and Colorado Rockies, and is often reminded of the time he surrendered Barry Bonds’ 63rd home run in the slugger’s historic 2001 season.
When his playing career came to an end, he didn’t want to sit behind a desk.
“I always had respect for law enforcement and the things they had to do,” who won an American League title with Oakland in 2000. “And what really draws many to this is the camaraderie we have. When a lot of people are done with sports, they miss that feeling.”
Former Washington State and Lake City High School guard Jen Kerns began her career as a Spokane Police officer after playing and coaching overseas.
Spokane Police detective and former Idaho javelin thrower Mylissa Coleman qualified for the 1984 Olympic trials.
Officer Reid Carrell was a star runner at Freeman High School before continuing his career at Washington State.
Officer Richie Plunkett played football at UNLV.
Sgt. Sean Wheeler, a former Lakeside standout, wrestled at two NCAA Division I schools, Boise State and Campbell.
The list goes on.
Law enforcement agencies across the country are often dotted with former college athletes, but the Spokane Police Department appears to have an inordinate amount for a department its size, many putting their degrees to use.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl likes this trend.
“Those who have participated in organized sports bring with them several tenets that we value,” Meidl said. “One of these is their awareness that hard work, focus and positive attitude make a big difference in performance and overall well-being.
“Life is full of adversity, it’s not a matter of if we face hardship but when. Athletes overcome injuries, self-doubt and deal with things that don’t go their way. “
Brooks, who also works on a violent fugitive task force, began his career in Coeur d’Alene in 2009, six years after his playing days after his college career ended in a double-overtime loss to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Airway Heights chief Brad Richmond helped lead Brooks into a career he may not have otherwise pursued.
“He said ‘You’re good at talking to people, you’re comfortable in the streets,’ ” Brooks recalled. “I thought ‘Hey, might as well give it a try.’ Now I can say it’s the greatest profession I could have pursued.”
Brooks grew up in inner-city Richmond, Virginia, and was admittedly headed toward a “much different” path if he didn’t pursue basketball after high school.
Relating to a wide-range of backgrounds has helped Brooks.
“You see a lot of people on their worst days,” Brooks said. “Sometimes I understand where they are and have empathy for who I am dealing with.”
Before Overbay joined the Spokane County Sherriff’s Office in 2017, he’d spent five years in the NFL as a member of seven different franchises, including the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins, but he never appeared in a regular-season game.
Overbay was an All-American at EWU in 2009, where he studied criminal justice.
He knew what he wanted to do when he put away the cleats.
“Once I was out of the NFL, I said ‘Let’s do it,’ ” Overbay said. “I was still young and healthy, and my neighbor told me what I had to do get started.
“I’m glad I did. There’s a lot of different opportunities within a department, so it’s like a team in that sense. We’re a big team. We have each other’s backs and go to battle with them every day.”
Kerns, who is also a hostage negotiator, continues to apply her breadth of basketball-related experiences to her current duties.
At Washington State, Kerns, from rural North Idaho, had teammates and friends from different backgrounds.
Playing and coaching in Europe also widened Kerns’ scope of the world, as she learned different languages and cultures.
“That was a huge advantage for me,” Kerns said. “I was exposed to a huge amount of different backgrounds, racially and culturally because of basketball. I’m very confident working the streets, communicating with people.”
Kerns, who comes from a family of firefighters, also feels more comfortable in pressure-filled situations.
“It’s time and score, but in a very real light,” Kerns said of being an officer. “There are very short moments that dictate the outcome.”
Belitz agreed: “You learn to depend on each other and you don’t want to let people down. You learn to control your emotions, and a lot of that preparation for me came from pitching in those stadiums in front of thousands of people.”
Meidl said the ability to stay positive and focused is relevant when facing challenges.
“Athletes understand that what they do, in uniform and out of uniform, reflects on the whole team,” Meidl said. “They are representing the entire team on the court or field, and off. The same is true of our police officers. What one person does reflects on all of us, and we are seeing this across the nation.”