Chuck Bednarik called him one of the toughest defensive backs of his era. Pat Summerall says he saved his life. Tom Brookshier stood tall on and off the field.
Brookshier came to the Eagles in 1953 as a 10th round draft pick out of Colorado. In training camp he figured he was on the bubble and decided to try to make an impression on the coaches and knocked out Al Conway, the Eagles’ top pick that year. It worked. Head coach Jim Treble was impressed (he ran out to Brookshier and told him "I like that!"), and Brookshier was a starter at cornerback and had eight interceptions in 12 games his rookie season.
Brookshier then missed the next two seasons while serving in the Air Force, where he was an assistant coach for the football team in 1955. Obituaries of Brookshier state he coached under future Eagles head coach Buck Shaw, but Shaw was coaching the 49ers at that time. The two might have crossed paths after the season, as Shaw took the Air Force job in 1956.
After two years of service, Brookshier returned to the Eagles in 1956 and resumed his starting role on a lousy team. Then 1958 saw major changes for the Eagles. Shaw took over as head coach and immediately started rebuilding the Eagles, who had won 11 games in the previous three years. One of the changes was moving second year player Tommy McDonald to wide receiver, where he flourished into a Hall of Fame career with some help from Brookshier. "He helped me learn how to run pass patterns, it was the best competition I could get" said McDonald. "He taught me how to get into the end zone. Brookie was great at covering guys."
In addition to being one of the key players on the defense, Brookshier was one of the leaders on the Eagles 1960 Championship team. Linebacker Maxie Baughan, who would make five Pro Bowls and an All Pro in his six seasons with the Eagles, credited Brookshier with being a motivating and yet calming influence on him his rookie year. "He was a really good leader" McDonald said. "He was right there with Chuck Bednarik. They were the two guys that really, really stood up for that defense big time." Former Eagles executive and fellow Eagles Hall of Famer Jim Gallagher said that Lions great Alex Karras told Brookshier "I wish we could play you guys again" following a 28-10 loss to the Eagles. Brookshier replied "we can't wait for you, we're on our way to the championship." They were, and Brookshier and the Eagles held the Packers to their second lowest point total, 13, in the NFL Championship Game, Vince Lombardi's only loss in the playoffs.
In 1961 the Eagles were off to a first place 7-1 start, the defense giving up only 15.6 points per game. Then it all fell apart when Brookshier broke his leg, ending his career. The team went 3-3 in his absence, missing the playoffs by half a game, the defense gave up 28.7 points per game in his absence.
But his legend didn’t end on the field. Originally planning to retire to Colorado, Brookshier couldn’t bring himself to leave the city he came to love and that loved him. Emmy Award winner and National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Famer Jack Whitaker spotted his natural speaking talents at a public speaking engagement during Brookshier’s rookie year and hired him after his playing career ended.
In 1970 he was hired by NFL Films to co-host This Week In Pro Football alongside Pat Summerall. The two immediately hit it off. The two were inseparable off the field, Brookshier would be Summerall’s best man.
In 1972 Brookshier and Summerall worked the post game for Super Bowl VI, and Brookshier had one of his broadcasting highlights when he attempted to interview Cowboys running back Duane Thomas. Thomas was a gifted running back but also a high profile malcontent. After a contract dispute following his rookie year in 1971, he was traded in a multi-player deal to the Patriots during training camp. A week after the trade, Thomas refused to line up in a three-point stance, saying that he couldn’t see beyond the fullback. Irate, Patriots coach John Mazur kicked him out of practice. Thomas went AWOL and in an unprecedented move Pete Rozell voided part of the trade, sending Thomas back to the Cowboys. Thomas spent the rest of the season not talking to anyone, including his teammates. That season Thomas led the league in touchdowns and in the Super Bowl rushed for 95 yards and a TD, earning him the Super Bowl MVP. In the locker room after the game, Brookshier finally got him to talk, which amused many in the lockerroom. After the season the Cowboys traded Thomas to San Diego, where he was suspended for failing to report to the team, they then traded him to Washington.
When Summerall became a play by play announcer for CBS in 1974, he recommended Brookshier as his partner. They drew comparisons to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and were nicknamed "The Sunshine Boys", they quickly became CBS’s top broadcasting duo. Their friendship became an invaluable asset to their broadcasts, completing each other’s thoughts and providing goofball pre-game segments.
But the good times wouldn’t last. The Sunshine Boys partied too hard off camera and in 1981 CBS decided to break them up, giving Brookshier play by play duties and installed John Madden as Summerall’s color man. In 1982 they partnered Brookshier with another Eagles legend, Dick Vermeil. In 1983 he was suspended for making an on-air off hand remark about the intelligence of the Louisville basketball team. In 1987 Brookshier retired from CBS and in 1989, as part owner of WIP, he hired Angelo Cataldi and Al Morganti, launching their radio careers.
Then in 1992 Brookshier and Summerall’s bond saved Summerall’s life. Summerall was an alcoholic and his addiction had gotten progressively worse. Though he would not go on-air drunk, it was affecting his job performance and even worse was threatening to irreparably damage his family and his health. Summerall’s family enlisted the help of Brookshier. Enlisting Summerall to meet with a client for a quick meet and great to help close a deal, Brookshier baited Summerall into a hotel room. There was no client.
It was an intervention.
In addition to Summerall’s family, a number of high-profile football figures were there, including commissioner Pete Rozell. Brookshier, Summerall’s notorious party partner in the 70s, traveled with him to the Betty Ford Clinic, where Summerall cleaned up his life and quit drinking. "I’ll never be able to thank him enough" said Summerall of Brookshier’s role in getting him sober.
In 1962, just half a season after his career ended, the Eagles retired his number 40. A leader on and off the field, perhaps they knew that after his iconic post-playing career he would go on to become iconic as well.
"Tom Brookshier was an icon in Philadelphia sports," Jaworski said after Brookshier passed away in 2010. "When I was traded to the Eagles in 1977, Tom took me under his wing and taught me the passion of Philadelphia Eagles fans. For that, I am forever grateful."
"He was a tough, intense, and committed player," said Dick Vermeil. "He wanted everybody else around him to be just as dedicated. He loved the Philadelphia Eagles and Andy Reid, but he hated when a guy in the secondary missed a tackle. It would really bother him. He'd say, 'They're getting paid all that money and not hitting anybody.' "
"Tom Brookshier represented everything you could want in a teammate and friend" said Chuck Bednarik. "Brookie was one of the best people that I’ve ever known and I am proud to have remained his friend for so many years."