Journeyman Jasper Brinkley's Resiliency Finding Him New NFL Life in New York

Patricia Traina@Patricia_TrainaFeatured Columnist IVDecember 8, 2015

New York Giants' Jasper Brinkley (53) grabs New England Patriots' Tom Brady (12) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday Nov. 15, 2015, in East Rutherford, N.J. Brady fumbled the ball on the play. (AP Photo/Gary Hershorn)
Gary Hershorn/Associated Press

In so many ways, New York Giants middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley has the perfect nickname.

Known as “the hitman,” the 30-year-old Thomson, Georgia, native is not a flashy man whose voice is easily identifiable in a crowded room.

Put him on the field, however, and Brinkley turns into a heat-seeking missile, a relentless 6’1”, 255-pound middle linebacker who goes from blending in to standing out, who packs a wallop with every hit and whose sheer will and determination to dominate the opposition drives him as much on the field as his quest for doing right by his family—his “rocks”—drives him off the field.

One of a Kind

Born July 12, 1985, Brinkley and his identical twin brother, Casper, would play their college ball at the University of South Carolina.

Casper, who played linebacker for the U of South Carolina Gamecocks, would be the first of the Brinkley brothers to get a shot at excelling in the NFL when he signed as an undrafted free agent in May 2008 with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent.

As Casper tried to make it in the NFL as a defensive end, he had left behind his twin, who had redshirted due to a knee injury and thus had chosen to play out his final year of eligibility.

Although the two brothers weren’t on the same team anymore, they remained involved in each other’s lives.

Future Giants teammate Jon Beason, then with Carolina, was one of the linebackers Jasper Brinkley admired.
Future Giants teammate Jon Beason, then with Carolina, was one of the linebackers Jasper Brinkley admired.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

So when Jasper got a chance to meet some of his brother’s new teammates, there was one in particular whose style of play caught his eye.

That teammate was linebacker Jon Beason, the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2007 who, by the time Jasper was ready to declare for the NFL draft, was leading the Panthers in each of his first two seasons.

There were many things Jasper admired about Beason’s game, but one thing really stood out in his mind.

“One of the greatest attributes that ‘Beas’—we call him ‘Beas’ in our meeting room—has that I’ve seen out of a linebacker is his footwork. It’s among the best I ever seen,” Jasper said.

Inspired by Beason and the way he trained every offseason, Jasper, who had seen Beason’s workout videos, asked for the name of his trainer.

Beason obliged, and Jasper went to work.

  

A Rocky Start

MINNEAPOLIS - DECEMBER 7: Jasper Brinkley #54 of the Minnesota Vikings runs off the field during an NFL game against the New York Jets at TCF Stadium, on December 7, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

By the time Jasper Brinkley, the Minnesota Vikings’ fifth-round (150th overall) draft pick in 2009 finished his rookie contract, the backup to middle linebacker E. J. Henderson showed the league he could be much more if given a chance.

Such was the case when, in 2009, Henderson suffered a broken femur in his left leg during the Vikings’ Week 13 game against Arizona.

Brinkley, who, before that, had primarily been a special teams player, stepped in as the starter and finished that season with 23 tackles (22 solo), with one sack, two tackles for a loss and a forced fumble.

While Henderson, who, in 2011, his final year with the Vikings, earned a Pro Bowl, Brinkley was on season-ending injured reserve after undergoing hip surgery that August.

The following year, Brinkley became the starting middle linebacker, starting in 15 of 16 games and recording a career-high 99 total tackles (63 solo).

Following his breakout season, Brinkley hit the free-agent market where he drew interest from the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Giants, the latter of whom were in the market for a middle linebacker after losing Chase Blackburn to the Panthers.

Brinkley accepted the Cardinals’ two-year contract ahead of the Giants’ offer.

Brinkley chose the Cardinals over the Giants in 2013.
Brinkley chose the Cardinals over the Giants in 2013.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“I just wanted to be able to take care of my family,” Brinkley said of his decision to sign with the Cardinals.

In what would be his first and only season with the Cardinals, Brinkley started three of the 15 games in which he played, recording 27 tackles and one pass breakup.

After the Cardinals terminated his contract in 2014, he returned to the Vikings on a one-year veteran minimum deal.

That season, he started 11 games in the 2014 season, racking up 74 tackles, his second-highest career total.

In his second foray into free agency, Brinkley ended up signing a two-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys, hoping he had finally found a home.

Unfortunately, when it comes to players, the NFL is indeed also an acronym for “Not For Long.”  

After putting in endless hours in the offseason and in training camp for the Cowboys, he was cut six months after signing with the Cowboys and replaced on their roster by offensive tackle Jordan Mills.

The decision to waive Brinkley, who had hoped to have a home with the Cowboys for the sake of his family, left him both disappointed and wondering if he might ever get the chance to show another NFL team he is indeed worthy of more than just a short-term commitment.

  

Behind Every Good Man…

In the NFL only the strong—mentally and physically—survive, something Brinkley knows all too well.

Still, when he struggled to find a team that was willing to stick with him after his first stint with the Vikings, Brinkley never let himself get down.

Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

He has his fiancée, Kellie Wells, a 2012 Olympian in track and field, to thank for that.

Brinkley, who has been in a relationship with Wells since 2011, has seen her overcome some major hurdles in her life that made his struggles in the NFL seem like nothing.

In an article appearing in The Telegraph, Wells revealed she grew up in an abusive household where she and her mother were physically abused by her stepfather.

After one such attack by her stepfather, Wells had had enough and moved out. Weeks later, her stepfather and mother were killed in a car accident in which her stepfather had been the driver and her mother the passenger.

She also had to overcome a torn hamstring, an injury that derailed her dreams of participating in the Beijing games in 2008.

Wells, who aspires to create a foundation that helps empower victims of domestic and sexual violence, shook off her injuries and went all out like a beast in her training, which helped her earn a bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles.

“It makes such a difference to have a strong and supporting person in your life,” Brinkley said. “Even going through the situation we just went through, she kind of helped me keep my head level.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08:  Bronze medalist Kellie Wells of the United States poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 100m Hurdles on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 8, 2012 in London, England
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Brinkley, who referred to his fiancée as “my better half,” said she was the first to sense something wasn’t quite right in Dallas.

When the bottom fell out on the opportunity, Wells was right there to help Brinkley stay focused and not give up hope.

“She helped me stay strong and I’m gracious to have her in my life,” he said. “I think the Lord puts certain people in your life for a reason to help make you a better person.”

Together, Wells and Brinkley, who plan to marry in June 2016, shook off the bad experience with the Cowboys and focused on the good that awaited them in their future.

“I don’t know what happened,” Brinkley said of his short stay with the Cowboys. “But by God’s grace, sometimes he puts you out of certain situations and into a better one.”

Like with the team that wanted him two years earlier to play alongside the man whose ball game he admired.

 

Coming Full Circle

When Brinkley showed up for his first day of work after signing a one-year deal with the Giants on Sept. 9, Beason did a double-take.

“When Jasper walked into the Giants’ locker room, I’m like, ‘That’s Casper!’ Because of my relationship with Casper, I watched Jasper when he was in Minnesota, so I felt like I knew him.”

Because of that familiarity, Brinkley and Beason hit it off. What’s more, as Beason was dealing with a knee injury, he still made sure to help his new teammate fulfill his potential in the Giants’ defense.

“There was an empty seat next to ‘Beas’ in the meeting room, so he told me to sit right by him,” Brinkley said.

Thanks to Beason’s help, Brinkley said he’s been able to shorten his learning curve in what he described as, “the most complicated defensive system” of which he’s ever been a part.

“The coaches here do a good job of explaining things, but I had Jon to explain the finer details that I missed that were covered in OTAs and training camp,” Brinkley noted.

As Brinkley became more proficient in the Giants’ system, he was able to gain more and more of the coaching staff’s trust to the point where by Week 8 against the New Orleans Saints, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and linebackers coach Jim Herrmann trusted Brinkley enough to start him at middle linebacker when Beason was a last-minute scratch.

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 8: Runningback Doug Martin #22 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers avoids a tackle by Linebacker Jasper Brinkley #53 of the New York Giants during the game at Raymond James Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. The Giants defeated th
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Their faith in Brinkley was rewarded. The linebacker logged three tackles in his first game as a starter for the Giants, but then in the next two games, he was the defensive leader in tackles, racking up seven tackles against Tampa Bay and 12 against New England.

"He’s a physical force inside, he’s done a good job of that," said head coach Tom Coughlin. "I think he’s learning and playing a little bit better each time out there." 

Brinkley feels he’s just scratching the surface in this Giants defense, and while he works on his own to watch film and study his playbook, he’s grateful to still have Beason, who is on injured reserve, around to help him.

“I told him I needed him to be there with me and he has every chance he got,” Brinkley said with a smile.

“He gave me his number and told me to call him with any questions I have. He does a great job of explaining everything. He gives me some ins and outs about the system that have really helped me out a lot.”

Beason, known for his meticulous preparation, has also been impressed with Brinkley’s humility and work ethic.

“For an older guy, especially a guy who’s gone through some injuries, it means a lot that he was so humble as a person, in the meetings and in practice,” Beason said.

“You could just see his hunger and willingness to try to get better and try to soak up coaching and the little tidbits. His ceiling knows no bounds.”

Settling Down

Although he’s 30 years old, Brinkley is at a point in his career where he’s hoping to put down roots with a team, not so much for himself, but for his three older children, sons Jawan and Dakyus, daughter Tayla, and for Jasper Jr., his first child with Wells, who is due around Christmas.

“Yeah, you want to put down roots somewhere—that’s always been one of my dreams, to go somewhere that I can say, ‘This is home,’” Brinkley said.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 11:  Jasper Brinkley #53 of the New York Giants celebrates in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at MetLife Stadium on October 11, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.The New York Giants defeated the San Franc
Elsa/Getty Images

"For athletes, we can float. When you have a family, it’s tough on them. So I want to come in here and show the Giants organization that they didn’t make a mistake in picking me up, and that I’m gracious for the opportunity and will leave it on the field each and every week.”

Brinkley, the silent hitman who does his talking on the field, has done his homework and is well aware of the tremendous legacy at the linebacker position the Giants organization has in greats such as Harry Carson, Lawrence Taylor, Jessie Armstead, Carl Banks, Brad Van Pelt and Antonio Pierce.

Brinkley, by nature, aspires to be great, no matter what his circumstances. As a Giant,  he has a little extra motivation to leave it all out there on the field every week.   

Gary Hershorn/Associated Press

“Every time I suit up, I’m wearing No. 53,” he said of that motivation. “Harry Carson, the original 53—I have so much respect for him. Wearing his number every week is an honor and I have something to prove. I want to make the number just as good as when he played.”

It could also be a subconscious reminder that so many players—as Brinkley himself has found out in recent years—are never far from the end of the 53-man roster.

And unlike so many of those for-hire players, the “hitman” is hoping he has finally found a long-term assignment where he can keep laying the hits on as many opposing ball-carriers that dare try to get in the Giants’ way.

Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.

Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.

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