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Brothers grow, together.

Byline: Ron Bellamy / The Register-Guard

THEY ARE MORE than simply brothers who happen to be athletes. They are linked by more than genetic code. They are each other's confidante, hero, inspiration, joy.

They are best friends.

Ben Brink, 21, was a champion swimmer at Sheldon High School, and he led the Irish to two state titles, and earned a scholarship to Tennessee, and competed in the 2000 Olympic Trials, and he was as dedicated an athlete as you'll find. And yet he says he learned something from his younger brother, Alex:

"It's a classic case of showing what a little hard work and drive and dedication can do. He made the decision his freshman year that he really wanted to play football, that that was going to be his main focus, and he put all his effort into it."

Alex Brink, four years younger, is Sheldon's star quarterback, a senior who will cap a marvelous prep career Saturday in the Class 4A state championship game against Lake Oswego in Portland. From his older brother, he's learned about college recruiting, and about the limelight, and about putting the team first.

He's also learned, freshly this year, to cherish every game and every practice - because for his brother, there are no more competitions, and no more practices.

"It's helped me understand the value of what I've got right now," Alex said. "Like getting the chance to come out and practice every day of the week, because he can't do that right now."

It is fate that the crowning achievement of Alex's young sports career, the chance to win a state title, comes at the end of a year in which Ben's storied career has apparently ended.

In January, Ben Brink suffered a stroke of unknown cause - a blood clot lodged at the base of his brain - and while he has made a complete recovery he has not been cleared for competitive swimming at Tennessee. He has not closed the door on swimming post-collegiately, but considers it unlikely.

"If I heard the words `unusual medical event' once from doctors, I heard it 50 times," said Jennifer Brink, the brothers' mother, a teacher in the Springfield School District, adding: "You can use it as a barrier, or you can use it as an opportunity to grow, and Ben chose to grow from it, and he grew up very fast."

For Ben, it's been a very difficult year, from the fright of the episode in January to the loss of an identity. A senior now, he's a student assistant coach with the Vols men's swimming team and is the co-head coach for the boys and girls teams at a Knoxville high school. Ben only recently got back in the water, to be chagrined at how slowly he swims in comparison with the past.

"The most difficult time for me is when the college team has meets, and I'm there coaching, and in the back of my head I know I could be doing that," Ben said. "But that's part of the process. I knew it had to end sometime."

And Ben said he's been cheered by his brother's success in football for the top-ranked, undefeated Irish. He listens to every game possible over the Internet, and came to Oregon for Sheldon's Midwestern League showdown victory over Willamette, and again for last weekend's semifinal victory over Clackamas.

Once he used to be known as Ben Brink, the star swimmer; now, he's Alex's brother, Ben.

A prep coaching commitment will keep Ben in Tennessee this weekend; his mom will send him the videotape of the championship game telecast, and phone him during the game with updates.

"I guess in a way it's been a release," Ben said. "It gives me something else. It gives me some fun to watch and see how he's grown as an athlete. I mean, shoot, he's doing a pretty good job, from what I can tell. It's fun."

As youngsters, the brothers biked together, played sports together, wrestled together.

"He was always around," Ben said. "He was being a little brother."

When he was in sixth grade, Ben became a specialist; a swimmer. By the time he was in sixth grade, Alex was just starting to play football - he wouldn't be a starting quarterback on any team until his sophomore year at Sheldon - and was evolving as the classic three-sport athlete, with football, basketball and his early love, baseball. While Alex showed the balance and coordination of a natural athlete as early as age 3, and is the more gifted stick-and-ball athlete, he notes that his older brother is no aquatic dork - Ben often beats him in basketball.

At Sheldon, where Ben would be named The Register-Guard's high school boys athlete of the year as a senior in 1999, both have been 3.9 students. Ben is the mellower, more laid-back one, Alex more social, the lively center of a lot of friends. Their relationship grew when Ben went away to college.

"One of the things I took for granted was having him around the whole time," Alex said. "When he went away, I realized that it's a special time in my life to have a brother. ..."

Said Ben: "He's grown up, I've grown up. It's not a big brother-little brother thing anymore. We're just kind of brothers."

They talk by phone two or three times a week, about sports, about school, and more recently about recruiting, which Ben experienced intensely as the best male swimmer ever to come out of Eugene high schools, after a prep career in which he won five individual state titles and five relay titles along with state team titles in 1996 and '99.

So far, Alex is only being recruited lightly, despite awesome numbers: A 34-3 record as a starter, and career statistics of 519 completions in 882 attempts for 8,787 yards and 88 touchdowns against 26 interceptions. With 3,715 passing yards this season, Alex needs 332 Saturday to break Taylor Barton's unofficial single-season Oregon prep record; with one touchdown pass, he takes sole possession of second place on the unofficial state career list, behind only Kellen Clemens.

Alex has been offered scholarships by Portland State and Idaho, and now Nevada and Boise State are showing strong interest, with a recruiting trip to Boise likely in the next few weeks. But Alex doesn't hide his desire to play in the Pac-10 Conference or his belief that he can - so far, only Oregon has shown interest "a little bit," he said.

As Lake Oswego coach Steve Coury put it: "I think their quarterback is amazing, and the fact he is not being highly recruited, that is amazing."

Alex said Ben has helped him to put all this in perspective. After the season is over, they'll talk about the recruiting choices he might have - big school vs. little school, close to home vs. far away - but for now Ben reminds him that he can only control what happens in the games, and that his only job now is to play his best, and to lead his team.

"This season right now is about Sheldon football," Alex said. "It's not about getting recruited. Our goal is to win a state championship."

If Sheldon wins that trophy Saturday, it would give the brothers yet another link. They've already forged the links that matter most.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 5, 2002
Words:1226
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