Tommy Brumbelow ‘11 played basketball at Newman University for Mark Potter. Now he is finding ways to connect with students as a basketball coach at West High School.
He said his time on the team was phenomenal. Potter pushed him every day to exceed beyond his own expectations and become tougher both mentally and physically. Potter demanded the best from each of his players and that, said Brumbelow, is something that remains a part of who he is today.
Brumbelow’s path to college was filled with obstacles. Sports kept him going and pushing ahead. He felt that a coaching career was his calling, so he did what he needed to in order to reach that goal.
When Brumbelow was growing up, his dad was in prison. His mother did the best she could, but battled substance abuse. Many times money wasn’t there to pay the bills. Eventually Brumbelow and his sisters went to live with their grandparents in Derby, Kansas. His grandpa’s work ethic made an impact on Brumbelow’s life.
“Our grandparents took us in with no questions asked,” he said. “Watching my grandad working the second shift at a machine factory, he’d wake up, play golf, take a nap, eat lunch at 1 p.m. — he ate two peanut butter and honey sandwiches, he had an apple and chocolate pudding — every single day. He never missed a day of work. He busted his butt to make sure we could do what we wanted. I got that break, not everybody does. I can’t thank them enough.”
He was recruited to play at Newman, an opportunity he was very grateful for, but during his first year of Division II sports, he tore his ACL. That killed his momentum and he got nervous, thinking he would not play again, but his injury healed and he got back in the game.
He graduated from Newman with a sociology degree and teaches social studies at Wichita West High School where he also coaches the boys basketball team. He coached at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School and Wichita East High School before becoming head coach at West.
His background gives him an instant connection with some of the boys he coaches and he’s happy to be there for them as a coach and mentor.
“My background gives me a playing field on which to relate to some kids. Whether it’s substance abuse, maybe a split home, medical bills, depression issues, I think my background allows me to show a little empathy to that and reminding them that just because the negatives are there, you can control working hard at practice, control whether you get a job, along with other parts of their lives.”
At the beginning of the 2020 school year, Brumbelow and his team experienced a loss no one saw coming, and he did the best he could to support his players and be a strong presence when needed.
Late into the night on Sept. 13, Brumbelow received a call from the school’s principal. A young man had been shot but the name had not been released. However, after discovering the location of the victim, they began to connect the dots.
When it was confirmed the victim was Valencio Hill, one of Brumbelow’s players, he immediately thought of the boys on his team and how he could help them through such a devastating time. He and the other coaches derived a way to get the news to the team as soon as they could.
“The first thing I did … I called Valencio’s best friend. He was my first conversation. I wanted the guys to hear it from me. A lot of the guys called me and we just talked it out. It’s surreal. Never in a thousand years did I ever want to go through this.
“A lot of people say, ‘You’re built for it, you are best for it,” but I don’t always feel that way. My goal was to be there for the guys, some of them needed hugs everyday. They aren’t even in the building with me. I can’t see them everyday, I can’t look at them to see how they’re doing.”
Brumbelow said being there for his team was constantly on his mind for days, even weeks. Some of his players needed more support than others, but whether they needed several conversations or just needed their space, Brumbelow made sure to keep an open line of communication and support.
“He (Valencio) was a part of our first freshman class. He was part of the year one group. That boy, he played as hard you could possibly play. His goal was always to be different. I thank (Mark) Potter for the way we interacted when I played at Newman. It paved a path to how I could interact with my players.”
Brumbelow’s overall goal, he said, is to make a difference in his students’ lives, to see them graduate high school and to teach them to overcome any adversity that’s been given to them.
“A lot of people overlook our kids, our boundaries because of the economics. It’s the one thing I want to teach them. None of that matters. You do well, try your best, you’ll have avenues to go forward. Not everyone is fortunate to play at the next level, but I want to show kids … you have to keep going, finish the job. Basketball is just a tool.”