Brooks Strong

On December 1st, my cousin Brooks Tonn passed away.  He was ten years old.  For nearly a year, he battled multiple diagnoses of cancer and the many side effects of his treatments.  While many would have given in to the difficult situation, Brooks continued going to school and playing on his baseball and football teams as long as he could.  He was a shining light to his friends and family, and everyone he met could see it as well.

I never doubted that he would be able to beat his diagnosis.  “Kids are resilient,” I thought.  “He’ll fight it off and live a long and happy life.”  And then, he couldn’t fight it off any longer.  I felt blindsided, along with every other person rooting for Brooks.  “How could someone so young be taken so soon?” we asked.  I felt like Brooks was cheated out of his chance at life.

But then at the funeral, something amazing happened.  Almost two thousand people came to pay their respects to a little boy, who had touched their lives.  Neighbors, classmates, teammates, doctors, family, friends, and even fellow patients and their families lined up around the block – standing in line for up to two hours – to say goodbye to Brooks.  And with the people came the stories.  Brooks cheering-on the local high school basketball team.  Brooks having to know what fun activity was on the calendar every day of the week.  Brooks earning his place as starting quarterback on his local football team.  And my favorite, Brooks hitting a game winning homerun, even after the morning’s chemotherapy left him feeling ill.

Though I thought Brooks was cheated out of life, I was seeing in all of these beautiful people how Brooks was the one filled with life.  He was always brimming with energy and had an excited smile glued to his face, every step of the way.

Earlier this past summer, Brooks was introduced to Jason Garrett, the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.  After their first meeting, they became fast friends, and he even gave Brooks his personal phone number, so that they could keep in touch through text.  Sitting through a round of chemotherapy the morning before the Cowboys played, Brooks sent a “Good Luck” text message to the coach.  Right after he hit send, a family member told Brooks that he was probably too busy to text.  But Brooks’ phone chimed in with an immediate response of thanks and luck to Brooks as well.

Two weeks before he passed, Brooks was given the opportunity to fly down to Dallas to meet the Dallas Cowboys.  Getting to watch a private practice and meet all of the players, and being presented with a football with his name printed on it, made Brooks forget how much discomfort his treatments had left him in; and when #82, Jason Witten, handed over a pair of his gloves and showed Brooks how to hold them to make the trademark Dallas Cowboys star on the palms, Brooks’ face broke into a glowing smile.  Up until the day before he passed, Brooks cheered on his Cowboys and texted from his hospital bed, and Coach Garrett was always there with a response, keeping Brooks connected to the world of sports he cherished.

Another “heavy hitter” on Brooks’ support team was Anthony Rizzo, #44 of the Chicago Cubs.  A survivor of cancer himself, Rizzo visited Brooks and sat with him while he was receiving a chemotherapy treatment.  Rizzo even donated to his foundation, The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, in Brooks’ name.  For his 10th Birthday, the whole family went to a Cubs game to celebrate the precious milestone, and watch Brooks’ favorite team in action.

Pitcher on his beloved baseball team, the Hinsdale Red Dogs.  Quarterback on his football team.  Golfer.  Swimmer.  Superfan extraordinaire.  Brooks was into anything that involved being outside.  In a time when most kids have their eyes trained on a screen, with a controller in their hands, Brooks was a wonderful exception.

From the day Brooks was diagnosed, to his last moments, Reverend Wayne Watts was there for spiritual support for Brooks and his family.  Every time they met, Reverend Watts would gather the family for prayer, concluding with Our Father and Hail Mary each time.  A true believer, Father Watts helped guide Brooks through his difficult times, and see the light of God.

During his treatments, Brooks met many wonderful people who helped him and his family cope with the difficulties he was faced with on a daily basis.  Dozens of family members and friends joined together to become a meal-prep service to Brooks’ whole family for months, giving them the opportunity to focus on the fight they were facing.  Local newspapers released news stories about Brooks while he was in the earlier stages of his treatment.  Through a friend, Brooks’ story was shared with actress/director Lisa Varga, who interviewed Brooks and developed a documentary about his fight against cancer.  The absolutely profound outpouring of support for Brooks was astonishing, and we are all extremely grateful for everything that everyone in the Hinsdale community and beyond in the name of the Brooks Strong fight.

We would like to thank Wellness House, the Dallas Cowboys, all of Brooks’ care givers, and the dozens of friends and family members who have been so supportive and helpful throughout these hard times.  Everywhere you look in town, there is proof of how very many people care for Brooks.  Friends from school have spelled out Brooks’ name on chain-link fences around town, and every tree in the neighborhood has been donned with a blue bow in his memory.

Brooks, I am glad that you are safe now, and free of the pain and difficulties you were faced with in life.  You have gone on to a mysterious new adventure, full of wonders we can only dream of.  I know that wherever you are, you’ve met up with our Great Grandma Sophie and she is showing you the way around.  Maybe you’ve even met Babe Ruth and have discussed your homerun hits.  Wherever you are, I know that you are home, and that we shall meet again.


If you would like to donate to childhood cancer research in Brooks’ name, please contact:

Jeff Lesniewicz at

Or send donations directly to:

Hinsdale Bank and Trust, 25 E. First St. Hinsdale IL. 60521


Like a shooting star, Brooks’ brilliant, shining glow lit up the lives of everyone who had the privilege of knowing him with his smile and energy, but is gone too soon.  But just because he is no longer here, does not mean we will forget him.  His presence resonates through us all – Brooks Strong.

3 Comments on “Brooks Strong

  1. What a beautifully written piece about Brooks! We know Brooks and the Tonns well. My husband coached Brooks (and our son) in baseball for several years. We are deeply saddened for the Tonn family and the Hinsdale community. He was special and will be in our hearts forever.

  2. Beautiful story. Brooks was a true light in the world and has touched us all. So much love.

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