Texas Tech Pom Squad member Brooke Kotrla Baldwin will be remembered at Texas Tech homecoming for her courage and compassion.
“I wanna leave my footprints on the sands of time. Know there was something that meant something that I left behind. When I leave this world, I'll leave no regrets. Leave something to remember, so they won't forget.”
Those are the lyrics to Beyoncé Knowles song “I Was Here.” It seems rather fitting this song was the one Texas Tech University's Pom Squad performed to during nationals in 2016. The lyrics have an even deeper meaning today to the Pom Squad, friends and family of Brooke Kotrla Baldwin.
For six years Brooke battled brain cancer. Never giving up, never giving in. She fought it into remission. She fought it to receive her degree from Texas Tech. She fought it to marry the love of her life, Tyler Baldwin. She fought it for her family, friends and teammates. On May 6, 2023, Brooke's fight ended. Her story and legacy however, couldn't be greater and more deeply felt than in this moment.
Texas Tech will honor Brooke's memory during the homecoming football game against Kansas State Saturday (Oct. 14). Her parents, brother, friends and husband will be in attendance.
“It means so much to not only us but to our whole family to have Texas Tech honor and remember our sweet Brooke,” said Brooke's mom, Deanna Kotrla. “This place changed her life so much and it's something we will carry with us forever.”
As Texas Tech, family and friends honor Brooke, it's important to look back and understand the lessons she passed on to others.
“We're celebrating what this meant to her and who she was when she was here at the peak of her dance career, the peak of her physical body,” said head pom coach Erin Alvarado. “I think that will be a really great memory for everyone to have and just the ability to reflect on all that for sure.”
“I'm just happy her legacy will forever live on at Texas Tech in the pom squad, because the pom squad cultivates everything Brooke is as well,” said teammate and former roommate Lauren Lund.
“I wanna say I lived each day until I died. I know that I had something in somebody's life. The hearts I have touched will be the proof that I leave. That I made a difference and this world will see.”
Brooke grew up in the Sugar Land area, just southwest of Houston. Family, friends, teammates, classmates and coaches will tell you the smile Brooke donned every day was a true reflection of just the type of person she was inside and out.
“Brooke had a smile on her face from the moment she was born. She never knew any other way,” Deanna fondly recalled.
The first year of college is a daunting task. Ask any former student or graduate and they will say your approach to year one can have a long-term impact on your life – not only for the time while in school, but far beyond.
It should come as no surprise the outgoing, always vivacious nature Brooke brought into every facet of her life was on display when she took to social media to find her roommate and future teammate, Lauren.
“I was moving from Omaha, Nebraska, to go to Texas Tech, and we both dreamed of being on the pom squad,” said Lauren. “She messaged me and said, ‘You look fun and you're a dancer, too. I think we should be roommates.'”
The two texted one another the entire year leading up to tryout, planning what their first year would be like.
Marisa Martin, like Lauren and Brooke, was a first-year student and trying out for the pom squad. Marisa could tell from the start Brooke wasn't a typical student just starting college.
“She was such a bubbly person,” said Marisa. “She was really easy to approach because she just opened up to everybody.”
Normally the first year for any student has such a tremendous learning curve. In a highly visible role such as pom squad the fully flushed out version of a student, and specifically a student athlete isn't always on full display. Not so with Brooke.
“Something that stood out was her humor and ability to laugh at herself,” said Erin. “It kind of lightens the room and people don't take themselves so seriously. And I think in that way it was easier for her to connect with people because there was a vulnerability about her in her ability to laugh at herself.”
It is a rare trait to be so accessible to those in a sphere of influence. Brooke was an open book.
“She was a fabulous dancer. She had such a joy of life and was always the light in the room,” said Spirit Program Director Stephanie Rhode. “Coupled with her talent, that made her stand out to us. You don't get many kids who know what they want to do or are so passionate about it and yet have a good sense of humor.”
With a good sense of humor came what everyone from her teammates, high school principal, family and coaches call a silliness and self-deprecating attitude so alluring it was easy to be drawn to Brooke.
“Brooke was hands-down the goofiest person I've ever met,” said Lauren. “She made me laugh and smile the most out of anyone I've ever known.”
Make no bones about it, when it came time to work, few would be able to top Brooke's work ethic and determination to succeed.
“Brooke always knew what she wanted, and nothing could ever get in the way of achieving her goals,” Deanna remembered. “She had that determination and drive ever since she was a very stubborn toddler. You had to steer it for good back then.”
Brooke's drive afforded her opportunities and experiences only someone with a well-rounded approach to their craft could earn.
“It's a fact, I think, in cheer and dance, that the most coveted spot is front and center,” said Erin. “Every year we watch our videos from nationals, not all of them, but we go back and review the milestones in our program. Brooke's freshman year, she's front and center. As a freshman, that's a hard thing to do.”
When the pom squad qualified for nationals, no one at the time knew the significance the choice of the Beyoncé song would play in every element of their time with Brooke.
“I just remember us being in that formation and dancing that part together,” Marisa recalled. “Every time I watch it, it just brings tears to my eyes because it's so powerful.
“At that time, I didn't know that would be the last year we would dance together.”
During the second semester of her first year, things began to change for Brooke. While the smile continued to show, routines she usually accomplished with ease became more difficult.
Brooke made the decision not to try out for the pom squad the next year. It was a stunning revelation and something completely unexpected for her teammates and coaches.
“We were sad because we loved her so much,” Stephanie said. “We loved everything about her. But she wanted to move on to something else, which didn't seem like her.”
Her friends, family and teammates would learn this was more than likely the impact of impending health issues for Brooke. Within a year of her leaving Texas Tech, Brooke was diagnosed with a brain tumor. By June of 2017, she had undergone a craniotomy and began the grueling regiment of radiation and chemotherapy.
“I remember numerous days at MD Anderson having appointments waiting in exam rooms and she would put together little dance combinations with the plastic brain on the table,” said Deanna. “I think her smile and the big light within her is what drew so many people to her. Her grandmother said it well, ‘Brooke is hard to put into words; you just had to experience her.'”
The entire time Brooke was undergoing chemo – roughly five days every month for a year – she continued her schoolwork at Texas Tech online. As her strength returned, she began teaching dance part time.
“That's how committed she was, even though she had been here just for a year,” said Stephanie. “She wanted that connection back here with the university, which was so touching to me, that this university made such an impact on her.”
“I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here. I did, I've done, everything that I wanted.
And it was more than I thought it would be.”
Brooke met Tyler Baldwin on St. Patrick's Day 2019. A blind date orchestrated by Brooke and Tyler's friends who were dating at the time put them on a collision course with fate.
“I had gone out the night before and I didn't really feel like going out,” said Tyler. “The funny thing, it was her mom's (Deanna) birthday, and she really didn't feel like meeting me either. But we both were like, ‘All right, we'll just go.'
“Since it was St. Patrick's Day there were leprechauns throughout the bar, and we just hit it off talking about leprechauns. It's funny looking back on it because we would end up giving each other little leprechaun gifts just like on St. Patrick's Day.”
Tyler had known going into the date about Brooke's cancer diagnosis. To him that was of little consequence.
“For me, it was all about if we connected and we did obviously,” Tyler recalled. “It was for sure a fairy tale. I don't think it could have gone more perfectly.”
Tyler and Brooke's lives were interwoven in more ways than one could possibly image. Both grew up in the Sugar Land area going to the same places, doing the same things. As it turns out, Tyler's first girlfriend in middle school lived in Brooke's old home.
“One of the things I said in my vows was our lives have been intertwined and we didn't even know it,” Tyler said. “You have those people you feel like you can be yourself around? Brooke made me feel like I could be 100% my true self, make faces and be goofy and not feel judged.”
I Did, I've Done
“I will leave my mark so everyone will know I was here.”
It had been two years since Brooke's craniotomy and life was showing signs of improvement all around Brooke. Her cancer looked to be on the road to remission, she met the love of her life in Tyler and they were engaged by December of 2019.
Texas Tech was never far from her mind. Her teammates, experiences and what a college degree meant were all important. In August of 2020, Brooke graduated from Texas Tech and the couple married the following April.
“That was Brooke's dream besides dancing at Texas Tech, to fall in love and she did when she met Tyler. He was her Prince Charming,” said Lauren. “Getting to be there on her wedding day, her fairytale wedding day was everything and more.”
By late summer, however, things had changed for Brooke. Worrisome scans observed by her oncologist confirmed her cancer had returned and grown.
“Let's live life and enjoy the things we have now,” said Tyler. “Let's not worry about tomorrow. We left nothing on the table.”
More testing and treatment would ensue, uncovering the diagnosis of stage 4 glioblastoma. Just as Brooke had done before, she attacked it with her grit, determination and unrelenting spirit.
“We would send a box of goodies to her and always make sure she had the clothing because we wanted to make her feel like she was a part of it. She would have been a four-year member of this squad,” said Stephanie.
I Was Here
“I just want them to know that I gave my all, did my best. Brought someone some happiness. Left this world a little better just because I was here.”
In May of this year, Brooke's in person time with those she loved and inspired came to a close. However, her influence is felt in ways she probably couldn't imagine.
“I don't think Brooke ever thought about inspiring others or being inspirational,” Deanna recalled. “Even after she was diagnosed with brain cancer, she never wanted to be a ‘spokesperson' if you will, for cancer. She just wanted to live her life to the fullest as she always planned. I think she was inspirational because of who she was and how she lived her life with courage and joy not because of her illness.”
Marisa, inspired by her experience at Texas Tech Pom, is the head coach for Texas Woman's University (TWU) Pioneer Pride Dance Team after serving as an assistant coach for the University of North Texas dance team.
Brooke's story was particularly impactful going into last season, when the Pioneer Pride Dance Team placed third overall in Division II at the National Dance Alliance (NDA) Collegiate Nationals.
“Last year, I talked about her a lot because it was nearing the end of our season going toward nationals that she (Brooke) really started to decline,” Marisa explained. “You have to be grateful you get to wake up every single day doing what you love because there are people who wish they could be doing this right now.
“I think she leaves behind the legacy of resilience. She was so resilient through her entire year, and I think it has left a mark on the program that somebody can be going through something so grueling and still be so positive.”
Teammate and former roommate Lauren also was inspired by her time with Brooke. She chose the career path of a registered dietitian.
"I helped them to stay positive, laugh, and nourish their bodies through their diagnosis, especially when treatment got difficult. This is something that Brooke taught us all and I'm lucky and honored to instill her legacy in others."
“You must live every day like it's your last and leave your mark on the world. And be fearless in everything you do.”
Brooke's influence didn't just carry on through her teammates. Her coaches and directors share her story with everyone who wears the scarlet and black and calls themselves a Red Raider.
“I feel like she was determined not to let it (cancer) derail her life,” said Erin. “She got married. She had a career. She obviously became an alumnae of Texas Tech. There are so many things that you can say about 26 years of life. She did all of these things. She visited all these countries. She did philanthropy through I'm A Dancer Against Cancer. Dance was an avenue for her to expand on and leave quite a mark.”
“Live your life as abundantly as you can,” said Stephanie. “It's a reminder to focus on what's important and not take things so seriously and live life as abundantly as Brooke.”
As for her family, Tyler and Deanna sum up Brooke perfectly.
“She was amazing, and I don't know how to explain it,” said Tyler. “She lived life in a different way than anyone I've ever met, and I want people to recognize that. If it reaches one person, then that is honoring her.”
“When I think about Brooke, I think she lived more life in her short 26 years than many people live in a lifetime,” said Deanna. “If she had a dream or a goal she never thought twice about not going after it. I believe God gave her a special gift so she could pack in a lifetime of life and love in 26 years to show us all how to live to the fullest.”