Rob Brakel, a longtime video staffer in the NFL, has passed away. He was 45.
Brakel was video assistant for the Pittsburgh Steelers before becoming video director for the Arizona Cardinals for a decade. He moved away from full-time video in 2017 to “give myself some weekends back,” he said in a letter to friends and colleagues at the time. He moved to Denver and was the instant replay technician at Denver Broncos home games in 2017. He was living in Tucson, Ariz., at the time of his death.
Brakel came out publicly as gay on Outsports in 2014, hours before the Cardinals played in a Thursday Night Football game in St. Louis against the Rams. Brakel’s story, of living life in the closet for decades and finally having to bust the doors open on that very day, is compelling. The Cardinals beat the Rams that night, 12-6, something he was particularly proud of.
Brakel was in a recent car accident and suffered injuries that sent him to intensive care. He died of complications related to those injuries on Aug. 11. Outsports has confirmed the news with his family.
“We were devastated to hear the tragic news of Rob’s passing,” Cardinals Owner Michael Bidwill told Outsports. “In sports, players tend to get most of the attention and the headlines but the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes are the heart and soul of an organization. Rob Brakel was certainly one of those people. He brought enthusiasm and energy to everything he did and our hearts go out today to Rob’s family and many friends.”
Brakel’s time with the Cardinals spanned most of the tenure of head coach Bruce Arians, who reacted to the news from his new home in Tampa.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of Rob’s passing. It is such a shame to lose Rob this early in life,” Arians said. “He was a great, fun-loving person who still had so much left to accomplish. He will be sorely missed by so many who knew him as a loyal friend with a big heart. I offer my deepest condolences to his loved ones and pray that he will rest in peace.”
My lasting memory of Brakel is touring the ESPN party hours before Super Bowl XLIX. Everybody loved him, and he wasn’t bashful about saying hi to whomever he saw — his warmth preceded him wherever he went. The game and party were being held in the Phoenix area, where he’d worked for so many years. In the midst of a sea of movers, shakers and stars at this ESPN party, Brakel was a celebrity. Seemingly everyone wanted to shake hands or hug their favorite video director.
“I was deeply saddened and shocked to learn of Rob’s passing,” said Billy Bean, MLB Vice President and Special Assistant to the Commissioner. “He was a dear friend of mine who had a giant heart, and an infectious smile that lit up the room. He was beyond passionate about football and golf. We had so much fun playing tennis in the hot Arizona sun.
“I was incredibly proud of him when he came out to Outsports readers while working for the Arizona Cardinals. We talked endlessly about ways to make pro sports more accepting and inclusive to the LGBTQ community. My heart breaks for his family and I will miss him.”
Kirk Walker, the UCLA softball coach who runs Equality Coaching Alliance and GO! Athletes, remembers Brakel as Bean described him.
“Rob was a great guy, great athlete and had a real passion for life,” Walker said. “It is very sad to hear of his accident and passing.”
Everyone you ask has a Rob Brakel story that exudes some combination of warmth, kindness, enthusiasm and generosity.
“No one was a stranger to Rob,” his brother, Greg Brakel, said. “He had a big heart.”
Jeremy Bunnell is no exception.
Bunnell was at a bar one night in 2008 with his girlfriend, a huge Steelers fan. His girlfriend noticed that the guy sitting next to them, Brakel, was wearing a Super Bowl ring from working with the Steelers. The three of them hit it off.
That night Brakel invited Bunnell to join him for a round of golf the next day, and when Bunnell showed up he realized the other two men joining them were Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant coach Freddie Kitchens.
Shortly after, Brakel offered Bunnell — essentially a stranger — a job that led to him working for two NFL teams.
“Rob was awesome,” Bunnell said. “He got me my start in the NFL. He took a chance on me, playing golf with a guy he met the night before, and he opened me up to a completely different career path than what I thought I would be on.”
Wade Davis remembers Brakel’s generosity and loving personality from his days playing in NFL Europe, when Brakel was a staffer with the Steelers. Davis was not out to anyone at the time, struggling silently with who he was.
“As a little boy I remember my grandma saying, ‘Life will not always be fair, kind or gentle; That’s why God created people and gave them the ability to love,’” Davis said. “Rob Brakel was the embodiment of fairness, kindness and gentleness, and that’s why to know Rob was to love Rob.
“I met Rob during my days in NFL Europe when I wasn’t fair, kind or gentle to myself, and Rob provided that during and post my career. I will be always be eternally grateful for his friendship and true brotherhood.”
Brakel is survived by his mother, Fran Strubeck, and stepfather, Vern Strubeck; father, Horst Brakel; brother Greg Brakel and his partner, Alexis Bender; brother Andrew Brakel; stepbrother Doug Clayton and his wife, Mary Beth; stepsister Mary Ellen Molnar and her husband, Steve; aunt Dotty Patremio and cousin Marty Patremio. He is preceded in death by his stepbrother Greg Clayton.
If you have fond memories of Rob Brakel, we invite you to leave your thoughts in the comments below.