If you wanted to get inside Garth Brooks’ head – and many in Buffalo have spent most of the last week trying – you didn’t need to tweet him. Or track his movements. You didn’t even need to be among the 100,000-plus who bought tickets for the country star’s four-day, six-show residency that wrapped up Sunday evening at First Niagara Center.
To get in Brooks’ head, you needed only to look at what he wore atop his head.
During Brooks’ time in Buffalo, he had exactly two appearances outside of his concerts, which also featured his wife, country singer Trisha Yearwood. The first was at a Thursday afternoon news conference that preceded his opening show. The second was at a daytime Sunday sports camp that Brooks’ foundation ran for Buffalo city school kids.
Both times, Brooks wore a baseball cap, a fitted 59FIFTY-style hat made by Buffalo’s New Era Cap Co., where three members of Brooks’ crew were spotted shopping Saturday afternoon and picking up a box of headwear for their boss. From a distance, it was nothing fancy.
But if you looked more carefully, you could see, on the front of the cap, a chunky letter “g” embroidered in thick, dark stitching, and the words “GARTH BROOKS WORLD TOUR.”
It’s right then, just as you’re beginning to think that Brooks is a regular guy, that you realize it: That hat is a Garth Brooks hat. The man has his own head wear.
Brooks is a star – a quality that’s unmistakably present when you watch him on stage as he bounces and screams and riles the crowd. He’s got passion. But when you meet Brooks, or work with him, you’re exposed to a side of him that’s calmer, quieter – and just as passionate.
Buffalo got to see both sides.
“I’ve never worked in an environment of people that is more down to earth, honest, and have a lot of integrity,” said Karyn Rochelle, his opening act and backup singer. “I’m inspired by that every single day.”
For four days in Buffalo, Brooks played hard – his late show Saturday lasted until nearly 1:30 a.m. Sunday. He had fun: After his Thursday evening show, the singer and several of his workers rented out the main rink inside the HarborCenter complex and played hockey. Sunday night, he chowed on wings.
But Brooks’ unassuming personality never quite disappeared.
On Sunday afternoon, at his Teammates for Kids Foundation camp hosted in the Buffalo Bills’ practice facility, Brooks seemed determined not to steal the spotlight. As the athletes in attendance lined up against a camera backdrop, Brooks stood to the side. A Bills executive said, “Mr. Brooks, you can put yourself right in the center.”
That would have placed Brooks in the middle of a group that included current Bills and Sabres, New England Patriots tight end (and Williamsville native) Rob Gronkowski and Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas.
“You know what?” he said. “I’m doing great right here.”
A few minutes later, Thomas, who attended Oklahoma State University at the same time as the singer, spoke about Brooks’ celebrity status.
“To me, he’s the most famous Oklahoma State Cowboy ever,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, right!” Brooks piped in from a few feet away.
“That’s how I look at it,” Thomas continued, mentioning famous OSU grads like businessman T. Boone Pickens and fellow football star Barry Sanders. “But if I had to pick one guy to represent our university, it would be Garth Brooks.”
Adopting a high-pitched voice – the kind you might expect someone in a crowd to use when calling out to a singer – Brooks intoned, “I love you man!”
Love – that’s a word Brooks uses often, and far more freely than most grown men. During the camp, at which kids competed in a variety of team-based activities, the professional athletes and coaches shared perspective on the word “teammate”:
Gronkowski: “Without your teammates, you won’t get nowhere.”
Buffalo Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta: “Being teammates is like a family. We stick up for each other. We go through the hard times – for example, this season.”
Bills head coach Rex Ryan: “The best feeling you’ll have is when you win together.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly: “They key is paying attention to details.”
Last came Brooks. He stood on the artificial turf, microphone in hand, and faced the three busloads of kids, all clad in orange T-shirts.
“The main word for teammates is love,” he said. “Whew. Little tough, isn’t it? Love one another.”
As Brooks explained later while chatting with the athletes, love is “a weird word we all kind of shy away from. But love is the reason why these guys are here right now.”
Love is the reason why Brooks embarked on the tour that brought him back to Buffalo. The singer’s last shows here were in 1998; he left the road in 2001 to raise his three daughters and returned in 2014 after his youngest graduated from high school.
During his opening news conference Thursday, Brooks talked about his struggles as a celebrity dad and the disconnect he felt from his girls when they were little. Going to his shows, he said, “wasn’t their thing.” He once took his kids to a taping of “The Muppet Show” – they were excited about the Muppets, but soon realized “this is about Dad.”
Without prompting, Brooks revealed his flaws; he spoke about how touring in the ’90s strained his relationship with his ex-wife, Sandy Mahl, whom he divorced in 2001.
“We didn’t have cellphones then, so I wasn’t much of a partner to her,” Brooks said. “Three, four days would go, we’d be playing at clubs, I wouldn’t call her, and that’s just not right.”
Later during the same news conference, Brooks learned about a mother who recently underwent surgery at Roswell Park Cancer Institute to remove a brain tumor. The mom is an ardent Brooks fan; his music comforts and inspires her.
How, Brooks was asked, do you reconcile that kind of responsibility?
Brooks shared that he was recently talking to some famous friends (unnamed) about that question.
“They said, ‘If you wake up every day and you aren’t totally overwhelmed by the task in front of you, then you aren’t doing enough,’ ” he said. “We all need that theme to wake up to and go, ‘You know what? I’m pulling the sword today and I’m going to fight.’ ”
Brooks, too, has a theme song, one he plays for himself every morning: “PrizeFighter,” which Yearwood recorded in 2014 with Kelly Clarkson.
“I listen to it every morning,” Brooks said of the song, which is filled with lyrics meaningful to anyone facing a challenge.
Then Brooks spoke about some of his own “anthem” songs – “Do What You Gotta Do” and “Standing Outside the Fire.” Asked if he own music uplifts him, he answered “Without sounding egotistical, yeah, it does.”