It was the early morning of October 8, 2022. Dave Austin and his two buddies were going on a metal-detecting excursion, a hobby they enjoyed. The Blountville, Tennessee, friends were usually in search of Colonial and Civil War relics. On this day, he would find none of those. What he did discover, however, would be life-changing for a very special Clemson family — and for him.
As it turns out, the site where the friends were searching was also the site of a tragic plane crash on April 1, 1993, that killed NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki and three colleagues — pilot Charlie Campbell and marketing executives Dan Duncan and Mark Brooks ’91. They were en route to Tri-Cities Regional Airport for that weekend’s Food City 500 race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Brooks was a proud Clemson graduate and son of Yvonne Kendrick and the late Clemson benefactor Robert Brooks ’60, whose contributions to Clemson include The Brooks Center for the Performing Arts and The Robert H. Brooks Sports Science Institute.
The plane crash was not just a tragedy for the Brooks family. It resonated across the entire east Tennessee community. But nearly 30 years later, Austin’s main interest in metal detecting was the historic battle sites nearby.
Dave Austin was using an XP Deus 2 metal detector the morning he discovered Mark Brooks’ Clemson Ring near Blountville, Tennessee.
On only his second reading of the morning, Austin got a strong signal, set down his metal detector and began to carefully carve out a small section of earth so he could reveal what was beneath. A large ring bearing the words Clemson University emerged, and he could make out a name engraved on the inside: Mark Van Brooks. Within moments, Austin grabbed his phone and searched for a news story about the crash and found out that Mark Brooks, the name staring back at him, was a passenger on the plane.
“That just tore me up. I texted my wife, Rachel, and told her that I had found something very personal that I needed her to do some research on,” said Austin. “I told her we needed to find that family.”
Coby Brooks and his mother, Yvonne Kendrick, reminisce while looking at old family photo albums. A framed photo of Mark Brooks and his recovered Clemson Ring sit at the foreground.
Rachel remembers the emotional impact of seeing the picture of the ring.
“It kind of took my breath,” she said. In 1993, Rachel was a Food City employee and normally would have been working the race that day, but she was pregnant. Her son was born three weeks after the crash.
“I expected it to be some little memento, and then I saw a beautifully intact ring and saw the name. As a mother, that made me very emotional.”
Austin spent the rest of the day alternating between reading about the crash and half-heartedly looking for relics. Back at home, Rachel had been looking for ways to contact the family. Within two days, they had connected with the Brooks family.
For nearly 30 years, Mark Brooks’ Clemson Ring remained intact and hidden in the earth at the site of the 1993 plane crash.
Since that time, the bond between the two families has only expanded. Mark’s mother and his brother, Coby Brooks ’92, say their gratitude is difficult to express. Simply, Coby says about the ring’s return, “I feel like we won the lottery.”
Mark Brooks was never without his Clemson Ring. He cherished his Clemson Experience, so having his prized possession found and returned with tenderness and compassion by a once-stranger was divine intervention, they say. And now the Austins have become an extended part of the Brooks family and the Clemson Family.
A ring that had remained hidden, despite many searches over the years, was never really lost at all. It was simply waiting, inches below the ground, for the right person to discover it and return it to where it belonged.