RICHMOND, Va. -- The sudden disappearance of former VCU standout and professional basketball player Rob Brandenberg made headlines and shocked the community last fall.
On social media, thousands of people shared words of encouragement and emotional support for Brandenberg, 31, while the VCU community rallied in an effort to find him safely.
Brandenberg's emotional return three days later resulted in a collective sigh of relief, especially for his family, friends, former teammates and coaches, and hundreds of young basketball players who Brandenberg has coached and mentored over the past seven years.
“Rob is like a father figure,” seventh-grade student Jarvis Harris said. “He’s a very funny comedian, loves the hoop, loves to work out, but mainly loves talking about God.”
Harris said Brandenberg’s influence in his life, and the lives of many other young athletes, has extended well beyond the court, so the uncertainty of his disappearance last October was devastating.
“I actually broke down and cried because in my family, everyone that disappears, it triggers me,” Harris said. “I was like praying to God that hopefully he’d come back and hopefully get stronger.”
Eight months later, Brandenberg said he was grateful for the opportunity to share his story in order to help others struggling with depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness.
He especially hopes his story reached communities where the stigma of mental health has prevented some young people from speaking out and seeking help.
“I want to be able to use my story and say it’s okay. It’s okay to talk about what’s going on. It’s okay to be weak, it’s okay to struggle,” Brandenberg said.
Born and raised in Ohio, Brandenberg grew up with five siblings.
“I came from humble beginnings,” he said. “I had to share with my brother all the time, I had to share with my siblings, I had to look out for my little sister.”
Brandenberg said his mother Melissa taught him the value of faith, integrity, and hard work.
His youth basketball coaches helped mold his natural basketball talent while instilling qualities of good leadership both on and off the court.
Brandenberg’s growing talent and love for the sport captured the attention of multiple college coaches across the country, including former VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart.
Smart recruited Brandenberg to play in 2009, just one year before the Rams made their historic run to the Final Four.
“A lot of people know me from the VCU Final Four, but I actually led my high school team my senior year to our first Final Four. I was a team captain.” Brandenberg said. “I mean I just fell in love with the game -- it took over my whole world."
After finishing a successful college career, Brandenberg went on to play professionally in five countries, but eventually, the ball stopped bouncing and he struggled to find himself in an unfamiliar world that didn’t involve sports.
“It was tough. It was tough,” Brandenberg said. “If you asked anyone who grew up with me, I was Rob Brandenberg the basketball player, so whatever jersey I had on, that’s how I saw myself. When you have or are used to being portrayed a certain way, you feel like you have a certain standard you have to hold yourself to; you can’t show weakness, you can’t show when you are struggling, you can’t show when you are going through things.”
Those feelings eventually led to a breakdown.
On October 10, 2022, Brandenberg left a concerning note for his loved ones and disappeared in his car.
“When you’re in that space, it’s a scary place,” Brandenberg recalled. “That day was not good. It wasn’t a good day. It was just a cumulative effect of everything that took place. You’re just like, I got to get out of here. It’s almost like the walls, you know, are trapping you.”
For three days, family and friends frantically searched for Brandenberg as news spread of his disappearance. Thousands of people shared social media posts, hoping for his safe return.
Without his phone, Brandenberg said he was unaware of the media reports and just kept driving, while praying and soul searching.
Brandenberg eventually reached out to police in North Carolina, who immediately made him aware of the publicity and concern regarding his disappearance.
By the end of the day, Brandenberg was back in the loving embrace of his family, including his mother.
“It just felt good to hear her voice and see and hug her,” Brandenberg said. “At the time, it was very emotional. It felt great because I was like, man, I don’t ever want to take this for granted again.”
Over the next few days, Brandenberg connected with friends, former coaches, and mentors who tearfully welcomed him back home.
“I got a chance to see one of my best friends, Gill. I got the chance to see one of my mentors, Gary Watkins, that’s my guy right there. I got a chance to see Coach Mike Rhoades,” Brandenberg said.
A short time later, the VCU community gave Brandenburg a warm welcome home with a loud ovation at the Siegel Center during a home basketball game.
“I think that moment right there was just Wow!” Brandenberg said. “The expression of love that I received and I was able to give as well. I was so happy to see them, I never gave hugs like that ever.”
Brandenberg said he’s been receiving help from mental health experts, thriving at work, and forming partnerships with several youth organizations to share his experiences.
He said he’s grown even closer to his devoted girlfriend and planning a bright future with her.
As for the athletes on Brandenberg’s youth team, the sentiment is the same.
“I wanted to start J&R basketball to help kids learn from my success and failure," Brandenberg said.
Brandenberg said while he continues to coach his team about the basics of basketball and sportsmanship, he spends more time now talking about school, home life, and conflicts the young athletes might need help navigating.
Jarvis Harris said the team works closely together and continues to look to Brandenberg for advice and strength in difficult life circumstances. He said he’ll never forget the day Brandenberg came home.
“I was so happy,” Harris said. “Just jumping up and down. Life got better.”
Brandenberg said now he wants to encourage his players to have faith in themselves, knowing there’s always hope, even in the bleakest days and darkest circumstances.
“A lot of people who see me now, call me Mr. ADIT," he said. "It’s an acronym that stands for Another Day I’m Thankful.”
It’s a life lesson he hoped would be his legacy.
“Just to wake up and say I’m going to be thankful today. I’m going to be thankful because there’s so much to be thankful for.”
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